Posts tagged ‘dominic cavendish’

11 July, 2010

One-on-One Festival

Abigail Conway in On Dancefloors, One-on-One Festival

Abigail Conway in On Dancefloors, One-on-One Festival. Image courtesy of Mobius Industries

Battersea Arts Centre, 6 – 18 July 2010

Written for the British Theatre Guide

The One-on-One Festival is a coming of age ceremony, celebrating the graduation of the one-on-one encounter from experiment to bona fide artistic genre. That the symbolically removed training wheels are replaced surreptitiously with alternative support arrangements is not necessarily an admission of weakness: some art forms are at their best when leaning on others.

Take any one-on-one encounter on an individual basis and it’s easy to see why the genre has been repeatedly accused of inherent exclusionism and insubstantiality. Encounters rarely last more than half an hour, and many little more than five minutes. For obvious logistical reasons, audience capacity is almost always severely limited.

But to consider individual examples in isolation is to be wilfully blinkered to the genre’s unique qualities – qualities the people at Battersea Arts Centre understand well, having personally supported the development of a good few practitioners through their Scratch Festivals and Supported Artist programme.

Hence no individual work is made the centrepiece of the One-on-One Festival. Instead, 30-odd artists are installed throughout the building, and a ticket gets you a sort of charm bracelet of encounters, with three appointments timetabled for you by BAC and the chance to accessorise the experience by discovering hidden extras in the interim.

Whether or not the experience satisfies therefore depends on BAC’s quasi-random allocation process, the skill of the artists and the adventurousness of the customer in roughly equal parts – which seems appropriate, given that the defining feature of one-on-one is an exchange between artist and participant.

Inevitably, with so many acts side by side, there’s still an element of exclusion: no one can see everything, and discovering something exciting only to be told you can’t experience it without an appointment is undeniably frustrating. But whereas the limited capacity of individual one-on-one works can feel unfair, like artificial scarcity calculated to drive demand, the issue here is that there’s too much to see and too little time, which is easier to deal with.

Likewise, certain of the acts are still as whimsical and weightless as spun sugar. Patrick Killoran’s Observation Deck, in which participants lie with heads and shoulders sticking out of a third-floor window for ten minutes, is something of a ‘so what?’ experience taken on its own, for example. But the One-on-One Festival experience as a whole can’t be as easily dismissed – not when it also contains Ontroerend Goed’s profoundly moving The Smile Off Your Face.

To demand that one-on-one encounters stand up to criticism when viewed in isolation is to approach them with a narrow mind. One-on-one is not theatre; the genre may have incubated in a theatrical environment but one-on-one encounters are not plays, or even necessarily performances, and it would be wrong to measure their success by theatre’s usual benchmarks.

One-on-one is collaboration. It’s exchange. It’s intimacy. It’s two people tied back to back, scaling the inside of a chimney: something neither one could do alone. Stop imagining one-on-one encounters taking place in theatres and start imagining, say, Folk in a Box installed at a music festival, or Franko B’s You Me Nothing in a modern art gallery. One-on-one will not be pigeonholed. Stop trying.

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18 June, 2010

Wild Horses

Theatre 503, 15 June – 10 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Don’t try to deviate from your designated channel through life. It only leads to heartbreak: lost friends and unfulfilled ambitions for Ellie (Jessica Clarke), the main character in Nimer Rashed’s Wild Horses, and a near-fatal final act derailment for the play itself.

Seventeen-year-old Ellie (that’s Eleanor, not Elizabeth) is welcomed gingerly back to Eastbourne after six months AWOL with an older man. Her eyes have been opened just enough to take the shine off the idea of a job in Tesco’s and two point four children with sweet but goofy on-again-off-again Darren (John Trindle).

Meanwhile the friends and family she left behind have – discourteously – failed to stay the way she left them, so she can’t even lord her new-found worldliness over them. Her Dad’s transferred his fatherly affection to Carol Vorderman, her best mate Zoe’s about to turn the tables and abandon her for the bright lights of Camp America – even Darren smokes a pipe now.

In short, Ellie would have been happier accepting the hand life dealt her, instead of chasing romance and ambition. Her guilt over disappearing makes her incapable of refusing anything she’s exhorted to promise, which leads to a string of broken oaths, until no one trusts her but the reassuring, though mysteriously recurring, Tom Kanji.

