Archive for ‘Features’

16 August, 2010

Marek Kohn

Written for The List (issue 664)

Think of Marek Kohn as the mouthpiece of the moderates in the climate change conversation. His new book, Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles will Change as the World Heats Up, strips the sensationalism from the story and projects a thoroughly researched vision of what we in Britain might be in for, should we continue as we’re going. ‘It’s not the end of the world,’ says Kohn, reassuringly. ‘It’s not Big Ben sinking below a rising River Thames. The climate change genre so far has been about awful apocalyptic warnings: if you say the world is ending, at least you’re giving a firm point of view. But if I’d been looking for disasters, I wouldn’t have enjoyed writing it nearly as much.’

He may not be prophesying unleavened doom and disaster, but like most of the mainstream scientific community, Kohn doesn’t dispute that climate change is taking place: a position likely to draw disdain, if not outright ire, from the denialist lobby. ‘I’m not saying there’s no point reading this book unless you believe mainstream scientific theory,’ he says. ‘But if you’re the least bit open-minded, you should be playing with it in your mind. I have been taken slightly aback by some of the responses when I tell people I’m writing a climate change book: like, “Oh, do you believe in that?” I find there’s a slight correlation between the degree of scepticism and the size of car the person’s driving.’

7 August, 2010

Laura Barton talks about Twenty-One Locks

Written for The List (issue 663)

Born and raised in Lancashire, Laura Barton migrated south a decade ago, and found gainful employment with The Guardian. ‘I started writing a music column [Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll] in a style that was quite different to most journalism at the time,’ she recalls. ‘The response was, and is, amazing. I knew that if I wrote like that in a novel then it would find an audience somewhere.’ She describes that novel, Twenty-One Locks, as ‘a dreary northern love story’. The main character, Jeannie, lives in a small town in north-western England, having stumbled into her job and about to drift into wedlock, when an encounter at the train station sends her life off-course.

‘Not a great deal happens, in a lot of ways, but that was the kind of book I wanted to write,’ Barton says. ‘I wanted to write about the lives of people I knew, rather than something splendid and high-energy and fantastic.’ The result is a novel only a northerner could have written; ten years as an honorary southerner have done little to dull Barton’s sense of the place.

‘My family still lives in the north, so I do visit,’ she says. ‘But I also feel as if I’ve been storing up a lot of these things – observations about the railway station toilets, or the department store perfume counter, or bus journeys through the town, or whatever – for a long, long time.’

3 August, 2010

Helen Arney delivers Songs of Modern Loving on the ukulele

Written for The List (issue 662)

When comic musician Helen Arney debuted at the 2009 Fringe with 81/2 Songs About Love (and other myths), she’d already named her 2010 follow-up. ‘Songs for Modern Loving sounds like a lot of things,’ she says. ‘A David Bowie song, a Jonathan Richman band, a Blur album …’ Whatever it sounded like a year ago, that title sounds strangely prophetic to Arney now. ‘I could not be having a more modern relationship. He lives in Australia,’ she explains. ‘Ten years ago we wouldn’t have been able to talk to each other more than once a week: we Skype each other pretty much every day. Thirty years ago we wouldn’t have met. It just wouldn’t have happened.’

That awareness of how easily she could have missed out bothers Arney more than her bright, energetic attitude reveals. ‘This is a feeling I battle with all the time: that someone else is out there having more fun than me, getting more sex than me, being happier than me. But despite all that paranoia, I’m happier now than I think I would be if I was alive at any other time.’ And what better way to express that happiness than by playing the world’s most cheerful instrument? ‘A lot of people are pretty much allergic to the ukulele,’ Arney grins. ‘If anyone’s reading this thinking, “Oh, another ukulele, I wish they would just stop,” that person should come and see this show. They’ll see a different side to my four-stringed friend.’

But true to form, Arney is already looking beyond 2010’s ukulele-related innovations and is considering penning a musical. The title? Science: The Musical! And the tagline? ‘All of the excitement, all of the discoveries, none of the beards.’ Come 2011, remember where you read it first.

27 July, 2010

Belt Up

Written for The List (662)

Remember that unruly rabble that spent last August squatting in C Soco? The ones that kept partying and fighting the nights away with hordes of strangers? Well, they’re back, and this time they’re really making themselves at home.

The rabble in question could only be Belt Up, whose jam-packed programmes of audience-centric work at the last two Fringes converted critics and the public alike.

