Posts tagged ‘honour bayes’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

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)

Need a second opinion?

11 July, 2010

One-on-One Festival

Abigail Conway in On Dancefloors, One-on-One Festival

Abigail Conway in On Dancefloors, One-on-One Festival. Image courtesy of Mobius Industries

Battersea Arts Centre, 6 – 18 July 2010

Written for the British Theatre Guide

The One-on-One Festival is a coming of age ceremony, celebrating the graduation of the one-on-one encounter from experiment to bona fide artistic genre. That the symbolically removed training wheels are replaced surreptitiously with alternative support arrangements is not necessarily an admission of weakness: some art forms are at their best when leaning on others.

Take any one-on-one encounter on an individual basis and it’s easy to see why the genre has been repeatedly accused of inherent exclusionism and insubstantiality. Encounters rarely last more than half an hour, and many little more than five minutes. For obvious logistical reasons, audience capacity is almost always severely limited.

But to consider individual examples in isolation is to be wilfully blinkered to the genre’s unique qualities – qualities the people at Battersea Arts Centre understand well, having personally supported the development of a good few practitioners through their Scratch Festivals and Supported Artist programme.

Hence no individual work is made the centrepiece of the One-on-One Festival. Instead, 30-odd artists are installed throughout the building, and a ticket gets you a sort of charm bracelet of encounters, with three appointments timetabled for you by BAC and the chance to accessorise the experience by discovering hidden extras in the interim.

Whether or not the experience satisfies therefore depends on BAC’s quasi-random allocation process, the skill of the artists and the adventurousness of the customer in roughly equal parts – which seems appropriate, given that the defining feature of one-on-one is an exchange between artist and participant.

Inevitably, with so many acts side by side, there’s still an element of exclusion: no one can see everything, and discovering something exciting only to be told you can’t experience it without an appointment is undeniably frustrating. But whereas the limited capacity of individual one-on-one works can feel unfair, like artificial scarcity calculated to drive demand, the issue here is that there’s too much to see and too little time, which is easier to deal with.

Likewise, certain of the acts are still as whimsical and weightless as spun sugar. Patrick Killoran’s Observation Deck, in which participants lie with heads and shoulders sticking out of a third-floor window for ten minutes, is something of a ‘so what?’ experience taken on its own, for example. But the One-on-One Festival experience as a whole can’t be as easily dismissed – not when it also contains Ontroerend Goed’s profoundly moving The Smile Off Your Face.

To demand that one-on-one encounters stand up to criticism when viewed in isolation is to approach them with a narrow mind. One-on-one is not theatre; the genre may have incubated in a theatrical environment but one-on-one encounters are not plays, or even necessarily performances, and it would be wrong to measure their success by theatre’s usual benchmarks.

One-on-one is collaboration. It’s exchange. It’s intimacy. It’s two people tied back to back, scaling the inside of a chimney: something neither one could do alone. Stop imagining one-on-one encounters taking place in theatres and start imagining, say, Folk in a Box installed at a music festival, or Franko B’s You Me Nothing in a modern art gallery. One-on-one will not be pigeonholed. Stop trying.

Need a second opinion?

18 June, 2010

Wild Horses

Theatre 503, 15 June – 10 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Don’t try to deviate from your designated channel through life. It only leads to heartbreak: lost friends and unfulfilled ambitions for Ellie (Jessica Clarke), the main character in Nimer Rashed’s Wild Horses, and a near-fatal final act derailment for the play itself.

Seventeen-year-old Ellie (that’s Eleanor, not Elizabeth) is welcomed gingerly back to Eastbourne after six months AWOL with an older man. Her eyes have been opened just enough to take the shine off the idea of a job in Tesco’s and two point four children with sweet but goofy on-again-off-again Darren (John Trindle).

Meanwhile the friends and family she left behind have – discourteously – failed to stay the way she left them, so she can’t even lord her new-found worldliness over them. Her Dad’s transferred his fatherly affection to Carol Vorderman, her best mate Zoe’s about to turn the tables and abandon her for the bright lights of Camp America – even Darren smokes a pipe now.

