Posts tagged ‘culture wars’

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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23 August, 2010

Threshold *****

Zoo Roxy, 9 – 20 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Everything about Threshold is a secret. The location is a secret. Most of what happens there is a secret. Whatever happens that isn’t a secret happens for secret reasons. Everything we learn is a secret revealed: scraps of overheard conversation; scenes glimpsed through the undergrowth; comments that slip out in unguarded moments: all information we know we shouldn’t know, and for that we treasure it all the more.

Three hours in the late afternoon is a big commitment at the Fringe. Be reassured that Threshold is a three-hour show, not a one-hour show plus two hours’ travel time, even though two of the three hours are spent travelling. The outward journey is for tipping us subtly, uncomfortably sideways and out of the real world. The return journey is for sharing the secrets we’ve learned. The moment you think it’s over is the moment Threshold puts on its triumphant final spurt. It is worth three hours of your time.

The middle hour is one of excitement, adventure, voyeurism, uncertainty, guilt and heartbreak. With a few deft touches our hosts gain our trust: from the start they trust us enough to share secrets, enough to rely implicitly on our support in a confrontation, and so we trust them back. When our guide breaks into a run and we follow suit without a thought it’s not just because we know we’ll get lost or miss the action if we don’t keep up; it’s because we understand why they’re running, so we run for the same reasons.

A secret isn’t a secret unless someone’s left in the dark. Roughly one fifth of the people that witness each major event in Threshold will be party to all the information required to fully understand it. Each occurrence we do understand strengthens our conviction that first, there must also be explanations for the events we find incomprehensible, and second, there will be people on the return journey who have discovered those explanations.

Whether anyone can be persuaded to reveal what they’ve learned is another matter. Threshold relinquishes but one piece of advice willingly: that some secrets are best kept locked away.

Written by Fred Gordon, Lowri Jenkins and Thomas McMullan

Crew includes Susanna Davies-Crook (director) and Vasiliki Giannoula (costume design)

Cast includes Kristina Epenetos, Nicky Ingram, Hayley Kasperczyk, George Kemp, Adam Loxley, Pablo Navarro-MacLochlainn, Tom Ross Williams and Seda Yildiz

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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)

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25 June, 2010

Revolution Now!

The Gob Squad in Revolution Now!

The Gob Squad in Revolution Now! Image courtesy of The Corner Shop Public Relations & Marketing

Institute of Contemporary Arts, 24 – 26 June 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Hey you! The people! Listen up! This is a revolution, and in the absence of any clearly defined goals for change, this is our manifesto:

1. The revolution will be televised
Clichés out of the way first. This is a multimedia revolution. Cameras both handheld and static relay images between revolutionary HQ, in the ICA theatre, and the outside world of the Mall.

We in the auditorium may feel neglected when our leaders, the ragtag Gob Squad, turn their backs on us to address the cameras and the outside world, but we may be comforted by the sight of ourselves on the screen, as the Mall sees us, behind our leaders both literally and figuratively (and if we aren’t comforted, tough; this is the way the majority of the revolution will be played).

2. The revolution is participation
The revolution cannot succeed if no one is willing to stand up, to shake hands and chat with their neighbour, to lie on stage representing a corpse or to recite poetry on camera to whoever on the Mall might be listening.

3. The revolution is ambitious
Others before us have challenged themselves to elicit willing participation from the audience, who’ve chosen – even paid! – to attend, and who presumably have some inkling at least of what might be asked of them. Having achieved this trifle in the first ten minutes, this revolution is not afraid to dream bigger.

The ultimate prize: willing participation from a random passer-by on the Mall. Someone removed from the burgeoning community spirit in revolutionary HQ. Someone who sees, not a revolution, not even a piece of theatre, but a chugger in epaulettes.

4. The revolution does not recognise the possibility of failure
Some will interpret twenty fruitless minutes failing to persuade passers-by to forsake their trains and buses for the sake of revolution – twenty minutes culminating in the impromptu recruitment of playwright Tim Crouch from the ICA bar, to stand in for the People – as the failure of the revolution. But to implement a contingency plan or exit strategy would be to countenance failure, and that would run counter to the spirit of the revolution.

5. The revolution is perception – of yourself, your peers, your context and community
Those of us who were there will likely say that whatever failure occurred was on the part of the People, not of the revolution. The People are hostile, the People are suspicious, the People are closed off, unwilling to give anything of themselves.

But the People are also eloquent, politically savvy, friendly and socially responsible; all those contrasting things in the space of twenty minutes at one spot on the Mall. Just because the People won’t come inside and wave the flag doesn’t mean the People aren’t revolutionary.