The company’s MO is to take over some remote corner of C Venues to serve as the setting for all their shows; this year, a section of C Soco becomes The House Above, a kitsch and cosy domicile complete with garden. It’s in the company’s interests to make the place feel like home. With an incredible nine shows on the bill, plus their usual array of secret late-night events, they’ll be near-permanent residents there.

‘We have a knack for casting people with superhuman strength and infinite energy,’ shrugs James Wilkes, one of Belt Up’s founding writer-director-performers, as if such übermensch are ten a penny on CastingCallPro. ‘And nothing’s more energising than a good audience.’

The audience is the backbone of every Belt Up show. Every day in The House Above, audiences will become figments of a narcissistic artist’s imagination (in Wilkes’ brand new Atrium), mourners at princess Antigone’s wake (in Alexander Wright’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone), houseguests of the Samsa family (in an updated version of Metamorphosis, the production that launched the company at the NSDF in 2008) – and in Dominic J Allen’s Lorca Is Dead, the entire audience, as a collective, will become the Surrealist poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

If that sounds exhausting, take heart: Wilkes is prepared to reveal the true source of Belt Up’s superhuman endurance. He admits: ‘A lot of us consume a lot of Berocca…’

27 July, 2010

Operation Greenfield examines the complications of being a teenager

Written for The List (issue 662)

It may sound counter-intuitive, but in an environment like the Fringe, where envelopes are being pushed and boundaries broken in every second venue, a degree of restraint can be the best way to stand out. Little Bulb don’t claim that their folksy tales of tight-knit families and pastoral communities make for radical or risky theatre. But in the citywide shouting match that is Edinburgh in August, the soft-spoken few often, contrarily, command the most attention.

‘A lot of theatre can be too dark,’ muses Alex Scott, director of Little Bulb’s latest play, Operation Greenfield. ‘Especially experimental theatre. Sometimes it’s a bit too … full-on? I’m kind of … interested in darkness, but not just from having a really dark theme. We’re trying to do something else – we don’t want to say, “Oh, what a wonderful world, where nothing bad happens!” but we want to celebrate the good things that do happen, to give a context for the darkness.’

In the company’s previous work, this has meant exploring the ways young children react to death in the family – their parents in Crocosmia, and the family patriarch in Sporadical.

‘Crocosmia was about the memories of younger children,’ says Scott, ‘and Sporadical is about finding collective stories to keep a tradition going. Operation Greenfield is within that world and that ethos, but I would say it’s more complicated. More dark, in a way – more questioning.’

Development of the new play started a year ago, at the same time as the company began work on Sporadical. But while Sporadical came together in a matter of weeks, it’s taken until now to get Operation Greenfield ready for an audience – and Scott still isn’t entirely certain what it is they’ve created.

‘Because we’ve not performed it, really, apart from some incomplete scratch showings, it’s quite difficult to know exactly what we’re dealing with,’ he says. ‘It’s set in a fictional town in the mid-1990s, and it follows four Christian teenagers, who are in a band, as they enter a village talent competition. But there’s a lot of added weirdness around that. It’s probably the weirdest show I’ve ever worked on, in terms of the style.’

He elaborates: ‘Sporadical was kind of messy, kind of raucous. This one’s a bit more detailed, a bit more mathematical, much more precise; pretty much the whole show is musically choreographed. It could be a bit more unsettling, depending on where you’re coming from – what images you’re reading into it.’

If it’s hard to imagine being unsettled by a Little Bulb show, perhaps that’s because their work to date has focused on younger children, still in possession of their innocence. As the company matures, it seems, so do the central characters of the shows. ‘We’re looking at teenagers,’ Scott reiterates. ‘Being a teenager is more complicated. The world is more difficult to process. I think the show reflects that.’

Does this mean Operation Greenfield heralds the beginning of an angsty, rebellious new era for Little Bulb? It seems mercifully unlikely, at least as long everyone’s on the same artistic wavelength as Scott.

‘We like to celebrate things that go overlooked: the idea of being tremendous friends, or being in love with someone,’ he says, as if he’s never seen love portrayed on stage before. Perhaps he hasn’t – at least, not the way he wants to see it.

‘It’s probably because we’re very like a family, in the way that we relate to one another,’ he concludes. ‘There’s a lot of honesty, and trust, and rambunctious relationships – that’s how we operate.’