In short, Ellie would have been happier accepting the hand life dealt her, instead of chasing romance and ambition. Her guilt over disappearing makes her incapable of refusing anything she’s exhorted to promise, which leads to a string of broken oaths, until no one trusts her but the reassuring, though mysteriously recurring, Tom Kanji.

All of which is captivating enough, but though Rashed’s plot threads are many-hued and skilfully interwoven, all but one is hacked off and left to dangle. What’s more, the one that is given some closure isn’t introduced – or even really hinted at – until the final act.

What Rashed’s going for is a daring last-minute rug-pull à la Theatre503’s last big hit, The Mountaintop. Ideally the rug should be swept stylishly out from under us, exposing the glass floor below, so we realise with wonderment that all along the play was not what we unimaginatively assumed it was. What actually happens is the rug snags, and we’re left sprawled on bruised behinds, humiliated, birdies circling our heads as we squint uncomprehendingly at the Dadaist magic-eye ceiling tiles, until the play apologises, replaces the now-ragged rug and pretends the whole incident never happened.

It’s never a mistake to dare to try something bold and different. But as Ellie learns, when it turns out you were wrong, admitting it – to yourself and others – is the only way to move on.

Written by Nimer Rashed

Crew includes Nadia Latif (director) and Lorna Ritchie (designer)

Cast includes Jade Anouka (Zoe), Jessica Clarke (Ellie Porter), Amanda Daniels (Jen Porter), Tom Kanji (Dr Gupta/Satyajit/Shanti), Patrick Toomey (Paul Porter) and John Trindle (Darren)

Need a second opinion?

23 April, 2010

Austen’s Women

Rebecca Vaughan in Austen's Women

Rebecca Vaughan in Austen's Women. Image courtesy of Mobius Industries

Leicester Square Theatre, 21 April – 9 May 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The extracts that make up Austen’s Women – each one taken near enough verbatim from Jane Austen’s novels – have been selected to show off the range of adapter-performer Rebecca Vaughan’s acting ability just as much as that of Austen’s female characters.

In fact, it’s possible Vaughan prioritised keeping herself entertained, with as wide a variety of temperaments and mannerisms as possible, over celebrating Austen’s women. Though her adoration for the material is palpable, the whole 70 minute monologue has the air of an audition piece, designed to impress on an agent the performer’s versatility – and to be fair, she is versatile – in as short a time as possible.

So while we get to see Vaughan being austere as Mrs Norris, conspiratorial as Emma Woodhouse and in pieces as Marianne Dashwood all in the space of ten minutes, over the course of the fourteen extracts banal and trivial observations are disproportionately represented.

For every Mary Stanhope – who in her naivete unwittingly embodies the transactional nature of marriage at the time – there’s a Miss Bates, who prattles uninterestingly about the guests and the décor. For every socially conscious Lizzy Bennet, there’s a vacuous Diana Parker. Banality may have been women’s reluctant lot in the 18th century, but Austen is still celebrated today partly because her heroines struggled against that.

Austen was a novelist, not a dramatist, so her prose speeches aren’t guaranteed sparkling life on stage. While he successfully identifies this pitfall, director Guy Masterson solves it – as he does most things script-related – by having his star lay on the tics and mannerisms with distracting vigorousness.

Harriet Smith gets Tony Blair’s fractured diction; Mary Stanhope is noticeably blinky; Mary Musgrove and Mrs Elton both get a fan to occupy their hands; and every line is assigned a rigid pattern of pause, emphasis and acceleration that mask meaning like explanatory sticky-notes all over the pages of a novel.

Unsurprisingly the most affecting extracts are those with the least directorial interference. While Marianne’s sobbing and wailing make it hard to follow what she’s actually trying to say, the deadpan, uninflected verbal cataracts of Mrs Norris erode all obstacles between the audience and Austen’s still-enduring sentiments.