Written by Gob Squad

Crew includes Gob Squad

Cast includes Gob Squad

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6 March, 2010

The Poof Downstairs

Battersea Arts Centre, 4 – 20 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The Poof Downstairs hinges on a single, simple metatheatrical gimmick. Is gimmick too negative a word? A better word might be conceit. It hinges on a metatheatrical conceit and cannot be effectively reviewed unless said conceit is revealed – regrettably deadening future audiences’ feelings of whimsical bafflement, but that’s theatre criticism for you. So apologies to Jon Haynes –

Actually, to understand the gimmick – the conceit – it’s probably necessary to know something about Jon Haynes, the writer and lead performer. Haynes is one of the co-founders of Ridiculusmus; The Poof Downstairs is semi-autobiographical, featuring a married couple based on Haynes’ parents. In an unlikely metatheatrical coincidence, Haynes’ onstage father is played by his real-life childhood friend Charles Millington –

Unfortunately, though, Millington’s performance is unreviewable at the current time, as he was unable to perform on press night due to unforeseen personal circumstances; also, as Haynes mentioned when announcing this fact, the pair were never childhood friends, more schoolyard acquaintances. Thankfully Millington’s understudy, Jon Haynes, is a capable character actor and delivers an understated but compelling portrait of the dour, gruff father –

Speaking of dour, it’s probably worth mentioning (purely for added context) Haynes’ well-documented deadpan disdain for the London new writing scene, because his disillusionment manages to colour his performance even though the subject matter of The Poof Downstairs has little to do with theatre. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as his throwaway snarky asides are amusing, especially to those with some knowledge of –

But none of this is germane without knowledge of the show’s foundational conceit, which is – what, only ten words left? Sorry to disappoint – didn’t think that would take so long.

Written by Jon Haynes

Cast includes Jon Haynes (Jeremy), Charles Millington (Father) and Patrizia Paolini (Mother)

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3 February, 2010

My Stories, Your Emails

Barbican, 2 – 13 February 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Ursula Martinez is an enigma and so is her new solo show, My Stories, Your Emails. An original member of La Clique, Martinez exists in the borderlands between stand-up comedy, burlesque dance, stage magic and performance art. Similarly, My Stories, Your Emails is a lecture, a stand-up act, a play, a confession and an autobiography while simultaneously being none of these things.

It also appears simultaneously to be a constructive, creative response to a potentially upsetting situation and a petty, misdirected act of vengeance.

As the title suggests, it’s a show of two halves. The first involves Martinez reading (mostly) humorous autobiographical anecdotes from a lectern. Her deadpan delivery is disconcertingly reminiscent of Jimmy Carr, though Martinez excels at getting laughs by leaving stories hanging, instead of by comic over-explanation.

The stories serve as a brief introduction to Martinez’s life, revealing aspects of her upbringing and career, details about her family and so on, without sketching anything like a complete picture of her as a person.

The second half concerns a similarly incomplete picture – a video of her magic/striptease act Hanky Panky, which was released onto the internet without her permission – and some of the astonishing conclusions people the world over drew about her as a result. It’s a pageant showcasing some prime examples of that uniquely 21st century prose genre, the speculative online solicitation, in which the objective is to coat every syllable in steaming sexual subtext, but convince the receiving party that you are not just another hopeless case begging for sex.

There’s a surprising variety of pretexts, from those who idolise Martinez as a campaigner for Nudism, to those who want to book her act, through those seeking friendship to those barefacedly requesting sex. What they have in common is that they all think they know, understand or have some kind of claim over Martinez just because they’ve watched a video of her stripping and making a silk handkerchief disappear.

The concept of this segment is a problematic one. A piece of Martinez’s work not intended for mass online consumption ended up online; she responds to this by taking fanmail (complete with full names, photos and even some telephone numbers) presumably meant for her eyes only and performing it publicly. The majority of the men (and they are all men) don’t come out of it especially well. On paper it feels like an eye for an eye.

But she performs the emails without commentary: the men are allowed to present themselves in their own words (though she provides each with an appropriate accent). It also becomes clear from occasional instances of two-way correspondence that their permission has been sought and granted to incorporate their words and pictures into the show.

To presume to draw a definitive conclusion regarding the motivation and ethics behind My Stories, Your Emails would be to make the same mistake as the men. Best just to present the facts and let Ursula Martinez remain an enigma.

Written by Ursula Martinez

Crew includes Mark Whitelaw (director)

Cast includes Ursula Martinez

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14 December, 2009

The Stefan Golaszewski Plays

Bush Theatre, 2 December 2009 – 9 January 2010

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog and cross-posted to The Collective Review

Two one-act plays back to back don’t usually make a successful two-act play. Right? Which suggests it’s probably no coincidence that Stefan Golaszewski Speaks About A Girl He Once Loved and Stefan Golaszewski Is A Widower work so well as a double bill; it seems likely they were always meant to be performed together.

It was clear from the plays’ debuts, a year apart at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, that they were stylistically and thematically of a piece. Each is a monologue in which Golaszewski relates romantic episodes from ‘his’ life, or a fictionalised version of it (in Widower he imagines himself in the year 2056, following marriage and a moderately successful TV career), aided by some simple props and a gift for writing fresh, cliché-free imagery.

