Posts tagged ‘evening standard’

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)

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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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11 July, 2010

The Comedy of Errors

Sophie  Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors

Sophie Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors. Image courtesy of The Corner Shop

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 24 June – 31 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The first and final scenes of this open-air Comedy of Errors feel dashed off, as if director Philip Franks couldn’t be bothered to do much with them. This isn’t as big a problem as it might be in a different play: The Comedy of Errors is mostly middle.

Franks appears to have judged, by no means incorrectly, that the sob story Egeon (Christopher Ravenscroft) feeds the Duke (Alister Cameron) in scene one isn’t nearly as important to the audience as it is to Egeon (who is, after all, telling it in order to secure himself a stay of execution). Adoptions and shipwrecks don’t concern us. All we need to know is that two sets of estranged identical twins are about to be set loose in Ephesus and hilarity, as they say, will ensue.

So yes, the opening scene is interminable, there’s little evidence of “grief unspeakable” in Ravenscroft’s performance and as such his climactic reunion with his wife and sons is emotionally flat. But as soon as Egeon yields the stage to the twin Antipholi and Dromios, Franks and the audience alike sit up and start paying attention.

The production has a fantastic sense of fun, embracing the absurdity of the play’s premise and embellishing it with brand new absurdities, like unexpected song and dance numbers and Scooby-Doo-style pursuits with mobs racing past people hidden in convenient wicker baskets.

The contrasting relationships of the Antipholi (Daniels Weyman and Llewelyn-Williams) to their respective Dromios (Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen) are convincingly fleshed out: Ephesian Dromio (Cohen) is beaten and put-upon by his wealthy master (Llewelyn-Williams) but they always make up in the end, while the less affluent Syracusan pair are on a more equal footing.

This means that when the Antipholi unwittingly swap Dromios or vice versa, as they inevitably must, there’s an extra level of humour to enjoy. One Dromio leaves in search of bail money for Antipholus and another returns with a bit of rope – that’s worth a giggle. But when Ephesian Antipholus, used to getting his own way, is faced with a Dromio who isn’t used to taking orders, hilarity ensues.

Perhaps if Franks had paid as much attention to Egeon’s characterisation as to the twins’, the production could have gained yet another layer, this time of poignancy. But this production gets belly laughs from a capacity crowd using Elizabethan dialogue, so I say, who needs depth when hilarity is ensuing?

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Philip Franks (director), Gideon Davey (designer), Quinny Sacks (movement director), Paul Frankish (musical director)

Cast includes Alister Cameron (Duke), Josh Cohen (Dromio of Ephesus), Joseph Kloska (Dromio of Syracuse), Daniel Llewelyn-Williams (Antipholus of Ephesus), Christopher Ravenscroft (Egeon), Daniel Weyman (Antipholus of Syracuse)

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10 April, 2010

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train

Ricky Fearon and Ricky Copp in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train

Ricky Fearon and Ricky Copp in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train. Image by Keith Pattison

Trafalgar Studios, 8 – 24 April 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Angel knows putting an educational bullet in a man’s backside isn’t the same as attempted murder. Lucius has found Jesus, and is busy atoning for multiple homicide through prayer. For Mary Jane, successfully defending a (technically) guilty man is a thrill she can’t do without. And Officer Valdez sleeps sound at night knowing his charges had their chances and blew ’em, so anything he does to them is a consequence of their own actions.

Every character in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is at peace with who they are and the things they’ve done. This isn’t how prison dramas begin; it’s where they typically end.

This, then, is not a journey of redemption in the Hollywood sense. Practically the opposite, in fact. The characters – two inmates, one Puerto Rican one African-American, two guards and a lawyer, all white – spend the play chipping away at each other’s ivory towers, eventually leaving them all defenceless, divested of their comfortable rationalisations.

The implication is an uncomfortable one: that there may be some acts, some decisions, that we shouldn’t be allowed the luxury of coming to amicable terms with.

Because Stephen Adly Guirgis invests every one of his characters with the necessary wit to systematically dismantle the others’ worldviews, the dialogue – and it’s a dialogue-heavy play and no mistake – crackles like regiments exchanging salvos. As befits that martial aspect it’s riddled with profanity; but it’s also eloquent and lyrical. Lucius (Ricky Fearon) in particular sways with the compelling vocal cadences of a proselytising preacher.