All of which is captivating enough, but though Rashed’s plot threads are many-hued and skilfully interwoven, all but one is hacked off and left to dangle. What’s more, the one that is given some closure isn’t introduced – or even really hinted at – until the final act.

What Rashed’s going for is a daring last-minute rug-pull à la Theatre503′s last big hit, The Mountaintop. Ideally the rug should be swept stylishly out from under us, exposing the glass floor below, so we realise with wonderment that all along the play was not what we unimaginatively assumed it was. What actually happens is the rug snags, and we’re left sprawled on bruised behinds, humiliated, birdies circling our heads as we squint uncomprehendingly at the Dadaist magic-eye ceiling tiles, until the play apologises, replaces the now-ragged rug and pretends the whole incident never happened.

It’s never a mistake to dare to try something bold and different. But as Ellie learns, when it turns out you were wrong, admitting it – to yourself and others – is the only way to move on.

Written by Nimer Rashed

Crew includes Nadia Latif (director) and Lorna Ritchie (designer)

Cast includes Jade Anouka (Zoe), Jessica Clarke (Ellie Porter), Amanda Daniels (Jen Porter), Tom Kanji (Dr Gupta/Satyajit/Shanti), Patrick Toomey (Paul Porter) and John Trindle (Darren)

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24 March, 2010

4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis. Image by Stefan Okołowicz

Barbican, 23 – 27 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

4.48 Psychosis is a gift for a director. Kane’s text – her last – is more prose poem than script, lacking stage directions or delineated characters: a nearly blank slate onto which a director can impose context, character and narrative. To Grzegorz Jarzyna, of Polish company TR Warszawa, that creative freedom is a double-edged sword: by over-exercising it in certain areas, he almost crowds out the strongest elements of his interpretation.

Every scene of this Polish language production has its conceit. In one, pills rain from a table onto the floor. In another, lead performer Magdalena Cielecka is silently mirrored by a small girl. Later, a naked old woman circumnavigates the stage while Cielecka speaks. These images are more of a visual accompaniment to the dialogue than an interpretation of it, and actually serve to distract from the production’s main strengths.

One of these is the oppressive atmosphere, sustained largely by the monotonous bass drones and seasick pitchshifted showtunes of Piotr Dominski’s soundscape. Combine that with lighting designer Felice Ross’s palette of confining spots and sickly washes and even the 1,166-seater Barbican Theatre starts to feel claustrophobic.

But the production’s stand-out, defining feature is Magdalena Cielecka’s performance. Her every twitch, tic and gesture is more fascinating and meaningful than the production’s whole complement of devices and visual metaphors.

As she details her planned method of suicide, she clutches her belly, or wrings her hands together masturbatorily through her trouser pockets. Eloquently but venomously she rails against the doctors that rattle off easy chemical fixes for her every symptom, and against the people and circumstances she blames for them.

It’s clear without any supplementary imagery that this person is grieving rather than self-pitying, that she’s damaged as much by unfeeling diagnoses and labels as by whatever’s happening inside her, and that, far from taking the easy way out, she’s desperate to free herself by any means, however extreme.

It takes until the play’s final passage for Jarzyna to whisk away all the window dressing. Here Cielecka’s face, softly illuminated by a narrow spot, is all that’s visible on an otherwise darkened stage; Jarzyna decodes Kane’s final lines solely through the medium of his star’s delivery and countenance. It’s revealing that this understated moment, rather than, say, Cielecka’s earlier crazed, blood-drenched assault on the cyc, is the production’s most enthralling.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Grzegorz Jarzyna (director), Małgorzata Szczęśniak (set design), Piotr Domiński (music and sound design) and Felice Ross (lighting design)

Cast includes Mariusz Benoit, Janusz Chabior, Magdalena Cielecka, Katarzyna Herman and Rafał Maćkowiak

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22 January, 2010

Decade

Theatre 503, 19 – 23 January 2010

Reviewed for The Collective Review

What do you remember about the Noughties? (Yes, it turns out that is what we’re calling them.) Theatre503 asked that question to ten playwrights – five established, five as-yet unproduced – and the result is Decade, a collection of ten ten-minute plays, each one representing a single year. So what do the Decade writers remember about the Noughties?

First and foremost, they remember global catastrophes. Summing up a whole year in ten minutes of drama is a tall order, of course, so most of the ten focus on one or two iconic events – and it seems most of the iconic events of the Noughties were disasters. The Millennium Bug (okay – only a potential disaster), 9/11, the war in Iraq, the Christmas tsunami of 2004, Guantanamo Bay and the election of BNP MEPs all feature.

