Archive for ‘Reviews’

27 August, 2010

101 ***

C soco, 15 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

I can’t tell you exactly what to expect from 101. You’ll experience one of four scenarios; the order rotates daily, so there’s no use in shooting for a particular one. Generally speaking, you can expect to have your boundaries tested – in the case of my scenario, specifically in relation to physical intimacy across the gender divide.

Patrons and performers alike are given a white sash. Wearing it signifies willingness to participate; removing it signifies a desire to sit out whatever’s going on at that point; and it can be removed and reapplied as many times as necessary. It’s an interesting visual indicator – almost a show of hands – of the tipping points of individuals and the audience as a whole, a bit like a seismograph showing how hard Oneohone are shaking our boundaries.

If the audience at my performance are anything to go by, the company actually don’t shake all that hard. Our scenario is an elaborate and tentative courtship ritual, reminiscent at once of school discos, with boys and girls lined up on opposite sides of the room, and of courtly wooing, with plenty of bowing, curtseying and hand-kissing. With the exception of one attendee, everyone keeps their sashes on throughout.

This could be because the company start us off on small, inoffensive interactions, like bowing to one another across the room, and proceed in tiny increments, asking permission at every stage. This approach coupled with our natural reticence makes for a sedate pace; there’s time enough to pluck up courage for everything that’s asked of us.

If the intention of 101 is to push us to define our own boundaries, it doesn’t really push hard enough; everything’s well within the tolerance of a typical Fringe audience. But it seems more likely the intention is to give people the power to opt out, then show them that they don’t need to use it, even when doing things that might be a little way outside their normal theatre comfort zone. In that, it succeeds; and really, the company could have contented themselves with that achievement, rather than tacking on a classical narrative in the final ten minutes.

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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)

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27 August, 2010

Odyssey ****

C soco, 4 – 30 August 2010 (even dates only)

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

This is Schrödinger’s Odyssey: it’s neither Homer’s Ancient Greek epic, nor is it wholly Dominic J Allen’s mid-apocalyptic refashioning, yet it’s both. The man lying unconscious on the table is not Theodore “Ted” Stirling, fascist poet, nor Odysseus, nor Ulysses: he is, as he tells anyone that asks, “Nobody”. He’s trying to return to Ithaca and also to a devastated New York City. He both has and has not already arrived.

All of which is as discombobulating as it sounds, which gives us, the audience, an idea of what Ted’s feeling; which is humbling, because the reason Ted’s feeling discombobulated is that he’s being psychologically tortured, and we’re in league with his torturers. So we’re both the tortured and the torturers, as well as being neither.

The duality of Allen’s Odyssey allows him to entangle 21st century concerns with Homerian themes without uprooting either element from its natural context and to present dual interpretations of Odysseus / Ulysses: is he a wise war hero, or a cunning butcherer? A faithful but cruelly waylaid husband or a gallivanting philanderer?

Because the play doesn’t commit fully to either setting, it also exonerates itself from many of the usual constraints of continuity and consistency. A blood ritual that summons Tiresias and the spirits of the dead may seem out of place in a world of mutant assassins and extreme ethnic cleansing, but of course it gels just fine with the Ancient Greek world to which Ted finds himself increasingly connected.

Then there’s the fact that none of the action is really happening at all: it’s all a reenactment for Ted’s sake, to “torture him with his memories”. His two tormentors – our hosts – secure our cooperation by sheer force of will, preying on our natural passivity as audience members to the point where we willingly pelt poor Ted with rubber balls. Examining what audiences will and will not willingly participate in has been one of Belt Up’s strengths since The Park Keeper in 2008, and they’ve rediscovered that strength in their Odyssey.

Written by Dominic J Allen after Homer

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27 August, 2010

The Master and Margarita

David Ralf and Cassie Barraclough in The Master and Margarita

David Ralf and Cassie Barraclough in The Master and Margarita. Image by Amelia Peterson

C soco, 6 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the Oxford Times

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a dense and complex novel, layered with parallel interconnected plotlines and saturated with theosophical intrigue; so as Rowena Purrett acknowledged in her review earlier this month, to pare it down to 90 minutes is an achievement. Somewhere between Oxford and the Fringe, OUDS have shaved their production down to an even more festival-friendly 80 minutes.

