Posts tagged ‘natasha tripney’

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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14 May, 2010

The Human Computer

Will Adamsdale in The Human Computer

Will Adamsdale in The Human Computer. Image by Sheila Burnett

Battersea Arts Centre, 12 – 15 May 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

What must we all look like, staring into our screens, Googling and Facebooking and Twittering? Only one man has the perspective to tell us, and the only way he knows how to tell us is with props cobbled together out of cardboard and masking tape.

Will Adamsdale is 36, and didn’t send his first email until the year 2005. The Human Computer is both a confession and a defence of his IT incompetence, and an attempt at both confrontation and reconciliation with his whirring, beeping nemesis.

It’s also a clumsy, ramshackle mess of a show, as scrappily constructed as the cardboard cursors and dialog boxes he wields and flings around the stage.

There is a rough three-act structure lurking under all the pasted-on stuff and business. The first, a sort of stand-up routine recounting Adamsdale’s history of stubbornly avoiding technology, is not the most engaging possible opening, and in hindsight appears to exist mainly to set up gags that will pay off later.

The second act, in which Adamsdale transforms the stage into a cardboard computer screen and invites the audience – armed with a pointer on a stick – to browse his hard drive for anecdotes, songs and silly dances, is simply inspired. As if his pitch-perfect satire of the Windows startup sequence wasn’t enough, there’s also the guiltily, gleefully enjoyable potential for the audience to catch the performer out, to overclock him or simply make him squirm – and his ‘programs’ are amongst the most genuinely funny material in the show.

As for the final third – well, imagine Tron, as written and performed by a Luddite with an unlimited supply of corrugated card and felt-tip pens, and you’re approaching the right idea.

The rickety construction of both the stage and the script is clearly deliberate, and for much of the show it actually holds together surprisingly well considering the whole thing’s propped up on charm and positive thinking. But inevitably there comes a moment when Adamsdale’s energy lets up just long enough for the audience to breathe, take a step back and gain some perspective; and in that moment the show is lost, because perspective unhelpfully reminds us that, theatrical or not, what we’re actually seeing is not a human computer but a man waving a cardboard arrow and talking like Tim Nice But Dim.

Written by Will Adamsdale

Crew includes Kate McGrath (dramaturg)

Cast includes Will Adamsdale (himself, various)

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6 March, 2010


Battersea Arts Centre, 2 – 20 & 25 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

A charitable movie reviewer might describe Return as “beautifully shot”. It’s one of those low-budget British films so beloved of awards committees, in which nothing very much happens but every frame is painstakingly composed, every close-up and gradual fade-through-black marinaded in a rich sense of atmosphere and place.

Its saving grace – unless you enjoy that kind of film, if “enjoy” is the word – is that it’s communicated not via projector and silver screen, but by affable spoken-word artist Polarbear, who describes the shots, cuts and sets, and speaks the dialogue. Everything from the text to the staging is pared back to allow maximum space for imaginative interpretation and visualisation: this film is projected direct into our heads.

It’s at once a consummately individual and a community experience. Unlike in the cinema, every member of the audience “sees” a different product, tinting and skewing the skeletal structure Polarbear provides with their own memories and prejudices. But his screenplay-inspired language is inherently inclusive, dependent as is it on the pronoun “we”: “We start with a close-up”, “We zoom through the windscreen”.

Given all of the above, Return ought to be considerably more engrossing than it is. The problem is that the “film” itself is less interesting than the way it’s presented.

It concerns Noah, a young man who once ascribed all his problems to his location, subsequently escaped, and on returning finds himself appalled by how little has changed, but affronted by those things that have. Even though Noah’s experience is common and relatable, and his sniping, pop-culture-rich rapport with his college drop-out brother is warmly and incisively observed, having Polarbear narrate the film is still preferable to seeing it on screen. Return is, in other words, a successful spoken-word adaptation of a sadly unsuccessful film.

Written by Polarbear

Crew includes Yael Shavit (director/script development), Marie Blunck (designer) and Mark Howland (lighting)

Cast includes Polarbear

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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 September, 2009

Punk Rock

Lyric Hammersmith, 3 – 26 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Each scene of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock is abruptly curtailed by an uncomfortably loud belch of feedback and a mangled excerpt from a rock song. By the second hour, each of these sonic interjections sends ripples of uneasy laughter through the stalls. The whole audience is on edge, braced for a shock. Stephens’ clutch of Stockport sixth formers, seen between lessons in Paul Wills’ towering, forbidding onstage library, seem incapable of reining in the impulse to probe and prod and push one another’s boundaries; everyone in the auditorium can tell someone’s going to snap.