This could be because, as we’re often told, Conflict Is The Essence Of Drama. Alternatively, this could be how we’re fated to remember the last decade: as one disaster after another.

It was also a decade dominated by the USA, and American accents permeate Decade. Behind his vacant stare, President George Dubya Bush is dancing inside, in Beth Steel’s surreal 2001. Nimer Rashed personifies the post-9/11 USA as a seductive, manipulative but brutally wronged neighbour. In Richard Marsh’s 2007, two Guantanamo guards find themselves in thrall to an inmate’s superior knowledge of the final Harry Potter book.

Surprisingly, despite suspicion of Muslims and Middle Eastern peoples dictating many powerful countries’ foreign policy, and despite the landmark election of the USA’s first black President, race is hardly touched upon. Marsh’s inmate Khaliq (Sartaj Garewal) comments briefly on the consequences of assuming certain people are all the same, but it’s left to Rex Obano to tackle race single-handedly in 2009 – a task he accomplishes defiantly, though not without the odd flop in onstage energy.

The quality of the writing is consistently high enough that, without the programme, it’s difficult to distinguish the seasoned pros from the unknowns. Newcomer Nimer Rashed struggles to find an original angle on 9/11, but still outdoes Market Boy writer David Eldridge’s limp offering (though Eldridge’s scene isn’t helped by weak, overly static direction from Gene David Kirk). Amy Rosenthal and April de Angelis both deliver strong, pacey, dialogue-driven contributions, but so too does the unproduced Richard Marsh. Beth Steel delivers more meaning via her surrealism than Phil Porter’s weird, overwrought piece.

The finished product – cemented together with period pop music and news headlines – is a dreamlike reassemblage of half-faded memories. Not a complete picture of the decade by any means, but a more potent epitaph by far than the kind of bland, Jimmy-Carr-hosted nostalgia thrown together for TV.

Written by April de Angelis, David Eldridge, Fraser Grace, Richard Marsh, Rex Obano, Phil Porter, Lou Ramsden, Nimer Rashed, Amy Rosenthal and Beth Steel

Crew includes Jessica Beck, Anthony Biggs, Gemma Farlie, Antonio Ferrara, Steve Harper, Gene David Kirk, Tim Roseman and Charlotte Westenra (directors)

Cast includes Victoria Bavister, Phil Brodie, Jamie de Courcey, Sartaj Garewal, Vincent Jerome, Jamal Noland and Henry Steele

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17 November, 2009

Public Property

Trafalgar Studios, 16 November – 5 December 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

At first glance, Public Property is a boilerplate Trafalgar Studio 2 production. Recognisable faces: check (Robert Daws, Nigel Harman and even Stephen Fry, phoning it in via vid-cameo). Humour that doesn’t tax the brain: check (sight gags and comic situational escalation best enjoyed after a glass of wine in the bar). Skilled but slightly overly wordy scriptwriting: check (courtesy of Sam Peter Jackson).

On closer inspection, however, this is something of a rare find: a play about three gay men in which the characters’ sexuality is almost incidental, an extra thematic layer rather than the piece’s raison d’être.

Daws is celebrated newsreader Geoffrey Hammond, who throws himself on the mercy of his ruthless publicist, Larry De Vries (Harman) after being caught by paparrazzi in flagrante delicto with 16-year-old Jamie (Steven Webb). Geoff does protest once or twice that the press wouldn’t be interested if Jamie had been a girl, but the play is more concerned with celebrity, PR and fickle public goodwill than “LGBTQ issues”. Geoff knows, despite his protestations of innocence, that this incident matters more to his reputation than any number of broadcasting gongs, and even Larry is branded repeatedly by his lowest point: the media only remembers him for being booted off the judging panel of a failed reality show.

It’s often difficult to feel any sympathy towards Geoff, who really has only his own indiscretion to blame for his downfall, but Daws does an excellent job of showing the desperation behind the bluster, and his raw vulnerability when talking to or about his offstage lover Paul provides the production’s tenderest moments. Harman is believable whether smooth-talking and in control or plain incredulous at his client’s behaviour, though he flips a little too easily between the two modes, and reacts so little to mentions of Larry’s debts and vices that they seem more a throwaway subplot than an integral part of the character’s backstory.