27 July, 2010

The Sum Of It All…

Written for The List (issue 662)

Anomic is a brand new company, never before seen at the Fringe – but the style of the company’s debut, The Sum Of It All…, will ring some bells for Zoo regulars. Dan Shorten, Anomic’s artistic director, was also a co-founder of Precarious, and the marriage of performance and multimedia that made that company so invigorating is still a vital part of his work.

Anomic, however, isn’t simply Precarious by another name. The backdrop to The Sum Of It All… is a mosaic of projections and 50-inch TV screens – but Shorten insists that, unlike in some of Precarious’ shows, storytelling will take precedence over visual ingenuity.

‘With Precarious we always approached the subject matter from a visual perspective,’ he says. ‘At times the work lacked focus and clarity. I’m trying to focus very clearly on one character’s emotional journey.’

That character is Stanley Ayers, whose humdrum existence drives him to contemplate taking an extreme and disturbing decision. The show promises to be melancholic and introspective, yet energetic and stimulating – which, where Shorten’s concerned, needn’t be a contradiction.

6 July, 2010

Britain’s digital dilemma

Written for Angalossy, 28 May 2010

Superfast broadband for everyone in Britain. That’s one of the main long-term goals of the Digital Economy Act 2010. Sounds attractive, doesn’t it? Especially – you’d think – for people who make their living online. More people with broadband means a bigger audience and more customers, right?

Cory Doctorow, a novelist and copyright reform campaigner, confesses that his “whole life revolves around the digital economy”. So why did he attack the Digital Economy Act in the Guardian, claiming it would “cripple Britain’s internet” and establish “an unprecedented realm of web censorship”?

Jim Killock is the executive director of the Open Rights Group (ORG), a pressure group defending our online freedoms. What made him call the Act – then the Digital Economy Bill – an “attempt … to hijack our rights”?

And what made over 5,000 Twitter users declare, “I choose not to recognise the UK’s Digital Economy Bill,” all within the same 24 hours?

How about the fact that the Act is poorly worded, ethically dodgy and ultimately self-sabotaging?

Supposedly the point of it is to prepare Britain for a digital future. As well as the “superfast broadband for all” thing, it’s supposed to drag our outdated copyright law kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

In places it even succeeds. Before the Act passed, libraries could (in theory) be charged with copyright theft for lending out digital audiobooks and ebooks. The law didn’t hate libraries, it just didn’t understand ebooks. Clause 43 of the Digital Economy Act protects libraries from being unfairly prosecuted in this way. So far, so good.

But not enough of the Act is like clause 43.

As well as stopping copyright holders from attacking innocent librarians, the Act aims to help them find and prosecute the real offenders. Sounds fair. But to achieve this the Act places a new set of “obligations” on anyone providing internet access – from big providers like BT to small cafes offering free WiFi.

The obligations include disclosing certain details about their customers to inquisitive copyright holders, and disconnecting anyone accused of repeated copyright violation. Providers that don’t comply can be fined up to £250,000. Many small WiFi operators just aren’t able to comply. They don’t have the equipment. Their only option is to stop providing WiFi.

So much for improving people’s access to broadband.

Most worryingly, if a copyright holder finds out – using their new powers – that your internet connection has been used to steal their intellectual property, you can be immediately disconnected from the internet and fined up to £50,000. Someone else might have done the deed using your connection, but it’s not up to your accuser to prove your guilt – it’s up to you to prove your innocence, and appealing costs money you may not have.

So much for modernising copyright law.

“People’s rights are at stake,” said ORG’s Jim Killock. The Act, he added, “doesn’t require any test of evidence before harsh punishments are imposed … No punishment should take place without a trial.”

All of which is why the government had to play dirty to get the Act past Parliament.

Friday 9 April 2010 was a good day to pass bad law. Gordon Brown had called a general election, but the Queen hadn’t yet dissolved his Parliament, casting Whitehall into a limbo known as the wash-up. During the wash-up, everything Parliament was debating when the election was called is rushed to a vote without the usual cross-examination.

The Digital Economy Bill would never have survived a proper debate. It would have been dissected, reworded, maybe even quashed altogether. Instead, on Friday 9 April, it received Royal Assent and became the Digital Economy Act 2010.

Maybe five years ago the government would have got away with it. Now, though, it’s much harder to hide this kind of thing from us. The power to discover, investigate and fight unjust law is at our fingertips, in our phones, and pulsing invisibly through the air all around us. Internet access was essential to the fight against the Act. In fact, the fight proves that internet access is fast becoming essential to modern democracy.

