Posts tagged ‘what’s on stage’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

4 October, 2010

Departure Lounge

Jack Shalloo, Steven Webb, Chris Fountain and Liam Tamne in Departure Lounge

Jack Shalloo, Steven Webb, Chris Fountain and Liam Tamne in Departure Lounge. Image courtesy of Jo Allan PR

Waterloo East Theatre, 28 September – 31 October 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

While they slouch about waiting for a perpetually delayed Ryanair flight home, four lads reminisce and recriminate about what they can remember of their Costa del Sol holiday. The best bits of Dougal Irvine’s new musical call to mind a sort of booze-hazy Rashomon: the natural disparities between the four lads’ perspectives are compounded by alcohol-induced memory distortion.

Comparing Departure Lounge to Rashomon makes it sound much more pretentious than it is. It rarely feels heavier than watching a bunch of mates larking about. But Irvine does have noteworthy things to say about laddism in general, and the idea of the lads’ holiday in particular.

What, for instance, is the difference between a lad, a guy, and a hooligan? And if the measure of a good night out is how little of it you remember, what’s the point of shelling out extra to have your nights out abroad? One particularly enjoyable number, ‘Spanish Hospitality’, suggests cheekily that entertaining raucous British holidaymakers is Spain’s ongoing penance for sending the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The book, minimalistically scored for two acoustic guitars, references the boyband pop subgenre with its catchy choruses, close-harmony singing and slightly self-conscious white boy rap interludes.

The dialogue between numbers is less well judged. We’re force-fed, not drip-fed, the characters’ backstories; the phrase “I mean” is used a few times too, often to execute handbrake turns in the flow of conversation; and the closeted character’s self-realisation and coming out is perfunctory and unconvincing – all of which are admittedly minor, but nevertheless disappointing, detractions from an otherwise enjoyable show.

Written by Dougal Irvine

Crew includes Pip Minnithorpe (director), Spesh Maloney (musical director), Cressida Carré (choreography and musical staging), Will Reynolds (lighting and set designer), Georgia Lowe (costume designer) and Gareth Owen (sound designer)

Cast includes Chris Fountain (JB), Verity Rushworth (Sophie), Jack Shalloo (Pete), Liam Tamne (Jordan) and Steven Webb (Ross)

Need a second opinion?

29 September, 2010

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

Everyone and mother has reviewed The Big Fellah already, but here’s the stuff nobody mentioned.

The Shadow of Sean O’Casey

Matt Wolf compares Richard Bean to Martin McDonagh and (tangentially) Harold Pinter in his review for The Arts Desk. Matt Trueman similarly calls the setting “Pinteresque” and references McDonagh’s In Bruges. Writing for What’s On Stage, Michael Coveney compares The Big Fellah to Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind.

Worthy comparisons all, but I’m surprised no one cast back beyond Morrison and McDonagh to Sean O’Casey, the master of Troubles tragicomedy. It could be because I studied it exhaustively at A Level, but O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman sprang to my mind as a comparison almost immediately.

Gunman is a lot more claustrophobic in terms of scale and timeframe, but the similarities are there nonetheless. There’s the setting: a safe house in a deprived area (O’Casey’s in a Dublin slum, Bean’s in a Bronx brownstone). There’s the man seduced by the patriotic allure of the IRA (O’Casey’s Donal Davoren, who likes the glamour, and Bean’s Michael Doyle, who joins up out of a sense of duty to the victims of Bloody Sunday, fuelled by imagined ancestral pride). There’s the IRA assassin, laying low (though, okay, Davoren’s only pretending while Bean’s Ruairi O’Drisceoil is the genuine article).

The other thing Bean’s play has that O’Casey’s doesn’t is redemption, which may stem from the fact that O’Casey was reporting live, right from the heart of the Troubles, whereas Bean is charting their history (or, if we’re really lucky, writing their obituary).

“Britain’s most provocative playwright”

Aleks Sierz boldly labels Richard Bean thusly in his review for The Stage, though in the comfort of his personal blog he qualifies the assertion with a “perhaps”. I work for Aleks at theatreVOICE (full disclosure!), so I hope he won’t mind me saying I don’t agree with his judgement on this one.