By the time the anticipated act of violence occurs, Stephens has laid out a whole smorgasbord of potential contributing factors: unrequited teenage love; body image issues; the spectre of trouble at home; alcohol; an environment in which parents and teachers allow sixth formers to believe a C grade in an English mock means they’ll “never get out of Stockport”; plus Bennet Francis (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a bully whose aloof disregard for those he hurts is worse by far than actual malice, and whose effect on the group debunks with ease that maxim about sticks and stones so beloved of adult authority figures.

Yet Stephens’ real achievement is that despite all the factors presented to us, when our minds reach, as they tend to do, for a simple, catch-all way to explain the tragedy, there isn’t one. It doesn’t even feel satisfactory to conclude, “it was probably a combination of all those things”.

As an examination of the overly simplistic adult tendency to classify teenage behaviour as the direct result of easily identifiable causes like alcohol, pornography and violent media, Punk Rock delivers; though no alternative theory is forthcoming, unless you count, “some people are just broken”.

Stephens’ love of language carries him away into the odd overwrought line, and Director Sarah Frankcom’s love of Stephens’ language leads to characters delivering extended passages straight out front, while the characters they’re supposedly addressing slouch behind them in a symmetrical chorus-line chevron. The script is excellent – funny in a terrifying and guilt-ridden kind of way – and it deserves to be placed centre stage, but such unnatural blocking actually distracts from the words. Or is that too simple, too immediate an explanation…?

Written by Simon Stephens

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

Cast includes Nicholas Banks (Nicholas Chatman), Ghazaleh Golpira (Lucy Francis), Henry Lloyd-Hughes (Bennet Francis), Harry McEntire (Chadwick Meade), Jessica Raine (Lilly Cahill), Tom Sturridge (William Carlisle), Katie West (Tanya Gleason), Simon Wolfe (Dr Richard Harvey) and Sophie Wu (Cissy Franks)

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18 July, 2009

The Container

Young Vic, 15 – 30 July 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

If you manage to get a ticket for Clare Bayley’s The Container – and with a capacity of just 28 per performance, that’ll make you part of a fairly exclusive group – first check the weather forecast, and pray for rain.

Staged in a freight container parked outside the Young Vic, The Container simulates the experience of illegal immigration aboard a long-haul lorry. Inside it’s pitch dark and smells slightly musty (avoid this production if you’re claustrophobic or afraid of the dark).

The whole space rumbles and vibrates to create a convincing illusion of movement, the result of designer Naomi Dawson and sound designer Adrienne Quartly’s combined technical efforts. That vibration creeps into your body, through the floor and the uncomfortable wooden crates that serve as seats, and sets your guts squirming.

Compound the rumbling and mustiness and darkness with heavy rain, rattling relentlessly on the container’s roof and sides, and the word ‘tense’ begins to sound woefully inadequate. The sound of rain makes the space feel even smaller, and requires the cast to raise their voices, which has a much greater effect in a metal box than it would have on stage.

It’s also a constant reminder of how hostile the outside world is to the characters, all of whom are braving unscrupulous traffickers and European police to escape war, oppression and refugee camps. The door is locked from the outside, forcing the characters – and the audience – to trust sporadic reports from a threatening Agent (Chris Spyrides) concerned more with putting one over on the authorities than with their wellbeing.

The Container is deserving of its Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award simply for its lateral-thinking approach to altering British perceptions of asylum seekers. Rather than try to release immigrants from their pigeonhole, the play puts the British public right in there with them.

Written by Clare Bayley

Crew includes Tom Wright (director), Naomi Dawson (designer) and Adrienne Quartly (sound designer)

Cast includes Amber Agar (Mariam), Doreene Blackstock (Fatima), Abhin Galeya (Jemal), Hassani Shapi (Ahmed) and Chris Spyrides (Agent)

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20 June, 2009

Derren Brown: Enigma

Adelphi Theatre, 18 June – 18 July 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Only at a Derren Brown show could I have ended up standing on stage in a curtained cabinet with a bag on my head. Only at a Derren Brown show could someone in that position have been the envy of nearly the entire Adelphi Theatre audience.

Brown is enough of a household name that I probably don’t have to explain what it is he does (just as well, since I’m sworn to secrecy on the specifics). Suffice to say a good deal of what happens on stage during Enigma is baffling to the point of being unsettling.