In a weird way, the Act has actually justified its own existence. It aimed to give everyone equal access to digital services. It botched that pretty badly, so people used digital services to research it and campaign against it – making a strong case for equal access to digital services.

Clearly we need a Digital Economy Act – just not this Digital Economy Act.

6 July, 2010

Redefining the audience

Written for Angalossy, 27 April 2010

The audience is undergoing a redefinition.  Passively spectating and listening isn’t enough for them – for us – any more.  Not content with consuming culture, we’re eager to get involved with it ourselves – and artists, producers and content creators are increasingly willing to give us their blessing.

On television, that’s partially because our participation can be translated directly into revenue, via premium rate phone lines.  TV phone-ins aren’t exactly a recent innovation, but since Big Brother first aired in the UK a decade ago they’ve become all but ubiquitous.

No modern televised talent contest can be judged solely by a panel of experts; their judgements have to be sanctioned by the audience at home.  No matter how expertly informed their opinions are, ours are valued more highly.  Often one or more of the studio judges will be presented as a pantomime villain the audience can thwart by voting to overturn their “harsh” or “unfair” pronouncements.

The phone vote format is common on TV because it makes production companies lots of money; that’s no big secret.  But it’s such a successful money-spinner partly because it harnesses our generation’s deep-seated distrust of authority.  Years of unpopular political leadership in the UK – leadership, crucially, that’s been seen to repeatedly ignore the electorate’s will – have instilled in us a perception that we know better than those in power.

We knew better than Blair whether we should have invaded Iraq; we know better than Brown how to tackle climate change; by extension, we know better than Andrew Lloyd Webber who to cast as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Never mind that he’s one of the UK’s most successful theatre producers – we’ll show that authoritarian bastard who knows best!

Meanwhile on the silver screen, James Cameron wants audiences to immerse themselves in, rather than merely to observe, the 3D otherworld of Avatar and its inevitable sequels.  The box office figures for Avatar, and now Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, prove that 3D films make big bucks for the studios, which helps sustain this new immersive-3D trend; and that’s partly because we’re seduced by Cameron’s spiel.

There’s an element of escapism to any action film, but with Avatar Cameron promised total immersion in an alien world:  a chance to temporarily swap our economically and ecologically decaying planet for a verdant and plentiful one.  We bought into it even after realising the film was thunderingly morally ham-handed – because wouldn’t life be simpler if good and evil really were so easily distinguishable?

Neither television nor film, however, is redefining the audience’s role to the same extent as the theatre.

Thanks in part to gushing critical endorsement, immersive and participatory theatre companies like Punchdrunk – who often allow the audience to explore the venue, interact with performers and decode the story for themselves – are being embraced, cautiously but increasingly tightly, by the mainstream.  Then there are companies like Rotozaza, whose “autoteatro” works involve no rehearsed performers at all, only members of the public being fed lines and other instructions via headphones.

Autoteatro is still a fringe pursuit, but it’s gaining momentum as practitioners test the limits of the form.  It taps into the same anti-authoritarian attitude as phone-poll TV and the same escapist urge as 3D cinema:  we get to perform in the production ourselves instead of relying on supposed professionals, and to physically inhabit a character instead of merely watching one on the stage or screen.

Yet however inclusive it feels to participants, the usually tiny capacity of the performances makes autoteatro, to some extent, an exclusionist artform.  Likewise, it feels empowering to take part in the performance instead of silently observing – but your every action is dictated by instructions fed through your headphones, so that empowerment is an illusion, just like James Cameron’s sumptuous but insubstantial 3D moonscape.

This growing desire to transcend our conventional spectatorial role is born when our urge to act meets our tendency towards apathy.  It’s reassuring to know that, as a generation, we still possess that urge – to improve the world rather than merely cataloguing its many flaws – to the extent that we seek out culture capable of satisfying it; but it’s disheartening to know that we’d rather allow others to harness that urge in the service of their shareholders than harness it ourselves in the service of positive change.

1 March, 2010

Lyn Gardner fully expects to be replaced by Katie Price

Written for The Collective Review, 1 March 2010

The national newspapers’ habit of replacing their retired head theatre critics with columnists and political sketchwriters is pretty worrying for those of us on the bottom rungs of the theatre criticism career ladder, as I pointed out in January, when The Times announced Libby Purves would be replacing Benedict Nightingale in their top spot.