Jackson’s script, too, is generally sound, though a bit baggy towards the end of Act One, and overly reliant on the repeat-repeat louder-shout-shout-pause formula for writing arguments. Like most Studio 2 shows, Public Property has its flaws, but is still a satisfying enough night out; and it boasts the additional merit of sidestepping the damaging and judgmental “gay play” label which, given its premise, it could easily have been slapped with.

Written by Sam Peter Jackson

Crew includes Hanna Berrigan (director) and Helen Goddard (designer)

Cast includes Robert Daws (Geoffrey Hammond), Nigel Harman (Larry De Vries) and Steven Webb (Jamie Sullivan)

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2 October, 2009

The Author

Royal Court Theatre, 23 Sept – 24 October 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Tim Crouch ’s The Author is a bitter little pill, too heavily sugared and something of a kill or cure.

Up until the final 15 minutes it’s a curiosity, an experiment for experimentation’s sake. We, the audience, are both stage and set dressing. Adrian, the archetypal gushing theatre enthusiast, speaks up from among our ranks, encouraging conversation, an exchange of views. Other performers, including Crouch himself, playing himself, reveal themselves in our midst one by one. Between them they recount a story surrounding a fictional production staged by Crouch.

Except they aren’t just relating their experiences of this notional production: an in-yer-face affair crammed with violence and abuse that has caused audience members both to walk and to pass out. They’re apologising for their part in it. Apologising to us, the audience, because theatre makers are beholden to their audiences. They need us, the consumers of their art, to understand their intentions and to forgive them.

And until those final 15 minutes that’s all The Author is: an acknowledgement of the absolute power the audience wields, seasoned with interrogations of the audience’s ingrained reluctance to exercise that power, to intervene in events onstage, however reprehensible they find them. It’s all necessary to prime us for what comes next, but it takes its sweet time doing so, and in the meantime it all feels a bit insular, a bit inconsequential, even a bit masturbatory: the mores of the theatre being discussed, by theatre makers, through the medium of theatre, using a fictional piece of theatre as an allegory, to theatregoers.

Then comes the turnaround, and in those final 15 minutes The Author is revealed for what it has really been all along: a daring act of self-flagellation by Crouch on behalf of provocative art and controversial artists. Personally present, without the ablative armour of a fictional character, and having questioned for over an hour why audiences choose not to act against onstage villainy, the playwright reveals himself as the worst kind of villain, or at least the most easily demonised. There’s nothing insular or inconsequential about his closing monologue, delivered to a pitch-dark auditorium – and yes, people sitting close to him do plead with him to stop, though not forcefully enough for him actually to do so.

The medicinal value of this bitter little pill remains to be seen. If next month The Stage reports mass walk-outs and stage invasions at Sarah Kane revivals, we’ll know it had some effect; but I suspect the thick sugary coating may well interfere with the active ingredients, and a few patients will undoubtedly refuse to swallow the pill at all.

Written by Tim Crouch

Crew includes Karl James and a smith (directors), Matt Drury (lighting designer) and Ben & Max Ringham (music & sound designers)

Cast includes Tim Crouch, Adrian Howells, Vic Llewellyn and Esther Smith (themselves)

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2 October, 2009

Money

New SHUNT Space, 30 September – 22 December 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The machine fills the New SHUNT Space from floor to ceiling. It clanks, rumbles, whooshes steam and gushes water. The specifics of how it works and what it does are stubbornly obscure from within as well as without. In that regard, it’s a bit like investment banking.

Bear with the comparison. Provided you’re willing to risk a few unaided leaps of logic, it does eventually make a surprising amount of sense. (In that regard, it’s a bit like the production staged inside the machine: Money, a SHUNT event inspired by Émile Zola’s novel L’Argent.)

The machine is the undisputed star of the production, which, after a few deliberately confusing false-starts, eventually reveals itself as a parable about the dangers of stock market speculation. As a performance space, the machine is constantly, wondrously surprising; just when it seems it has nothing left up its sleeve, whole new rooms emerge from under ingenious camouflage.

Its steampunk pistons and flywheels also drive the plot, such as it is; we, the audience, are speculators suckered by the smug Saccard into investing in the machine, despite neither him nor us knowing what it does. SHUNT’s playful sense of humour goes to work here, as we’re shown a gallery of ‘artist’s impressions of the future’ – Photoshopped images of the machine in the desert, coasting along railway tracks or perched halfway up a mountain.