In his mouth – and in Angel’s stuttering one, and through Mary Jane’s clipped, honest phrasing – the play’s philosophy, however uncomfortable to contemplate, sounds like the only one that makes the slightest sense.

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis

Crew includes Esther Baker (director) and Katy McPhee (set designer)

Cast includes Ricky Copp (D’Amico), Ricky Fearon (Lucius Jenkins), Denise Gough (Mary Jane Hanrahan), Theo Jones (Angel Cruz) and Dominic Taylor (Valdez)

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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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29 January, 2010

Excuse me, you’re standing in my dead men’s shoes

Written for The Collective Review, 28 January 2010

Theatre reviewing is a dead men’s shoes business.  One someone lands a chief critic position at a national newspaper, they’ll traditionally hold onto that position until they’re buried or senile.  So for all the deputies and second-stream critics, and for all us up-and-comers watching hawk-like for new deputy or second-stream opportunities, the voluntary retirement of two chief critics within a year of one another should have been a cause for (slightly guilty) celebration.

In March of 2009, Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard quit so he could concentrate on writing plays of his own.  And this week, the mighty Benedict Nightingale, chief critic of The Times for two entire decades, announced he was stepping down too.

What many of us assumed would happen next – what we’d been counting on happening next – was that everyone would effectively shuffle up one level.  Dominic Maxwell would take Nightingale’s position as chief critic, one of The Times’s favourite freelancers would probably get Maxwell’s job, and a space would open up on the paper’s freelancers list.  In short, there would be opportunities.

Instead, both de Jongh and Nightingale were replaced in pretty short order by, respectively, writer Henry Hitchings and journalist Libby Purves, both figures from outside the theatre journalism bubble.  Bold and unexpected moves by the Standard and the Thunderer – but while Hitchings is doing an excellent job, and it’s difficult to imagine Purves putting a foot wrong, what does this mean for the rest of us?

It means we all stay on the rungs we’re on, of course, but more importantly it means we’re less likely than ever to move up even by one.  There are fewer paid critics’ positions than there’ve ever been, they’re only vacated once in a blue moon, and the message we’re now gettingis that even when one does open up we have zero chance of getting it, no matter how much commitment and drive we show, no matter how much talent we display and develop, no matter how many years we spend working for free to build our portfolios.

Well, fine.  Forget the nationals.  Forget the dream of being paid to do what you love.  Instead, get a day job and embrace the internet.  Make a hobby of it, not a career.  Critics were once commonly viewed as dilettantes and dabblers – and if we aren’t allowed to climb higher, moving backwards towards that romantic image may be our only sensible option.

22 January, 2010

Decade

Theatre 503, 19 – 23 January 2010

Reviewed for The Collective Review

What do you remember about the Noughties? (Yes, it turns out that is what we’re calling them.) Theatre503 asked that question to ten playwrights – five established, five as-yet unproduced – and the result is Decade, a collection of ten ten-minute plays, each one representing a single year. So what do the Decade writers remember about the Noughties?

First and foremost, they remember global catastrophes. Summing up a whole year in ten minutes of drama is a tall order, of course, so most of the ten focus on one or two iconic events – and it seems most of the iconic events of the Noughties were disasters. The Millennium Bug (okay – only a potential disaster), 9/11, the war in Iraq, the Christmas tsunami of 2004, Guantanamo Bay and the election of BNP MEPs all feature.

This could be because, as we’re often told, Conflict Is The Essence Of Drama. Alternatively, this could be how we’re fated to remember the last decade: as one disaster after another.

It was also a decade dominated by the USA, and American accents permeate Decade. Behind his vacant stare, President George Dubya Bush is dancing inside, in Beth Steel’s surreal 2001. Nimer Rashed personifies the post-9/11 USA as a seductive, manipulative but brutally wronged neighbour. In Richard Marsh’s 2007, two Guantanamo guards find themselves in thrall to an inmate’s superior knowledge of the final Harry Potter book.

Surprisingly, despite suspicion of Muslims and Middle Eastern peoples dictating many powerful countries’ foreign policy, and despite the landmark election of the USA’s first black President, race is hardly touched upon. Marsh’s inmate Khaliq (Sartaj Garewal) comments briefly on the consequences of assuming certain people are all the same, but it’s left to Rex Obano to tackle race single-handedly in 2009 – a task he accomplishes defiantly, though not without the odd flop in onstage energy.

