10 October, 2010

Heroin(e) for Breakfast


Kirsty Green and Hayley Shillito in Heroin(e) for Breakfast

Kirsty Green and Hayley Shillito in Heroin(e) for Breakfast. Image courtesy of Martin Shippen Arts Marketing and Media


Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, 8 – 31 October 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Is anyone else sick of being harangued from the stage? For being too middle class, or too complacent, or too passive?

It’s a technique that suffers from the law of diminishing returns. If Heroin(e) for Breakfast were the only play to barge down the fourth wall and berate the audience about their lifestyle, it would be groundbreaking, challenging, even blistering in its attack on modern social mores. But Tim Crouch already did it in The Author, Lowri Jenkins did it in 19;29’s Threshold, David Leddy did it in Sub Rosa – and that’s just counting shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. At the risk of sounding too middle class, one can only take so much.

The character doing the ribbing in this case is Tommy Croft (Craig McArdle), a self-styled revolutionary and, almost incidentally, a heroin user. Being quite justifiably fed up with being judged and diagnosed by the moral majority, Tommy injects them (i.e. us) with a strong dose of their (our) own medicine and – in a rare case of recursive double irony – proves his own point about the ineffectiveness of the hectoring sermon as an incentive for behavioural change.

In the beginning, Tommy’s fun to be around. He speaks his mind, he’s got an offbeat worldview and a gleefully filthy way with words. So are Chloe and Edie (Kirsty Green and Kate Daley), the girls that share his flat (and affections): playwright Philip Stokes has a good ear for corrosive snark, and the pair fling his stinging lines laconically across the stage, like paper planes full of anthrax.

Even the play’s most hazardous theatrical conceit, the personification of heroin in the body of Marilyn Monroe (actually Hayley Shillito), is executed with such balls that only the most hardened Naturalist wouldn’t buy in.

But come act two, the bunch of them have become tiresome. Tommy’s metatheatrical asides begin to seem gimmicky. The girls drop the subtext-laden sarcasm and just shout at each other (and Tommy) instead. Heroin(e)‘s oratory gets repetitive, and with each repetition rings increasingly hollow.

If the point is that heroin addiction makes you strung-out, paranoid, delusional and dull, Heroin(e) for Breakfast succeeds a little too well. Of course it wouldn’t be realistic for the light-hearted fun and games to continue once the shooting up begins, but the tonal shift is such that the play actually ceases to be engaging. And sorry, Tommy: whether it’s coming from the pulpit or the pews, a sermon’s a sermon, and no one reacts well to being told how to live.

Written by Philip Stokes

Crew includes Philip Stokes (director), Craig Lomas (set), Marie Dalton (lighting) and Carley Marsh (costume)

Cast includes Kate Daley (Edie), Kirsty Green (Chloe), Craig McArdle (Tommy) and Hayley Shillito (Heroin(e))

Need a second opinion?

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?

3 October, 2010

Why’s the site gone white?

A couple of weeks ago I opened a poll to see whether this site should be black with light text or white with dark text – see this post for the whys and wherefores.

The poll was a wash-out, largely because I didn’t publicise it well enough – eight people voted (thanks all of you!) and the result was a draw between dark-on-light and light-on-dark.

While the poll was running I did some research, and discovered that the vast majority of people who know what they’re talking about agree: light text on a dark background is hurty on the eyes. So given the inconclusive poll result, I’m turning the site white as an experiment. I’m going to keep an eye on my traffic stats and see whether inverting the colour scheme encourages more people to visit and read my stuff, like the people who know what they’re talking about say it will.

If you have a position on this riveting and highly worthwhile issue, do comment below.

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

Bloggers deserve comp tickets too, at least at the Lyric

The Lyric Hammersmith is trying out a new policy of comping in “regular theatre bloggers” to all its main house shows, which is a smart PR move and might also be another baby step towards a new post-print journalism.

I know Andrew Eglinton, founder and editor of the London Theatre Blog (right now, sadly on another of its extended hiatus periods – keep it bookmarked, it’ll be back) has gently pestered Ian Shuttleworth on a couple of occasions about including blogs in the Theatre Record. Mr Shuttleworth was justifiably loathe to open those floodgates, because Theatre Record is still near enough a one-man operation, and:

  1. keeping tabs on all the critical outlets currently operative in the blogosphere is a much, much bigger task than the already never-ending task of keeping tabs on every newspaper theatre section;
  2. deciding which blogs are and aren’t worthy of inclusion in a permanent record of critical discourse is too much power for one man to wield.