For a start, I hope that Richard Bean isn’t Britain’s most provocative playwright, because if all it takes to earn that epithet is to point out on the Olivier stage that Britain is historically hostile to immigrants (in England People Very Nice), British drama is in trouble. (Having said that, I’m not sure I can think who does deserve the title. Tim Crouch, maybe? Nominations in the comments, please.)

For a follow-up, I think that while England People Very Nice was a deliberately provocative play, The Big Fellah isn’t, and I don’t see the value in bringing up the playwright’s reputation for being provocative in relation to a non-provocative play, unless it’s to say “he’s usually provocative, but this isn’t”.

I suppose my issue is with the journalistic tendency to slap labels on people, as shorthand for readers (“Oh yeah, that guy”), and to apply those labels regardless of context – and not with Aleks (my editor) after all (phew!).

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

What none of the critical community fail to mention is Finbar Lynch’s captivating turn as David Costello, the eponymous Big Fellah. There’s also plenty of well-deserved praise for Rory Keenan as Ruairi (the main character, to my mind, and the most interesting, beating the big fellah by a hair’s breadth), though not nearly enough for Claire Rafferty as the vibrant Elizabeth Ryan.

Unfortunately reviewers’ word counts are such that, when you only appear in one scene of a two-hour production, and the quality of your performance is matched by certain of your fellow cast members, all of whom have more stage time, you get sidelined. Well, Rafferty’s performance is lively and earnest; she makes light work of some clanging mouthpiece-of-the-playwright lines; and for a few short minutes she matches the charismatic big fellah blow for verbal blow.

Now, did I miss anything?

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Max Stafford-Clark (director), Tim Shortall (designer), Jason Taylor (lighting) and Nick Manning (sound)

Cast includes Rory Keenan (Ruairi O’Drisceoil), Youssef Kerkour (Tom Billy Coyle), Finbar Lynch (David Costello), Claire Rafferty (Elizabeth Ryan), David Ricardo-Pearce (Michael Doyle), Fred Ridgeway (Frank McArdle) and Stephanie Street (Karelma)

Those reviews in full:

27 September, 2010

Theatre Souk

Natural Shocks in Between Death and Nowhere (or The Stairwell) at Theatre Souk

Natural Shocks in Between Death and Nowhere (or The Stairwell) at Theatre Souk. Image courtesy of theatredelicatessen on Flickr

3-4 Picton Place, 14 September – 16 October 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

If George Osborne slashes public subsidy for the arts on 20 October – something most of us have now privately accepted as inevitable, I Value The Arts campaigns notwithstanding – then to survive, theatre will have to start behaving like any other commodity: subject to the same market forces as a falafel wrap or a wire sculpture.

Theatre Souk, then, is a glimpse of the near future. Eleven companies have pitched their stalls in Theatre Delicatessen’s Picton Place building, there to vie like costermongers for consumers’ attention and pocket change. Theatre Delicatessen aren’t charging their tenants rent, so transactions are uncomplicated by overheads, processing fees or middlepeople: what you pay is, ipso facto, what the product is worth.

The experience calls to mind more than one kind of marketplace; the limited amount of time available, compared to the number of acts on offer, makes of us speculators as well as consumers. The set-up encourages judgement of artistic merit in terms of return on investment: is it better value for money to see as much as possible, spending recklessly but spreading your bets? or to invest conservatively in high-yield products like .dash’s Chaika Casino, which can potentially provide a whole evening’s entertainment for a one-off entry fee?

Your decision in this regard reveals something about your attitude towards money, and about the ways you judge the value of an artistic work; it’s then up to the works themselves to challenge those attitudes and judgements. The Lab Collective tackle our demonisation of bankers in Matador, a one-man play that’s simultaneously an apology and a shaming accusation. Flabbergast’s Puppet Poker Pit is an amoral morality fable starring a violent, foul-mouthed puppet determined to renege on the ultimate poker debt.