Yet when he flings frisbees into the audience – a random method for picking volunteers – a Mexican wave of hands shoots up in its wake. Everyone’s eager to be unsettled personally by Brown. That isn’t to say he’s lost his spooky edge, just that the more famous he becomes, the more people are excited rather than disturbed by his act.

The mere mention of placing the audience in a trance state is still enough to scare a few people away in the interval. Those that remain react mostly with laughter as he toys with his entranced volunteers, but certain stunts – the ones that place the sleepwalking participants in physical danger, or appear to – are greeted with concerned silence.

Luckily, the only indication that Brown might be going mad with power is his patter, which gets a little snarkier with every live show. If he were a stand-up comedian, some of the lines he throws out would get him labelled lowbrow or puerile, but who’s going to challenge a master mentalist if he claims the five random words you provide are evidence of deviant sexual appetites?

Brown’s live performance is still utterly, awe-inspiringly mystifying, and that accolade is magnified when you consider the fairly limited repertoire of the traditional mentalist. As well as refreshing old faithful techniques with new vehicles – in this case, a version of children’s game Guess Who – he’s recharged his palette with new material gleaned from international sources, forcing himself not to rely solely on his tried-and-tested talent for reading body language.

Even with a privileged close-up view, a critic’s eye, a background in technical theatre and a glimpse of something I’m not sure I was supposed to see, I can’t come up with one cohesive, rational and plausible explanation for what I experienced on stage during Enigma.

But since Brown is, as always, adamant that the psychics and mediums that performed the tricks before him were all a bunch of frauds, the answer can’t be that the spirits did it. The answer is that Derren Brown did it. If anything, that’s more impressive – and more unsettling.

Written by Derren Brown and Andy Nyman

Crew includes Andy Nyman (director)

Cast includes Derren Brown

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17 June, 2009

The Mountaintop

Theatre 503, 9 June – 4 July 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

In this imagining of Martin Luther King Jr’s last night alive, award-winning young American playwright Katori Hall boldly combines hard historical fact and in-depth character study with a comparatively barmy supernatural twist. It’s a volatile concoction that could corrode the credibility of a lesser play, but which instead provides an already dynamic production with a surging second-stage boost.

The man in the King’s shoes is David Harewood, who seems to be aiming for a career playing inspirational black leaders (he’ll soon appear on TV as Nelson Mandela). Harewood convincingly recreates the booms, swoops and tremulous vibrato of King’s legendary oratory, maintaining the vocal cadence of a preacher even alone in the privacy of his motel room. He evokes a man consumed continually by a struggle he ironically believes he alone can carry to conclusion.

He’s matched and challenged by Lorraine Burroughs as motel maid Camae, who surprises King with her views – rooted in the same beliefs as his own, but a step removed in their conclusions – and by proving no mean orator herself. Her presence brings out King’s roving eye and patriarchal views to contrast his civil rights work, which makes for much more interesting theatre than a blindly reverent onstage beatification.

Camae is also the crux of that sudden supernatural gear-change, which, far from derailing the play, not only provides some unexpectedly surreal and comic moments (mostly involving one-sided telephone conversations) but also allows us to experience anew through King’s eyes events he didn’t live to see. Thus The Mountaintop is upgraded from period character study to a history with an immediate bearing on the modern world, drawing causal links between the life and death of King and the appointment of Barack Obama to the White House.

Written by Katori Hall

Crew includes James Dacre (director), Libby Watson (designer), Emma Chapman (lighting designer), Richard Hammarton (sound designer) and Dick Straker of Mesmer (video designer)

Cast includes Lorraine Burroughs (Camae) and David Harewood (King)

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16 May, 2009

Ordinary Dreams (Or, How to Survive a Meltdown with Flair)

Trafalgar Studios, 12 May – 6 June 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

There’s a crisis pupating on the streets of Great Britain. The name of that crisis is Middle Class Extremism, also known as Bourgeois Fundamentalism.

Marcus Markou pins down the causes and symptoms of this terrible social malaise in his new play Ordinary Dreams (Or, How to Survive a Meltdown with Flair). Staged in a West End theatre, traditional haunt of the middle classes, the play is perfectly situated to speak to those most at risk.

Markou’s case study is Miles (James Lance). Until the birth of his first child, Miles is just your average worrier. But terrified for his newborn, whom he feels powerless to protect from bailout debt, broken glass and blue language, Miles snaps and starts chasing local youths down the road with a candlestick.