In the absence of such a unilateral journalistic edict, the Lyric has (presumably) hand-picked a selection of bloggers whose opinions it (presumably) considers to carry some weight – and (presumably) who have reacted favourably to its programming in the past. Perhaps if other theatre industry players – other venues, artists, producers, PR firms, journalists, academics – started weighing in with their own top tens, we’d start to see some overlap and the beginnings of consensus.

I’m very interested to know which other bloggers the Lyric is courting. If you’re one of them, I’d love to hear from you either directly via any of the options on the contact page, or in the comments on this post. Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest we form a support group. I’m just interested to see what it is we have in common.

This was supposed to be the introduction to a blog on the Lyric’s latest main house production, The Big Fellah, which I saw earlier this evening, but I think that can wait until tomorrow night. All the reviews are out already – you’ve plenty to read while you wait for my two cents (I’ve even bookmarked them all for you – click here for the list).

In the meantime, let’s start the quest for consensus right here: which “regular theatre bloggers” would you invite to a production you were involved in?

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?

15 September, 2010

It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white…

…but perhaps you have a preference?

Someone told me the other day that I really needed to do something about this site, because nobody likes reading light text on a dark background. I’m inclined to respect his opinion because he’s the Head of Digital (i.e. web design) at one of the top 20 design agencies in the UK.

The WordPress theme I’m using – Structure, in case you were wondering – lets me switch very easily between light-on-dark and dark-on-light. I chose light-on-dark because it’s more eco-friendly – a monitor displaying a black webpage consumes less energy than one displaying a white webpage (if Google.com was black instead of white, global energy consumption could be reduced by something like 3000 megawatt-hours a year). But if light-on-dark is putting people off visiting, well, then the whole site’s a great big waste of energy.

So it’s poll time. Click the thumbnails below to see how a typical page would look in each colour scheme, then scroll down to the poll and vote for your favourite. Whichever scheme has the most votes when the poll closes on Wednesday 22 September is the one I’ll go with from now on.

Dark on Light - click to see full size

Dark on Light - click to see full size

Light on Dark - click for full size

Light on Dark - click for full size

14 September, 2010

Theatre Delicatessen and the site-specific Souk

Recorded for theatreVOICE at 3-4 Picton Place, London, 13 September 2010

Interview: Jessica Brewster. The Joint Artistic Director of Theatre Delicatessen talks to Matt Boothman about the company’s occupation of derelict spaces in affluent areas of London, and about Theatre Souk, a ‘theatre marketplace’ in which acts and audiences haggle over what each performance is worth. Recorded at 3-4 Picton Place, London.

You can listen to this interview using the player below.

If you’d like to download the episode, right-click here and “Save As”.

You can also click here to subscribe to the podcast using iTunes.

14 September, 2010

Intelligent. Articulate. F***ed.

I have a tendency when reviewing that I have to rein in consciously and constantly, which is to fixate on a single aspect of a play – a particular insight I think the writer offers, or a nuance of one of the performances, or an unusual staging technique – and worry at it until I’m satisfied, at which point there’s usually no room left in the review to talk about anything else, like what the play was actually about, or whether it was any good.

I stop myself doing it because it’s self-indulgent and as unhelpful to the cast and crew as it is to the review-reading public, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to fix those thoughts into prose. I’ve reviewed Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock for the British Theatre Guide, so if you’re after a review – i.e. a shortish article explaining whether or not the play is worth seeing (it is) and why – spare yourself the following waffle and read that instead.

I’m hoping the waffle might provoke some discussion of the play, or at the very least encourage you to think about it more deeply than perhaps you otherwise might. If not, at the very least I’ll get some personal satisfaction out of serving up stuff that would otherwise just stew in my brain.

Rupert Simonian and Laura Pyper in Punk Rock

Rupert Simonian and Laura Pyper in Punk Rock. Image courtesy of Amy Belson (Press Manager, Lyric Hammersmith)

I reviewed Punk Rock when it premiered in September 2009, and again this week just before it heads off on a UK tour, and both times I talked a lot about Bennett Francis – partly because I expected that everyone else would focus instead on the main character, William Carlisle, and partly because I think the play’s most significant moments all pivot on Bennett’s actions.

But the reason I figured all the reviews would focus on William – and the majority did, or at least on Tom Sturridge, who played him in the premiere – is that he is a walking discussion piece. The question “Why does William Carlisle do what he does in the penultimate scene of Punk Rock?” could support a two-hour A Level Drama paper on its own. The play sets up many, many possible contributing factors, all of which William himself dismisses explicitly in the final scene. That’s why he’s such a good showpiece part for a young actor like Sturridge, or now Rupert Simonian – he’s unfathomable, open to interpretation, a fine balancing act.

