Posts tagged ‘london theatre blog’

12 March, 2010


Recorded at Crofton Lodge for the London Theatre Blog, 5 March 2010

In which I talk to the artists and organisers of Home, a pop-up installation and performance art event staged in a Regency mansion in residential Penge, London.

Interviewees include Simon Cummin (producer, SJC Productions), Lotty Englishby (director, Derelict), Owen Michael Johnson (artist, Accent UK Comics), Ellie Pitkin (artistic director, The Sans Walk Project) and Lara Stavrinou (writer, Derelict)

You can listen to this podcast using the player below.

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

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

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?

27 November, 2009

Belt Up, Tim Crouch and breach of contract

Written for The Collective Review, 27 November 2009

At this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, Belt Up premiered a new piece of experimental theatre called Leasspell. It involved the company and audience standing together for half an hour, all blindfolded and telling one another love stories. While Belt Up themselves readily admit that Leasspell was not the most successful of experiments, it did raise certain issues that the company explored further this week in a discussion event charmingly titled ‘Chatting Shit: Immersive Theatre and the Actor/Audience Contract’.

I was particularly interested when the discussion – held in a remote attic of the BAC and, thanks to short notice and a start time that fell during office hours, attended mostly by BAC staff – turned to the work of Tim Crouch, having seen the self-proclaimed “darling of the universities” in conversation with playwright and lecturer Dan Rebellato only the previous day, at Royal Holloway University.

In The Author, which I felt pretty favourably about when I reviewed it for the London Theatre Blog, Crouch and his three co-performers repeatedly encourage the audience to contribute. We’re asked, again and again, “Is this okay?’ or “Do you want me to stop?” or “You say something”. At one point, a performer is uncomfortably hot-seated, in character as a survivor of sexual abuse; the sequence ends with the appeal, “Would anyone else like to ask Karen any questions?”

But when members of the audience respond to this encouragement they are ignored. If someone says yes, they would like Crouch to stop, he continues regardless. If someone fires a question at Karen she remains resolutely mute, and after a pause the play continues. And in conversation with Professor Rebellato, Crouch insisted that there is no space in the play for audience participation, claimed not to understand why anyone would continue Karen’s interrogation, and likened the audience’s desire to contribute to a prima donna actor demanding space to improvise in Shakespeare or Beckett.

The consensus amongst the Chatting Shit attendees was that by inviting the audience to speak, the cast of The Author implicitly alter the actor/audience contract that exists in ‘traditional’ or ’straight’ theatre, whereby the actors act and the audience passively observe. Belt Up create similar implicit contracts when the cast of The Tartuffe mingle and chat with the audience in the bar pre-show, or when they adorn the audience with hats and neckerchiefs at the beginning of The Park Keeper. Symbolically loaded actions such as these inform the audience that the show’s boundaries are not in the usual place, and that the environment they’re entering is more permissive.

So are Crouch and his co-performers in breach of contract when they refuse to respond to audience contributions that they have explicitly invited? Similar questions have been asked of Ontroerend Goed, in whose Festival Fringe smash Internal punters confide personal secrets to performers in intimate one-on-one encounters, then sit helpless as their confidants pass on the information in group discussions.

The difference, as far as the Chatting Shit participants could discern, is one of dramatic intent. It was felt that Ontroerend Goed’s dramatic intent is clear: Internal is an interrogation of emotional openness and vulnerability and, most importantly, you get out what you put in; your humiliation extends only so far as you willingly bared your soul in the one-on-one.

The dramatic intent behind The Author, on the other hands, seems to be to get a habitually passive audience to speak up against onstage events that they find morally offensive, but in actual fact, Crouch seethes behind his smile when members of the audience question Karen, feeling that they are perpetrating an act of abuse. But it’s the contract that he, as both a playwright and a performer, implicitly creates between himself and the audience – the permissive environment woven by the words he wrote – that permits this act of abuse to occur. So really, he should be seething at himself.

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)

Need a second opinion?

2 October, 2009

The Author

Royal Court Theatre, 23 Sept – 24 October 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Tim Crouch ’s The Author is a bitter little pill, too heavily sugared and something of a kill or cure.

Up until the final 15 minutes it’s a curiosity, an experiment for experimentation’s sake. We, the audience, are both stage and set dressing. Adrian, the archetypal gushing theatre enthusiast, speaks up from among our ranks, encouraging conversation, an exchange of views. Other performers, including Crouch himself, playing himself, reveal themselves in our midst one by one. Between them they recount a story surrounding a fictional production staged by Crouch.

Except they aren’t just relating their experiences of this notional production: an in-yer-face affair crammed with violence and abuse that has caused audience members both to walk and to pass out. They’re apologising for their part in it. Apologising to us, the audience, because theatre makers are beholden to their audiences. They need us, the consumers of their art, to understand their intentions and to forgive them.

And until those final 15 minutes that’s all The Author is: an acknowledgement of the absolute power the audience wields, seasoned with interrogations of the audience’s ingrained reluctance to exercise that power, to intervene in events onstage, however reprehensible they find them. It’s all necessary to prime us for what comes next, but it takes its sweet time doing so, and in the meantime it all feels a bit insular, a bit inconsequential, even a bit masturbatory: the mores of the theatre being discussed, by theatre makers, through the medium of theatre, using a fictional piece of theatre as an allegory, to theatregoers.