The production itself is a series of disjointed scenes and encounters, ranging from the Kafka-esque (as Saccard pitches his ‘vision’ to eccentric business moguls who entertain guests only in the sauna, or travel only by footcycle) to the Python-esque (as Saccard turns a board meeting into a blackly comic game of condolence one-upmanship) to the weirdly voyeuristic (as we sip champagne and observe events occurring two storeys below, through two layers of plate glass).

Each individual scene is entertaining, often humorous, but it’s difficult to identify the purpose of the whole by examining the parts, and a certain amount of imagination is required to fill in the blanks. In that regard, it’s a bit like the machine itself; and the machine itself, as I’ve mentioned, is a bit like investment banking. It’s inhabited both by presentable official staff and by unacknowledged, sinister unknowns. It has levels and mechanisms that aren’t revealed until the very end. And as it barrels towards disaster, the obvious exits are sealed off, forcing those foresighted few to abandon ship by less conventional means.

Written by SHUNT Collective after Émile Zola

Crew includes Francesca Peschier (scenic artist), George Tomlinson (head of construction) and Paul Ross (chief carpenter)

Cast includes Serena Bobowski, Gemma Brockis, Lizzie Clachan, Louisa Mari, Hannah Ringham, Layla Rosa, David Rosenberg, Andrew Rutland, Mischa Twitchin and Heather Uprichard

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16 February, 2009

Touched

Trafalgar Studios, 4 February – 14 March 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Since beginning her acting career at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, Sadie Frost has enjoyed a number of film roles on both sides of the camera. So what is it about Zoe Lewis’ new play Touched that tempted Frost out of celluloid’s clammy embrace and back behind the footlights?

Probably only Frost herself can answer that question. Lewis’ writing is accomplished, fluent and frequently very funny, but for a one-woman show Touched places surprisingly few demands on its star.

Frost plays Lesley, a Madonna-obsessed (and slightly dim) 14 year old that grows into a Madonna-obsessed (and slightly dim) student, then career girl. She narrates her growth into adulthood, complete with sexual and other awakenings, in and around a rumpled double bed, a bathroom sink and a huge mirror.

The mirror forms the back wall of the space and the modesty screen for Frost’s many costume changes. It’s festooned with fairy lights and plastered with pictures of Madonna; when Lesley looks in the mirror, she sees not herself, but her sparkling idol.

(Inexplicably, the publicity material persists in referring to Lesley as “plump”. Frost is anything but, and the script makes no mention whatsoever of Lesley’s weight.)

Fans of the Queen of Pop will no doubt enjoy Lesley’s running commentary on the fluctuating quality of her music, delivered while dressed in versions of her more memorable outfits and punctuated by reconstructions of her most famous dance routines.

Likewise, fans of Frost can enjoy being up close and personal in the intimate Trafalgar Studio 2. But while she’s as uninhibited as a stage actor (and Modern Woman) should be – portraying with abandon a young fan’s ability to lose herself in the music – the play doesn’t allow her to show off anything particularly noteworthy.

The problem is Lesley’s fixation with Madonna. Which, unfortunately, is the premise around which her characterisation revolves.

Madonna stands in for the concept of the Modern Woman from the 80s until today. Her many reinventions symbolise the chameleonic properties ascribed the Modern Woman by the changing expectations of society.

So Lesley makes all the important decisions in her life – when to lose her virginity; whether to choose marriage or career prospects; her sexuality – on the basis of Madonna lyrics. Which is such a monumentally stupid idea that we’re disinclined to feel sympathetic when those decisions inevitably backfire.

Frost is to be commended for at least making Lesley engaging to watch – though the conversational style of Lewis’ writing and the small performance space, which allows for plenty of conspiratorial eye contact with the audience, make her task that much easier.

Most troubling is the apparent conclusion that Lesley would have led a happier life had she settled down in her hometown with the first man she slept with, instead of pursuing her (admittedly facile) ambitions to London and New York.

While Lesley seems happy to acknowledge the might-have-beens and move on, the positioning of that throwaway suggestion right before the house lights ensures that it sticks in the audience’s minds on the way home.

Of course, it’s only a point of view – but as a conclusion to a play awash with images and doctrines of Women’s Liberation, it feels a little self-contradictory.

Written by Zoe Lewis

Crew includes Douglas Rintoul (director), Colin Richmond (set designer), Jamie Bradley (movement director) and Laura Thomas and Sian Jenkins (costume)

Cast includes Sadie Frost (Lesley)

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