Only HalfCut truly follow through on the potential of the Souk format by allowing customers to pay more for a more intense experience. It’s at once playful and tense, asking penetrating questions about the commoditisation and value of people, their bodies and their comfort, while still clearly being all in good fun. But this marketplace’s must-buy product is Natural Shocks’ Between Life and Nowhere, a heartbreaking yet life-affirming aerial partner dance devised especially for the building’s stairwell.

If Theatre Souk is a projection of theatre’s likely future post-spending review, can George Osborne cut subsidies with a clear conscience, knowing theatre will survive commoditisation? Not quite. The Souk as a whole has an entry fee; fees for individual performances are a premium on top of that, an upgrade from a bland economy-class evening spent wandering the fee-free interstices to a business-class experience with in-flight entertainment. Whether it represents a failure of Theatre Delicatessen’s experiment or a piece of veiled anti-cuts propaganda, Theatre Souk positions theatre firmly as a luxury commodity.

Crew includes Jessica Brewster, Frances Loy and Roland Smith (joint artistic directors)

Need a second opinion?

27 August, 2010

Sub Rosa ****

Hill Street Theatre, 5 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

There’s an interesting push-me-pull-you effect going on between Sub Rosa and the Masonic lodge in which it’s staged. The building’s warren-like layout and Masonic décor naturally occasion a kind of superstitious reverence over and above what the play alone can evoke. Meanwhile, the production imposes its own, slightly broader brand of eerie, haunted-house ambience on the place.

The production – initially framed as an educational guided tour – takes place after dark, and the building is dimly lit. The geometric carvings of the Masons are picked out in sinister reds and lilacs, as is the backstage apparatus of the theatre: reminding us we’re backstage, after hours, seeing things normally kept out of the public eye.

Tours leave every ten minutes, so each group is never more than one room away from the next, but the layout of the building is such that with precise stage management, the groups can be completely concealed from each other. Creaking footsteps and hushed voices, just out of earshot, feel like an intentional part of the production.

But even once it’s taken full advantage of everything the site has to offer, the production still has to make impositions in order to evoke its desired Gothic atmosphere. Hidden speakers pipe in creepy rumblings and the crackle of flames. Once space is flooded with fog. A stuffed fox leers, spotlit, from a baluster, apropos of absolutely nothing. To achieve its goals, the production engages and cooperates with this specific site up to a certain point, then, perhaps faced with a shortfall of spookiness, turns to more generic techniques that could create the same effect in any building.

Probably not coincidentally, deliberately appearing to be something you’re not is a major theme of the play. Six ghosts stationed around the building recount the tale of the Winter Palace music hall and the power struggle between its manager, Mr Hunter (a Mason) and the newest chorus girl, Flora – and it isn’t a tale for the easily-made-queasy. Nothing is reenacted, only narrated, but David Leddy’s writing and the six actors’ intense performances are graphic and distressing enough to leave more sensitive patrons bent double deep-breathing on the stairs between scenes.

It is, however, neither exploitative nor gratuitous in its brutality. The script is poetic, and every word and image – even or perhaps especially the gruesome ones – is included in the service of the story, not to cause cheap shocks.

Written by David Leddy

Crew includes David Leddy (director), Nich Smith (lighting design) and Graham Sutherland (sound design)

Cast includes Angela Darcy (Millie Merkeley), Claire Dargo (Ida McCracken), Isabella Jarrett (Miss Thorn), Isabelle Joss (Dillie Merkeley), Adam McNamara (Svaty Václav) and Benny Young (Angus MacNeil)

Need a second opinion?

25 August, 2010

Felicity Ward Reads From The Book Of Moron ***

Felicity Ward Reads From The Book Of Moron

Felicity Ward Reads From The Book Of Moron. Image courtesy of the Gilded Balloon Press Office

Gilded Balloon Teviot, 4 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 665)

Being less a ‘moron’ (her word) than a victim of circumstance, Felicity Ward has to inflate mere embarrassing mishaps into excruciating humiliations to get her desired reaction which, with some neat turns of phrase, she does. Aware that her brave but scatological finale isn’t everyone’s ideal takeaway memory, she buffers it with a song, proving storytelling’s her forte, not music.