I think to come down on the side of one or other motivation would be to misunderstand the play, but I also think that what William does is a symptom of the worldview all Punk Rock‘s 17-year-old characters have in common. It’s a bleak one to say the least. The thought of the world beyond the grimy library windows leads Lily to burn herself habitually with cigarette lighters, Chadwick to fantasise about eradicating everything with a zillion gigatonne antimatter bomb, and Tanya to long for the structure and protection of kept-womanhood. Bennett makes a point of transgressing the personal and social boundaries he knows will shackle him in later life, which doesn’t help matters. If William didn’t snap, it’s entirely possible one of the others would. The question in that case would be, not “Why does William do what he does?”, but “Why William and not someone else?”

One of the other reasons I focused on Bennett in my reviews is that William spends a lot of the second act lingering on the downstage right lip, easily forgotten, observing without acting, and that, I think, is the key factor here: William listens, absorbing everything. He’s also intelligent and perceptive enough to synthesise, extrapolate and form conclusions others might shy away from. Throughout the play, he asks questions other people either wouldn’t think to ask, or would be too embarrassed to – about people’s personal lives, but also about the world at large. (Bennett asks personal questions, too, but he does it to humiliate the other party.)

Everyone in Punk Rock is intelligent, observant, perceptive and articulate, and that high-achiever status is their curse, because it allows them to look at the world around them, to really see it, to collate their observations and experiences and to conclude that the world is a big bloody mess and isn’t getting any better. Chadwick puts it eloquently in a long speech about how insignificant they all are in the long run. Bennett puts it more pithily with his parting shot to Tanya: “You’re sad because you’re fat. You’re fat because you eat too much. You eat too much because you’re depressed. You’re depressed because of the fucking world.”

We could conclude that ignorance is bliss, I suppose. Or we could conclude that we all need to pull our collective finger out and try to make the world the sort of place that doesn’t make 17-year-olds want to burn themselves, vaporise themselves or do what William does.

In many ways the least constructive response to what William does – either in the play or when it happens in real life – is to arbitrarily select one of the factors that may have contributed and dump all the blame on that, but somehow that option is even more attractive than burying our heads in the sand. Choosing ignorance means accepting that there’s something to ignore, which means accepting a portion of the blame, even if we deny it immediately afterwards. Blaming individual parents, teachers, bullies, films or video games places the blame-thrower on a false swell of moral high ground.

If you saw Punk Rock – either version (as I mentioned in my review, they’re near enough identical) – I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments. Am I reading too much into the play? Am I crediting the characters with insight you don’t think they possess? Is my logic faulty, or does my argument meander too much? Let me have it!

12 September, 2010

Punk Rock (2010)

Edward Franklin and Katie West in Punk Rock

Edward Franklin and Katie West in Punk Rock. Image courtesy of Amy Belson (Press Manager, Lyric Hammersmith)

Lyric Hammersmith, 6 – 18 September (then touring)

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

If you missed Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock this time last year, now’s your chance to make good. Despite only three of the original cast having survived to join this touring production, in most important respects it’s a facsimile of the premiere.

This is not an unequivocally good thing. While ultimately rewarding, Punk Rock is a slow starter. Until the interval, little happens besides a bunch of Stockport sixth-formers chatting in the library. What’s said is often insightful, sometimes suprising, and undaunted by big themes, but offers few clues about where the play might be headed. This is intentional, but potentially makes for a meandering, purposeless first half. The original production didn’t surmount this issue, and this one, being a near-perfect recreation, doesn’t either.

By the interval, enough tension has accumulated to tauten the sails and drive the play to its heart-thumping conclusion. A large portion of that tension is attributable to Bennett Francis, the bully whose faux-congenial humiliation games seem calculated to incubate retaliatory action.

Bennett’s is the only noticeably altered portrayal. In 2009, Henry Lloyd-Hughes lent the character a genuine affability that suggested he believed his own bullshit, that to him his victimisation of poor awkward genius Chadwick Meade really was just horseplay. With a sneering Edward Franklin in the blazer instead, Bennett is intentionally spiteful rather than monstrously insensitive; his villainy is a little more clear-cut, which peels an onionskin-thin layer of nuance away from the deliberately unfathomable climax.

Written by Simon Stephens

Crew includes Sarah Frankcom (director), Paul Wills (designer), Philip Gladwell (lighting designer), Pete Rice (sound designer) and Kate Waters (fight director)

Cast includes Nicholas Banks (Nicholas Chatman), Edward Franklin (Bennett Francis), Ruth Milne (Cissy Franks), Mike Noble (Chadwick Meade), Laura Pyper (Lily Cahill), Rupert Simonian (William Carlisle), Katie West (Tanya Gleason), Simon Wolfe (Dr Richard Harvey), Juliet York (Lucy Francis)

Need a second opinion?