Well, it turns out up-and-comers like me aren’t the only ones concerned by the trend:  some of the country’s most influential theatre critics also expressed reservations about the appointments last Friday, at Theatre Critics In The Spotlight, a panel discussion hosted by The Student Workshop of Royal Holloway, University of London (pictured).

Even before the panel hosts – Royal Holloway lecturer and Variety theatre critic Karen Fricker, and Student Workshop Creative Learning Officer Sheryl Hill – formally posed the question, panellist Mark Shenton – critic for the Sunday Express and daily blogger for The Stage – repeatedly brought up the topic.

In Shenton’s view, the trend is a cost-saving measure, symptomatic of the problems facing the newspaper and media industry as a whole.  His fellow panellist Kate Bassett, lead critic for the Independent on Sunday, pithily summarised those problems, saying, “Newspapers don’t know how to make money any more”.

Shenton explained that papers could avoid paying an extra salary by simply adding theatre criticism to the duties of an existing member of staff, adding that editors no longer consider theatre criticism to be a full-time occupation.

Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times recalled – enlighteningly, for those of us relatively new to the business – the appointment of former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Michael Portillo as theatre critic for the New Statesman, which he considers to be the beginning of the trend.  Worryingly, he also pointed out that his own promotion to lead critic at the FT is the only instance in living memory of a retiring lead critic being replaced by their number two at the same paper – most second-stringers have to defect to a different publication in order to secure a top slot.

Lyn Gardner, critic and blogger for The Guardian, concluded the discussion with this bleak yet matter-of-fact premonition of the industry’s future:  “I fully expect my job will one day be done by Katie Price”.

19 February, 2010

‘I’d rather be in the pub’ is not an excuse

Written for The Collective Review, 19 February 2010

It’s understandable that a lot of people would rather spend their evening in the pub than at the theatre.  Who cares if the tickets are more affordable than you might think?  Theatres are stuffy and elitist, plays are boring, and you can’t even fortify yourself beforehand or commiserate properly afterwards because the beer is expensive and the wine is expensive and nasty…

…all right, you’ve caught me; that was a test.  If you found yourself showering that paragraph in indignant spittle then give yourself a pat on the back and move on.  If, on the other hand, you found yourself nodding in agreement, keep reading:  this article is for you.

I’m taken by surprise on a regular basis by people (theatre people and ‘normal’ people alike) who have no idea that there are theatres in pubs.  It surprises me because I see plays staged in little studios above or behind London pubs all the time (I’m the British Theatre Guide’s current go-to guy for pub theatre), and because they seem to me to be such a winning formula.

In this city at least, pub theatres (and theatre pubs – there’s a delicate distinction) are everywhere.  The tickets and the drinks alike are affordable.  There’s none of that gin-quaffing air-kissing atmosphere that puts so many people off the theatre.  The sets and lighting are often basic, but that encourages directorial innovation, and there’s a wealth of interesting, well-performed work to be found as a result.  So how come everyone I talk to reacts like pub theatre is London’s best-kept secret?

I think it’s largely a marketing issue.  The first time I visit a particular pub theatre I often realise I’ve walked past the pub before without realising there was a theatre in it.  From the street, the only evidence that – for instance – the Oxford Arms in Camden also houses the Etcetera Theatre is a sandwich board in the porch.  Presumably the publicans are worried pub-only punters could be put off by the thought of sharing the bar with a bunch of ginned-up luvvies.

Equally, while they don’t deliberately obscure the fact, few theatres make a selling point of being situated in a pub.  It’s possible to book online and turn up at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington and only then realise it takes its name from the pub it’s attached to; likewise the King’s Head or Hen and Chickens in Islington.  The name ‘Theatre503‘ in a listing or review does not immediately suggest a connection to the Latchmere pub in Battersea, and the Greenwich Playhouse’s website studiously avoids mentioning that it can only be accessed through an O’Neill’s.  They seem to want to be defined as theatres that happen to share premises with a pub, rather than the joint entity ‘pub theatre’.

It’s like the pubs and their theatres are determined to be the awkward bedfellows they are on paper – in which case we need to be the mutual friends determined to show them how perfect they actually are for one another.  No one’s consciously keeping people in the dark about the pub theatre movement, but people are in the dark nonetheless, and that benefits nobody.