Written by Rebecca Vaughan after Jane Austen

Crew includes Guy Masterson (director) and Kate Flanaghan (costume designer & maker)

Cast includes Rebecca Vaughan (various roles)

Need a second opinion?

25 March, 2010


Southwark Playhouse, 23 – 27 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Stella is a collage of different source texts and performance styles, and a collage is not a mosaic: while the components may share a common theme, they don’t necessarily work together to create a bigger picture.

Extracts from Goethe’s original text are mingled with Firehouse’s own fast-and-loose adaptation, and with verbatim anecdotes about relationships collected from members of the public. The resulting patchwork is then presented through a mixture of straight acting, spoken-word recitation, song and physical performance.

Some of the testimony, such as one man’s story of his accidental spouse’s affair with an insect farmer, is hilarious; some is touching; but some is bland and instantly forgettable. The same is true of the show as a whole.

Any given spectator is almost guaranteed to find some component of the variety pack enjoyable. But say that, as I did, you enjoy the laid-back country-and-western vibe of the devised segments (a vibe generated almost single-handedly by Alan Cox as Ray, an irresponsible, guitar-strumming single father), you may find yourself disappointed that there isn’t more of it.

Likewise, it’s very unlikely that any given spectator will enjoy every one of the production’s disparate elements. But say that, as I did, you find the physical theatre sequences superfluous and unconvincing, you’ll probably be relieved that they’re such a small part of the show.

Throwing aside stylistic convention and uniting such disparate elements in the service of a single show is an ambitious aim, so it’s unfortunate and somewhat ironic that Firehouse appear instead to be hedging their bets; their ambition easily mistaken for indecision, Stella’s diversity for inconsistency.

The show fails – inevitably – to please all of the people all of the time, but it should please all of the people at least some of the time; and considering the two goals are mutually exclusive, one out of two isn’t bad at all.

Written by Firehouse Creative Productions after Johann Wolfgang Goethe

Crew includes Rachel Parish (director) and Will Holt (designer)

Cast includes Elizabeth Boag (Isabelle/Stella), Alan Cox (Ray), Durassie Kiangangu (Sam) and Richard Maxted (Leo)

Need a second opinion?

26 February, 2010

Alice’s Adventures in the New World

Rebecca Dunna and Ailsa Ilott in Alice's Adventures in the New World

Rebecca Dunn and Ailsa Ilott in Alice's Adventures in the New World. Image courtesy of fluff productions

Old Red Lion Theatre Pub, 23 Feb – 13 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

All-female company fluff productions are pushing an Agenda with Sarah Sigal’s Alice’s Adventures in the New World, which forsakes Carroll’s allegorical Wonderland for a dialectic quest across America in search of a literal and figurative feminist ideal. Subtle it ain’t, but it is rollicking good fun.

This alternate Alice (Ailsa Ilott), whose discombobulated naiveté hides a steely core of unassailable common sense, manages to avoid tumbling down any rabbit holes, but still runs across plenty of colourful (and instructive) characters. The object of her search is her mother: not the victim of a hunting accident at all, but rather a divorcee (gasp!) living in America.

Yes, this is the Victorian era, when accidental death really was more socially acceptable than divorce – making it the perfect setting in which to explore fluff’s gender agenda. Alice is seeking her mother to find out why she abandoned her husband and children, a question (it transpires) only answerable by asking larger questions about gender equality: is it automatically a woman’s responsibility to raise her children? and what does a woman get out of marriage anyway?

Alice never finds herself short of advice on that score. From a nymphomaniac poet, who advises forsaking polite society altogether in favour of self-gratification, to a New York debutante interested only in snaring a wealthy husband, to the sage wisdom of one Mr Wilde, Alice’s journey is a parade of entertaining archetypes.

The characters are as efficiently costumed as they are characterised: a sword-belt and epaulettes for Alice’s soldier brother Henry, for example, or an extravagant cravat for her (ahem) extravagant actor brother George, quickly clipped or strapped on over the ensemble cast’s corsets and bloomers.