Then comes the turnaround, and in those final 15 minutes The Author is revealed for what it has really been all along: a daring act of self-flagellation by Crouch on behalf of provocative art and controversial artists. Personally present, without the ablative armour of a fictional character, and having questioned for over an hour why audiences choose not to act against onstage villainy, the playwright reveals himself as the worst kind of villain, or at least the most easily demonised. There’s nothing insular or inconsequential about his closing monologue, delivered to a pitch-dark auditorium – and yes, people sitting close to him do plead with him to stop, though not forcefully enough for him actually to do so.

The medicinal value of this bitter little pill remains to be seen. If next month The Stage reports mass walk-outs and stage invasions at Sarah Kane revivals, we’ll know it had some effect; but I suspect the thick sugary coating may well interfere with the active ingredients, and a few patients will undoubtedly refuse to swallow the pill at all.

Written by Tim Crouch

Crew includes Karl James and a smith (directors), Matt Drury (lighting designer) and Ben & Max Ringham (music & sound designers)

Cast includes Tim Crouch, Adrian Howells, Vic Llewellyn and Esther Smith (themselves)

Need a second opinion?

2 October, 2009


New SHUNT Space, 30 September – 22 December 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The machine fills the New SHUNT Space from floor to ceiling. It clanks, rumbles, whooshes steam and gushes water. The specifics of how it works and what it does are stubbornly obscure from within as well as without. In that regard, it’s a bit like investment banking.

Bear with the comparison. Provided you’re willing to risk a few unaided leaps of logic, it does eventually make a surprising amount of sense. (In that regard, it’s a bit like the production staged inside the machine: Money, a SHUNT event inspired by Émile Zola’s novel L’Argent.)

The machine is the undisputed star of the production, which, after a few deliberately confusing false-starts, eventually reveals itself as a parable about the dangers of stock market speculation. As a performance space, the machine is constantly, wondrously surprising; just when it seems it has nothing left up its sleeve, whole new rooms emerge from under ingenious camouflage.

Its steampunk pistons and flywheels also drive the plot, such as it is; we, the audience, are speculators suckered by the smug Saccard into investing in the machine, despite neither him nor us knowing what it does. SHUNT’s playful sense of humour goes to work here, as we’re shown a gallery of ‘artist’s impressions of the future’ – Photoshopped images of the machine in the desert, coasting along railway tracks or perched halfway up a mountain.

The production itself is a series of disjointed scenes and encounters, ranging from the Kafka-esque (as Saccard pitches his ‘vision’ to eccentric business moguls who entertain guests only in the sauna, or travel only by footcycle) to the Python-esque (as Saccard turns a board meeting into a blackly comic game of condolence one-upmanship) to the weirdly voyeuristic (as we sip champagne and observe events occurring two storeys below, through two layers of plate glass).

Each individual scene is entertaining, often humorous, but it’s difficult to identify the purpose of the whole by examining the parts, and a certain amount of imagination is required to fill in the blanks. In that regard, it’s a bit like the machine itself; and the machine itself, as I’ve mentioned, is a bit like investment banking. It’s inhabited both by presentable official staff and by unacknowledged, sinister unknowns. It has levels and mechanisms that aren’t revealed until the very end. And as it barrels towards disaster, the obvious exits are sealed off, forcing those foresighted few to abandon ship by less conventional means.

Written by SHUNT Collective after Émile Zola

Crew includes Francesca Peschier (scenic artist), George Tomlinson (head of construction) and Paul Ross (chief carpenter)

Cast includes Serena Bobowski, Gemma Brockis, Lizzie Clachan, Louisa Mari, Hannah Ringham, Layla Rosa, David Rosenberg, Andrew Rutland, Mischa Twitchin and Heather Uprichard

Need a second opinion?

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)

Need a second opinion?

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)

Need a second opinion?

21 September, 2009

Scratch Festival

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 11 September 2009

Battersea Arts Centre’s Scratch nights have always been about risk-taking and experimentation, and with Freshly Scratched – one of the two parallel programmes in this year’s Scratch Festival – the venue’s staff are taking almost as big a risk as the audiences and performers.

The scratches – ten-minute conceptual pieces and works in progress – that comprise Freshly Scratched have been selected purely on the basis of written applications. So though the event’s curators presumably have some inkling of the sort of thing in store, when it comes to opening night they’re in the same boat as the public: experiencing the acts for the first time. What little foreknowledge they have is offset by the greater risk they’re taking; while the audience risks just £5 each on the unknown quality of the acts, the organisers stake their reputations as judges of artistic quality.

On the festival’s first long weekend we’re treated to a wordless bromance enacted between two skinny white men with moustaches, tethered by guy ropes to opposite ends of a ridgepole tent; the surprisingly gripping spectacle of most of a tin of treacle dripping slowly down the trembling back of a naked man; a group of people narrating their losing battle with gravity; and to fellow audience members forced to abandon their roles as passive spectators and physically ward off a performer’s intimate advances.

It’s exhilarating to see the curator stand up following a performance and exhibit the same breathless uncertainty the audience is feeling. Because the BAC’s staff lead by example and don’t leave all the risk-taking up to the artists, the BAC becomes an environment in which risk-taking is the norm, and acts must push more boundaries than anywhere else in order to appear more than usually innovative.

And this is only the first round of this year’s Freshly Scratched: while these scratches are themed around Reasons for Living, the next two weeks will feature acts inspired by Democracy and by David Lynch. So it isn’t too late to share that opening night sensawunda with the people who make it all possible.

Not only that, but the Festival also incorporates the Graduates Festival strand, showcasing an assortment of talent hand-picked from the graduating classes of experimental theatre courses nationwide – including a live video installation in the bar, the chance to communicate with yourself in the year 2014, and a particularly intense and exhilarating example of audio-directed performance. I challenge anyone to find a similar volume of similarly brave art for £5 a ticket.