Markou may not actually have intended his play as an examination of an ordinary, middle-ground thinker’s conversion to rabid right-wingery, but that’s how Miles’s arc seems to function, and he’s the main character. His wife Penny (Imogen Slaughter), uni mate Dan (Adrian Bower) and Dan’s girlfriend Layla (Sia Berkeley) all have plotlines of their own, but Miles is the only character whose dreams we see enacted on stage.

In Miles’s fantasies, he’s running for Prime Minister on an ‘ordinary man’ ticket, with exciting music and a PA who says things like “you can have me any time you want”. All four actors’ performances are actually more convincing for being played large, and the unreality of the situation excuses Markou’s less speakable lines (of which there are few, but which jar noticeably when they occur in ‘reality’).

Outside Miles’s head, the story is uninspiringly standard soap-opera stuff. Dan and Penny have history that looks set to recur, and Layla exists mainly to unintentionally needle Penny (though credit to Berkeley, who manages to make engaging a character who could easily become chirpily grating).

Miles snaps because reality can’t live up even to his modest ideals; similarly, for the audience, reality can’t compare to fantasy. If he’s not careful, Markou might find his play spawns auditoria full of Middle Class Extremists.

Written by Marcus Markou

Crew includes Adam Barnard (director), Vicki Fifield (designer), Mike Robertson (lighting designer) and Steve Mayo (sound designer)

Cast includes Sia Berkeley (Layla), Adrian Bower (Dan), James Lance (Miles) and Imogen Slaughter (Penny)

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12 February, 2009

England People Very Nice

National Theatre, 4 February – 30 April 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The National Theatre is billing England People Very Nice, the first show of 2009 to offer Travelex £10 tickets, as playwright Richard Bean’s state-of-the-nation play. Well, according to Bean, the state of the nation is the same as always: reactionary and xenophobic.

Covering four waves of immigration – French Huguenots, Irish, Jews and Bangladeshis – Bean points a flashing neon finger the size of the Olivier Theatre at our national tendency towards intolerance.

The play does a great job putting the problems of today’s multicultural London in perspective, as each generation of immigrants eventually integrates into British life and then takes its turn oppressing the next. It’s enough to make anyone wonder why we’re still considered a go-to nation for anyone fleeing persecution and adversity.

Yet Bean somehow houses this damning admonishment in an epic, centuries-spanning romantic comedy, throughout which the successive reincarnations of a pair of lovers try again and again to love one another despite cultural divides and running gags. And as if that plot weren’t enough, it is itself embedded in a fairly iffy piece of metatheatre.

The immigrants in the detention centre in 2009, you see, have devised the centuries-spanning romantic comedy while waiting on their applications for leave to remain. At its best, this framing device salts the open wound of British hypocrisy: citizenship exams, testing the loyalty of potential immigrants to the nation that banged them up as soon as they arrived? Such exquisite irony. So quintessentially British.

But the cynic in me can’t help seeing the play-within-a-play as a Get Out Of Jail Free card Bean dealt to himself under the table, allowing him to neatly sidestep criticism with the excuse, “that’s how the characters would have devised it.” And at its worst, the device is a megaphone through which Bean can announce (in case we’re a little slow on the uptake) that it doesn’t matter if a character lives through the Blitz and still looks twenty-five in 2009, because that’s the magic of theatre.

The comedy does work. It tempers the worthier observations and keeps the play from turning into art as social work for the nation. So does the star-cross’d romance. After all, the truest measure of a country’s receptiveness to new cultures is the rate of intermarriage. But I don’t need Olivia Colman’s immigration officer Philippa to face front and tell me so before I can appreciate the point.

Bean could do with worrying a little less about whether people will pick up on his meaning. It’s clear enough without all the highlighting, and in overclarifying himself, he runs the risk of closing down alternative interpretations, yanking the subtext into the foreground and robbing the play of depth.

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Nicholas Hytner (director), Mark Thompson (designer), Pete Bishop (director of animation), Neil Austin (lighting designer), Grant Olding (music) and Scarlett Mackmin (choreographer)

Cast includes Olivia Colman (Philippa/Anne O’Neill/Camilla), Sacha Dhawan (Norfolk Danny/Carlo/Aaron/Mushi), Trevor Laird (Yayah/Rennie), Aaron Neil (Iqbal/De Gascoigne/John O’Neill/Chief Rabbi/Attar/Imam), Sophie Stanton (Sanya/Ida) and Michelle Terry (Camille/Mary/Black Ruth/Deborah)

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