As well as paring down the content — the specific scenes, events and plotlines — OUDS boil down the whole work to a more manageable scale, in the process intensifying some flavours and losing others almost entirely. Where Bulgakov’s novel is a sweeping satire concerned with entire classes and communities, the OUDS production focuses closely on the individual characters: a more dramatic approach, but one that reduces the scope of the themes and ideas from a communal to a capital level.

It’s a shame to dampen the story’s potential for wide-ranging social commentary, especially as Bulgakov’s criticisms of Moscow’s atheist society still apply to ever- larger portions of the Western world; but on the stage, individuals are easier to engage with emotionally than whole societies.

What the production does communicate well is the bleak, decaying atmosphere of the benighted city. The performance space is part of a half-derelict building, all exposed brickwork, cold stone and cracked plaster; a boon for set designer Jessica Edwards. It’s also spacious as festival spaces go, but director Hoehn concentrates most scenes into as small an area as possible, highlighting the isolation of characters outcast for expressing their beliefs.

The performance is an odd mixture of styles. Brecht and Commedia dell’arte are both identifiable influences, and expressionistic movement and dance intrude on relatively naturalistic dialogue; though in a story about the invasion by the supernatural of a wilfully banal society, such intrusions feel thematically appropriate enough not to jar or distract in the least.

Adapted by Raymond Blankenhorn and Max Hoehn

Crew includes Max Hoehn (director), Jessica Edwards (set design), Anouska Lester (costume design), Rachel Beaconsfield Press (make-up design), Eli Keren (lighting designer), Stephen Poole (lighting design), Rosie Hore and Harriet Randall (choreographers)

Cast includes Cassie Barraclough (Margarita), Joe Bayley (Pilate), Raymond Blankenhorn (Ivan/Matthew/Baron Maigel), Ollo Clark (The Master), Bella Hammad (Babushka/Natasya/Praskovya/Natasha/Hella), Max Hoehn (Woland), Jonnie McAloon (Yeshua/Clown), Matthew Monghan (Behemoth), David Ralf (Koroviev/Berlioz/Bengalsky)

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27 August, 2010

The Night Heron

Jacob Lloyd, Kathryn Lewis and Rob Hoare Nairne in The Night Heron

Jacob Lloyd, Kathryn Lewis and Rob Hoare Nairne in The Night Heron. Image courtesy of the Bookstacks marketing and press team

theSpaces @ Surgeons Hall, 18 – 28 August 2010

Reviewed for the Oxford Times

Wattmore is a nutcase who sees Satan in the eyes of Cub Scouts. Bolla is a nervy and intense ex-convict. Griffin is resourceful, proactive and loyal but none too bright. The Night Heron, by Jez Butterworth (writer of the recent West End smash Jerusalem), is a character-driven play, powered by the friction that occurs when personalities clash in a confined space. Accordingly, Rabid Monkey Productions concentrate hardest on producing convincing characterisation.

As Wattmore — once a Cambridge University gardener, now something of a pariah — Rob Hoare Nairne is stoop-shouldered: a tall, rangy man too used to making himself appear smaller and less threatening. At once hostile and mournful, he avoids nearly all eye contact — except when gripped by religious fervour.

As Bolla, or Fiona — the new lodger in Wattmore and Griffin’s shack on the marsh, who seems at first to be the answer to their prayers — Kathryn Lewin is in constant nervous motion, pawing at her tracksuit bottoms or flicking her nails against one another. Near the end of the production she takes this to a distracting extreme, contorting both her arms around and about, but for the most part hers is a subtle, focused performance.

As Griffin — who is constantly putting himself at risk to bail Wattmore out of trouble, not that it earns him much gratitude — Jacob Lloyd (pictured with Kathryn Lewin) is saddled with the lion’s share of Butterworth’s trademark quickfire dialogue, and handles it with apparent ease, rattling off lines at speed without ever tripping or becoming difficult to understand.

There’s just one disadvantage to this performance-focused approach to the play, which is that the big picture — the pacing, the arc of the plot — is neglected. The production putters along like a little two-stroke engine, moving at a decent enough pace to maintain our interest but never slowing down or speeding up, even for the climax, which sails by almost unmarked.