Need a second opinion?

23 August, 2010

Stripped ****

Hannah Chalmers in Stripped

Hannah Chalmers in Stripped. Image courtesy of the Gilded Balloon Press Office

Gilded Balloon Teviot, 6 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 665)

Hannah Chalmers proves herself a versatile performer in this one-woman show, dropping comfortably into an array of archetypes: the naïve first time stripper, the lecherous club manager, the nervous, kind-hearted client. Chalmers seems to acknowledge that audiences don’t shock easily; her exploration of her former profession’s institutionalised exploitation of performers and clients is insightful, not salacious.

Written by Hannah Chalmers

Need a second opinion?

23 August, 2010

Others ****

Pleasance Courtyard, 4 – 29 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 665)

Jemma and Kylie, two thirds of the Paper Birds, perch in an armchair and speculate about Nazim, an Iranian woman Jemma’s been corresponding with by post. Maryam, the third Bird, plays Nazim, updating her performance to reflect her colleagues’ conclusions. Though based at first entirely on Nazim’s own words, the armchair pair’s enthusiastic deductions ramify farther and farther from the facts, bombarding Maryam with illogical abusive husbands and suicide bombings as she vainly attempts to draw attention to their fallacies.

Not only is this intensely comical – a rare achievement for a verbatim play – it’s also a playful dissection of the Birds’ own unconscious assumptions and prejudices, and of the conflict at the heart of all documentary and verbatim theatre: the one between entertaining an audience and being faithful to the source. And that’s just one scene.

What’s truly impressive about Others is its use of such inward-looking subject matter to interrogate a much bigger issue: the national media, which face essentially the same dilemma as documentary theatre, and seem (the Birds suggest) to be veering the wrong way.

Devised by Maryam Hamidi, Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh

Crew includes Ellen Dowell (set design) and Marec Joyce (lighting design)

Need a second opinion?

18 August, 2010

Pedal Pusher ****

Pedal Pusher

Pedal Pusher. Image by Holly McGlynn, courtesy of the EdFringe Media Office

Zoo Roxy, 6 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

It’s notoriously difficult to choke verbatim theatre into life on stage, but you wouldn’t guess that from watching Pedal Pusher. You’d be forgiven for not noticing that it’s a verbatim piece at all, in fact. It seems the trick is to choose the right source material. Sounds easy, and Theatre Delicatessen certainly make it look that way.

So what’s the right source material for the story of Lance Armstrong, Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich, three of the greatest competitive cyclists ever to have lived, and the Tour de France, the toughest and most prestigious cycle race in the world? Press conference transcripts, for the most part. Dry as that may sound, press conferences are naturally dramatic, performative events. The rehearsed statements are superficially anodyne but – thanks to the insights we’re given into the athletes’ habits, personalities and relationships – laden with fascinating subtext, and there’s something of the courtroom drama about the open-floor interrogations that follow.

That the subtlety and theatricality of the text is appreciable, however, is down to the cast, who wrap their jaws nimbly around some potential deadweights. We don’t see much more than one side to any of the characters – Armstrong, fresh from beating advanced cancer, is practically messianic in his drive to succeed; Pantani, victimised by the doping officials, succumbs to self-pitying matyrdom – but what we do see clearly, in the performances and in the text, is the hardwired competitive urge that made each man great.

Need a second opinion?

16 August, 2010

Cirque de Legume **

Cirque de Legume

Cirque de Legume. Image courtesy of the EdFringe Media Office

Gilded Balloon Teviot, 6 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 665)

The most impressive feat achieved in this send-up of circus performance is training the audience, Pavlov-style, to applaud whenever the phrase ‘How ‘bout that?’ is uttered – whether it follows a ‘levitating’ radish or an onion ‘striptease’. The two red-nosed clowns commit so fully to gross-out, chewed-food spectacle and clumsy sleight of hand that they must be aiming to be ‘so bad it’s good’. Unfortunately they aren’t quite that bad.

Need a second opinion?

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