The quality of the writing is consistently high enough that, without the programme, it’s difficult to distinguish the seasoned pros from the unknowns. Newcomer Nimer Rashed struggles to find an original angle on 9/11, but still outdoes Market Boy writer David Eldridge’s limp offering (though Eldridge’s scene isn’t helped by weak, overly static direction from Gene David Kirk). Amy Rosenthal and April de Angelis both deliver strong, pacey, dialogue-driven contributions, but so too does the unproduced Richard Marsh. Beth Steel delivers more meaning via her surrealism than Phil Porter’s weird, overwrought piece.

The finished product – cemented together with period pop music and news headlines – is a dreamlike reassemblage of half-faded memories. Not a complete picture of the decade by any means, but a more potent epitaph by far than the kind of bland, Jimmy-Carr-hosted nostalgia thrown together for TV.

Written by April de Angelis, David Eldridge, Fraser Grace, Richard Marsh, Rex Obano, Phil Porter, Lou Ramsden, Nimer Rashed, Amy Rosenthal and Beth Steel

Crew includes Jessica Beck, Anthony Biggs, Gemma Farlie, Antonio Ferrara, Steve Harper, Gene David Kirk, Tim Roseman and Charlotte Westenra (directors)

Cast includes Victoria Bavister, Phil Brodie, Jamie de Courcey, Sartaj Garewal, Vincent Jerome, Jamal Noland and Henry Steele

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17 November, 2009

Public Property

Trafalgar Studios, 16 November – 5 December 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

At first glance, Public Property is a boilerplate Trafalgar Studio 2 production. Recognisable faces: check (Robert Daws, Nigel Harman and even Stephen Fry, phoning it in via vid-cameo). Humour that doesn’t tax the brain: check (sight gags and comic situational escalation best enjoyed after a glass of wine in the bar). Skilled but slightly overly wordy scriptwriting: check (courtesy of Sam Peter Jackson).

On closer inspection, however, this is something of a rare find: a play about three gay men in which the characters’ sexuality is almost incidental, an extra thematic layer rather than the piece’s raison d’être.

Daws is celebrated newsreader Geoffrey Hammond, who throws himself on the mercy of his ruthless publicist, Larry De Vries (Harman) after being caught by paparrazzi in flagrante delicto with 16-year-old Jamie (Steven Webb). Geoff does protest once or twice that the press wouldn’t be interested if Jamie had been a girl, but the play is more concerned with celebrity, PR and fickle public goodwill than “LGBTQ issues”. Geoff knows, despite his protestations of innocence, that this incident matters more to his reputation than any number of broadcasting gongs, and even Larry is branded repeatedly by his lowest point: the media only remembers him for being booted off the judging panel of a failed reality show.

It’s often difficult to feel any sympathy towards Geoff, who really has only his own indiscretion to blame for his downfall, but Daws does an excellent job of showing the desperation behind the bluster, and his raw vulnerability when talking to or about his offstage lover Paul provides the production’s tenderest moments. Harman is believable whether smooth-talking and in control or plain incredulous at his client’s behaviour, though he flips a little too easily between the two modes, and reacts so little to mentions of Larry’s debts and vices that they seem more a throwaway subplot than an integral part of the character’s backstory.

Jackson’s script, too, is generally sound, though a bit baggy towards the end of Act One, and overly reliant on the repeat-repeat louder-shout-shout-pause formula for writing arguments. Like most Studio 2 shows, Public Property has its flaws, but is still a satisfying enough night out; and it boasts the additional merit of sidestepping the damaging and judgmental “gay play” label which, given its premise, it could easily have been slapped with.

Written by Sam Peter Jackson

Crew includes Hanna Berrigan (director) and Helen Goddard (designer)

Cast includes Robert Daws (Geoffrey Hammond), Nigel Harman (Larry De Vries) and Steven Webb (Jamie Sullivan)

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27 September, 2009

Orestes: Re-Examined

Southwark Playhouse, 16 September – 3 October 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The downtrodden women of Argos have imprisoned Prince Orestes, murderer of the adulterous Queen Clytaemnestra, and kidnapped the delegates from the Argos Regeneration conference – the audience – to act as his jury. The women are the prosecution; Menelaus, brother to Orestes’ murdered father Agamemnon, is counsel for the defence; Athena, representative of the Global Justice Commission, presides over proceedings; and Orestes’ fate will be determined by a simple majority, in the style of Ancient Greek democracy (except that women get a vote as well).