What wasn’t immediately obvious back then was how neatly the two would bolt together for their London transfer. At around an hour each they were bite-sized enough for the choice-rich, time-poor Festival theatregoer, but the double bill is substantial enough to be worth a London audience’s while. More importantly, the emotional and thematic trajectories of Golaszewski as a character and a playwright are revealed and reinforced by the juxtaposition; images, foibles and techniques introduced in About A Girl pay off with interest when revisited in Widower.

Little gimmicks used in About A Girl simply to create sight gags give rise instead to pathos when they recur in the altered context of Widower. Golaszewski’s tendency to idolise women is the quirky fulcrum of About A Girl, but Widower acknowledges the disadvantages of such an attitude when applied to a more adult kind of relationship; the wide-eyed, innocent awe of female beauty that characterises About A Girl is only briefly retrodden in Widower before tragedy abruptly erases it in favour of a whole new range of grown-up emotions like bitterness, desperation and regret.

Individually the plays are snapshots of a man at two different stages of emotional maturity. Combined, they sketch a more complete portrait of a man learning the hard way that the reality of long-term commitment can never be as idealistically romantic as rose-tinted recollections of unrealised adolescent love. Underscoring it all are the insecurities of a young playwright coming uneasily to terms with his own premonitions of future emotional disillusionment and bodily deterioration. The whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of its parts – and given all the stars, awards and praise each play received individually, marrying them is sure to result in a critical mass of acclaim.

Written by Stefan Golaszewski

Crew includes Phillip Breen (director/designer)

Cast includes Stefan Golaszewski

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21 November, 2009


16 – 26 November 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

This latest addition to the audio-instructed performance genre is, at least in terms of sheer scale, the most ambitious work of its kind yet attempted. But while that ambition is what makes HALL worthwhile – not just as a dramatic experience but as proof that audio-instructed performance still has exciting new places to go – it is also the root of the production’s problems.

The Hall itself, a secret location divulged only after you’ve signed up for your audioguide, is vast, varied (with a pleasing balance of long corridors, poky cupboards and cavernous junk-filled auditoria) and eerie, especially after dark. A number of performers bustle around some areas; in a spooky contrast, others are deserted and echoing. Participants’ audioguides must be started precisely on time, and the cast’s choreography has to be timed to the second, otherwise the performers won’t be doing what the guides say they’re doing where the guides say they’re doing it.

As if that wasn’t enough to handle, the audioguides vary depending on the participants’ start times, so the performers aren’t just repeating one sequence of movements and lines, but a whole cycle. No wonder the company ended up overreaching themselves.

There are just too many things that can go wrong, on the company’s end and on the participants’. I started my audioguide ten or fifteen seconds too late, which made me very slow to respond when asked questions by performers. My fault! At one point I was led to an office where a man at a desk issued me my Freedom Pass. My guide drowned him out with instructions to read a magazine while I waited; there were none. Not my fault! Later I was directed to enter a specific numbered door. It was too dark to make out the door numbers, I entered the wrong one, and the next five minutes of instructions demanded interaction with objects and performers I couldn’t find. Partially my fault, but not entirely.

Issues like the production quality of the sound file, or the minutiae of the synchronisation between audio and live performance, are infinitely less interesting to discuss than the story the production is telling, or the atmosphere it creates. In this case, unfortunately, I can’t criticise the narrative because I missed chunks of it; the best I could do was notice recurring characters, like the architect (female, but referred to confusingly as “he” by the audioguide), the shy young actress and the corporate spy. And I can’t criticise the atmosphere because I was too busy checking that my problems weren’t due to my mp3 player having accidentally paused itself or skipped ahead to breathe any of it in.

Viewed in context, HALL is a necessary step in the evolution of audio-instructed performance to a form capable of telling big, sprawling stories as well as brief, compact ones. Viewed in isolation, unfortunately, it’s a logistical shambles with potential but no punch.

Written by Lowri Jenkins

Crew includes Felix Mortimer (artistic director)

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22 August, 2009

anomie ***

Zoo Southside, 7 – 31 August 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

You can rely on Precarious to deliver a technical spectacle. Prerecorded and rotoscoped footage of the six performers is as crucial to the action as the performers themselves, and the two often seamlessly combine, with the performers partially hidden behind flatscreen TVs that display their obscured limbs or heads like a technicolour X-ray. Synchronising between live and prerecorded movement requires the cast to be masters of timing, and so unison dance sequences are flawless, performed as if by afterimages of the same body.

But unlike Precarious’ masterpiece The Factory, anomie – which follows six social misfits living in the same apartment building – lacks strong thematic justification for its technical wizardry, so while the integration of screen and performer is an undeniable triumph of pinpoint timing and rehearsal, it can also feel like a gimmick, style divorced from content. The company’s other speciality, dance and physical theatre, is anomie’s strong point, remaining fresh and engaging throughout while also building clear (if not always subtle) characterisation, and making inventive use of mattresses as crashmats, scenery and allegory; though there are too few of the haunting tableaux that made The Factory so memorable.

Written by Precarious

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