Written by Jez Butterworth

Crew includes Will Maynard (director) and Ellie Tranter (designer)

Cast includes James Corrigan (Royce), Alex Harding (Neddy/Jonathan), Rob Hoare Nairne (Wattmore), Kathryn Lewis (Bolla) and Jacob Lloyd (Griffin)

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27 August, 2010

Sparkleshark

Rafaella Marcus and Aumna Iqbal in Sparkleshark

Rafaella Marcus and Aumna Iqbal in Sparkleshark. Image courtesy of the Bookstacks marketing and press team

theSpaces @ Surgeons Hall, 14 – 28 August 2010

Reviewed for the Oxford Times

Is the pen really mightier than the sword, or is that just a comfortable fiction dreamed up by the people wielding the pens?

In Philip Ridley’s Sparkleshark, a group of teenagers face up to their parents and popularity issues, and even tame the school bully, all through the power of spontaneous storytelling. While it’s important to demonstrate to young people facing similar challenges that the underdog can sometimes triumph, this production isn’t quite believable enough: it comes across as the underdog’s fantasy, rather than as something that could actually happen.

What Ridley’s script asks us to believe — what Bouncy Castle Productions need to make us believe — is that the bully, Russell, would willingly set aside his traditional persecution of shy, creative ‘geek’ Jake (Alex Harding) in order to help act out a fairy tale made up on the spot by Jake and his allies.

Ridley provides several layers of justification for Russell’s turnabout — Jake’s shrewd, subtle flattery; the opportunity to impress some girls; rebellion among his more easily distracted minions — but the performances don’t quite sell that story.

Jack Peters comically overplays Russell as a pantomime heart-throb in the Lord Flashheart mould; he struts, preens and forgets his lackeys’ names with a self-absorbed disregard for anyone’s feelings but his own. This helps establish his bully credentials early on, and partially explains his behaviour — he’s more interested in asserting his own superiority than in any specific grievance against Jake — but makes it difficult to buy into his redemptive arc.

Meanwhile, Fen Greatley plays Shane, Russell’s right-hand man, as a shy and indecisive young poseur, instead of the moody and mysterious figure he’s built up to be before his entrance. When Shane decides to join in Jake’s game he is supposed to pull the more simple-minded Russell along in his wake, but the way Greatley plays him he seems like just the sort that Russell would absent-mindedly crush, not grudgingly follow.

When every member of the cast approaches their role with such enthusiasm, the production can’t help but produce some uplifting moments. When Russell does finally, reluctantly accept his role and settle into his “golden chariot” (a shopping trolley) for a spin around the stage, it’s impossible to resist a little smile.

The spaces between these heartwarming moments, however, are too far apart to hold the attention of the target audience. On the day of this review, there was just one member of the appropriate age group in the audience — and he was fidgeting by 15 minutes in.

Written by Philip Ridley

Crew includes Aumna Iqbal (director), Parisa Azimy (costume designer) and Simon Johnson (lighting designer)

Cast includes Fen Greatley (Shane), Alex Harding (Jake), Aumna Iqbal (Finn), Anna Lewis (Speed), Rafaella Marcus (Polly), Julia McLaren (Natasha), Jack Peters (Russell), Roz Stone (Carol) and Nai Webb (Buzz)

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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.

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25 August, 2010

Legend of the Card Ninja ****

Assembly @ Assembly Hall, 5 – 29 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 665)

Jav Jarquin flips the whole concept of the card trick on its head, flinging playing cards like throwing stars to knock over small objects or embed themselves in pieces of fruit. Not all the tricks work first time, but warmly self-deprecating stand-up segments get the audience on side, so by the climactic stunt the whole room is rooting for him.

25 August, 2010

Maff Brown – Looking After Lesal **

Pleasance Courtyard, 4 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for The List (issue 664)

Some funny things have happened to Maff Brown. Funny, that is, in the way that you probably had to be there to appreciate fully; like his dad Lesal reacting to being widowed by moving to Korea and Skyping 23-year-old Ukrainian girls. Thinking his anecdotes wittier than they are, Brown just tells them straight and neglects to say anything amusing about them.

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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

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