The major problem with asking the audience to act as jury is that they know it isn’t real. However engaging the production is, however well immersed they become into its world, they still know no one is really going to die as a result of their vote, and so the whole exercise becomes a purely academic one.

Full Tilt address this issue by showing the audience the consequences of their decision in a brief but emotive coda. And while the point still stands that said consequences aren’t real, and no one in the audience is going to endure a lifetime of guilt over them, the vote and the coda act as a live demonstration of themes that are repeated and reinforced throughout the production.

Orestes believed he was carrying out justice when he killed his mother the Queen, but he failed to foresee the injustice his actions would heap upon her subjects. The women believe they are carrying out justice by punishing Orestes for his crime, but they turn to kidnapping and other acts of terror in order to do so. And finally, the audience declares what the majority believe to be just, and is in turn brought face to face with the injustice that decision brings about.

It isn’t an easy decision, either; Full Tilt layer the apparently black-and-white issue of matricide with class and gender issues, so that far from simply passing judgement on Orestes, the audience must also pick sides in much weightier debates. Both sides constantly spout self-righteous dogma, either with victimised vitriol or phony PR smiles, so it’s difficult if not impossible to develop sympathy towards either party’s plight. They also hammer home their arguments with a degree of repetition that reinforces the issues only up to a point, after which its rhetorical value is exhausted and it begins to feel like Chinese water torture.

Of course the audience still won’t put in as much thought as they would if lives really were on the line, but Full Tilt ensure that the issues are sufficiently complex that even making an arbitrary decision requires a modicum of reflection – which forces each audience member to define, in whatever small way, their own idea of justice. While you won’t leave wracked with guilt, you may leave knowing yourself a little better.

Written by Full Tilt after Aeschylus

Crew includes Emma Gersch (director), Alexie Kharibian (designer), Alex Musgrave (lighting), Kitty Randle (movement) and Katherine Hare (composer)

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24 September, 2009

Mother Courage and Her Children

National Theatre, 16 September – 8 December 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The prospect of staging Brecht’s work on the Olivier Stage is similar to the prospect of flying an aeroplane backwards. Though in theory the vehicle is a tool designed to go where you tell it to, in practice there are certain manoeuvres it’s structurally unsuited to perform.

Brecht dictated that his plays be staged with no frills. But any director given the run of the Olivier can be forgiven for wanting to actually use the facilities on offer. It isn’t yielding to temptation, it’s making the most of a rare opportunity.

Like a glass-panelled clock, Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and Her Children doesn’t just choose not to conceal its inner workings, it displays them, inviting the audience to marvel at the way the pieces fit together. During one musical number Courage (Fiona Shaw) drags an ASM, already quite visible at the edge of one wing, fully onto the stage, where she dances briefly with the announcer (who also dances little jigs in the scene changes), and during the interval the second act’s placards fly in and out, in and out, as if the winches are being tested.

Not trusting the audience to be satisfied with the real backstage goings-on of a National Theatre production, Warner treats us to a self-conscious, theatricalised version of them. What we see is more bustling and disorganised than backstage in any theatre I’ve worked in; a theatre workers’ self-portrait that magnifies every insignificant pimple.

Revealing the production’s nuts and bolts works as Brecht intended, removing the emotional smokescreen that prevents critical engagement with the play; but theatricalising and calling attention to the backstage business just replaces the smokescreen with blinkers, creating a parallel drama that competes with the more important one centre stage.

Written by Beltolt Brecht (translated by Tony Kushner)

Crew includes Deborah Warner (director), Duke Special (songs) and Mel Mercier (musicscape)

Cast includes Stephen Kennedy (The Chaplain) Martin Marquez (The Cook), Harry Melling (Swiss Cheese), Charlotte Randle (Yvette), Clifford Samuel (Eilif), Fiona Shaw (Mother Courage) and Sophie Stone (Kattrin)

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