But – again, like Sigal’s characterisation – what little costume designer Katherine Webb chooses to use appears to be of lavish quality. The same quality, though incredibly not the same minimalism, is evident in Lily Arnold’s set – a poignant broken proscenium propped up on piles of books, and a floor of palettes, riddled with hidden compartments, through which light glows.

Completing the Victoriana aesthetic are Phil Hewitt’s terrific period-style sound machines, cranked by musical director Amelia Cavallo in full view of the audience to evoke whistling wind, rain or a clattering train.

A combination of broad humour, pantomime-style audience involvement and music hall song and dance numbers make a non-issue of the intimidating two-and-a-half-hour running time – which leaves no excuse. Go, enjoy and be edified.

Written by Sarah Sigal

Crew includes Jessica Beck (director), Amelia Cavallo (musical direction & original compositions), Lily Arnold (set design), Katherine Webb (costume design) and Phil Hewitt (lighting design & sound machines)

Cast includes Amelia Cavallo (Mrs Fitzsimmons), Rebecca Dunn (Father/Sally/Sylvia), Ailsa Ilott (Alice), Emily North (Mary/Henry/Kitty/Masha/Mrs Aylmer) and Fiona Putnam (Father Murphy/George/Eleanor/Aunt Julia/Giles/Oscar W.)

Need a second opinion?

14 December, 2009

Lady Julia

Annabel Topham and James Kenward in Lady Julia

Annabel Topham and James Kenward in Lady Julia. Image courtesy of In The Lamplight

Hen and Chickens Theatre, 1 – 19 December 2009

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

In The Lamplight’s Lady Julia brings August Strindberg’s seminal Miss Julie bang up to date, throwing together high-born Julia (Annabel Topham) and her father’s valet John (James Kenward) on New Year’s Eve 2008. It’s possible the company are hoping to replicate the success of Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, which updated the unlikely lovers and their tragic liaison from the 1874 of Strindberg’s play to 1945, but Lady Julia takes poorly to its new 21st century context.

The daughter of a Duke (or an Earl; James and Ben Kenward’s modern vernacular translation contradicts itself on this point) having a one night stand with the hired help just isn’t the life or death matter it would have been in 1874, or even 1945. John and Julia seem more concerned with the jeers of the other household staff (who hilariously sing Ali G and Shaggy’s ‘Me Julie’ from offstage) than the media or the Duke’s reaction. Modern culture is tolerant enough of sexual indiscretion that the stakes for Julia and John never seem high enough to justify her second act histrionics. They’re certainly too low to justify suicide.

Finicky contextual details like this would be easier to overlook if the whole production were as engaging as the first act. From her first entrance, Topham asserts herself as a flighty but nonetheless confident and commanding celeb-aristo, forever drumming her fingers to dissipate nervous energy, in contrast to Kenward’s stoic John. But once the deed is done and contemporary attitudes to sex and reputation actually become relevant to their predicament, the incongruities become harder to ignore.

The downward slide begins with an incongruous physical theatre sequence, the only dramatic purpose of which seems to be to suggest the passage of time (which could be achieved with a blackout) and how John and Julia are spending it (which becomes apparent soon enough anyway). A scattershot and repetitive second act follows, in which director Gabriella Santinelli makes use of Topham’s impressive emotional range by having her change mood instantaneously every three or four lines. Each moment is believable in itself, but when strung together the impression they give is that Julia is bipolar, rather than simply tired, drunk and naturally skittish.

Amy Rhodes provides welcome relief as Christine the cook, delivering a comparatively understated and consistent performance, and refreshingly calling John out on all the bullshit Julia willingly swallows. For Strindberg, the character represented everything he despised: a peasant without aspirations to higher things. In this production, her unambitious pragmatism actually seems an attractive alternative to the others’ flights of fancy.

Written by James and Ben Kenward after August Strindberg

Crew includes Gabriella Santinelli (director)

Cast includes James Kenward (John), Amy Rhodes (Christine) and Annabel Topham (Lady Julia)

Need a second opinion?