Posts tagged ‘southwark playhouse’

25 March, 2010

Plus One Podcast: Stella

In which I discuss Firehouse Creative Productions’ radical new adaptation of Goethe’s Stella at the Southwark Playhouse with writer and performer Richard ‘Strat’ Stratton.

You can listen to this episode using the player below.

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

You can also click here to subscribe to the podcast using iTunes.

Creative Commons License
The Plus One Podcast by Matt Boothman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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?

14 January, 2010

No excuses: theatre is affordable

Written for The Collective Review, 14 January 2010

Hey, did you see Avatar?  Did you see it in 3D?  What about IMAX 3D?  What did you pay?  I paid £12.50, plus online booking fee, to see it in IMAX 3D (at the Odeon in Wimbledon, if anyone’s asking), and I was just one of millions:  millions of people who have proven themselves willing to spend £12.50 or thereabouts on an evening’s entertainment.

If you’re one of those millions, you can easily afford a night out at the theatre.  Not nearly enough people realise this.  The expense is probably the most common excuse for not attending the theatre, but if you can afford a cinema ticket – especially in London, where a peak ticket can cost up to £11 even without IMAX or 3D or other trimmings – you can afford a theatre ticket.

No one’s disputing that the West End is expensive, but there’s more to theatre than Theatreland.  And cheaper tickets don’t necessarily equate to a poorer quality product:  thanks to a sponsorship deal with Travelex, you can see certain productions at the South Bank’s National Theatre, arguably the UK’s most influential venue, for just £10.  Production values at the National rival the commercial West End, and there are no bad seats in the theatre’s vast Olivier space; the £10 view is as good as the £40 view.

A short walk from the National, in an atmospheric vault under London Bridge, you’ll find Southwark Playhouse, whose ‘airline-style’ pricing means you can get tickets for as little as £8 if you book early enough.  A little further afield, but still in Zone One, is the Royal Court, which specialises in brand new work by up-and-coming writers; on Mondays, every seat in the house costs just £10.  A lot of the Royal Court’s productions end up transferring to the West End, where top price tickets can cost five times that sum – so see them while they’re cheap!

If you want somewhere to spend the money you’ve saved on your ticket, try the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill.  It’s a tiny but very flexible space located above the Prince Albert Pub.  They specialise in new translations of foreign plays, and tickets for the first three performances of every production are just £8.

If 100-seater spaces under bridges or over pubs aren’t your idea of theatre, you could do worse than the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith; their main performance space is an impressively ornate Victorian proscenium arch, complete with stalls, circle and boxes, and they offer £10 tickets for certain performances of every production.  Or for a less baroque experience try the Almeida Theatre in Islington – cheapest tickets £8.

As if all those affordable venues weren’t enough, if you’re under 26 you can get into some of the best performances around without paying a penny, thanks to the Arts Council’s A Night Less Ordinary scheme.  Just go to, type in your postcode and you’ll find a list of theatres, including most of the ones I’ve listed above, that you’re entitled to patronise free of charge.

Understand, too, that this is just a sampler of the venues and deals on offer.  Even the West End can be affordable (ish) if you don’t mind visiting the TKTS booth in Leicester Square in person, and I’ve barely begun to cover London’s thriving and criminally overlooked pub theatre scene.  So no more excuses:  if you can afford a cinema ticket, or three pints in a London pub, you can afford a night out at the theatre.

7 November, 2009

Plus One Podcast: Belt Up at Southwark Playhouse

In which I discuss York-based immersive theatre company Belt Up’s double bill at Southwark Playhouse with one of its co-directors, James Wilkes.

Unfortunately, because my podcast host only gives me limited storage space, I’ve had to take this episode down to make room for new ones. If you’d like to listen to it, send an email to mail at mattboothman dot com with PLUS ONE 001 as the subject line, and I’ll SendSpace it to you direct.

You can also click here to subscribe to the podcast using iTunes.

Creative Commons License
The Plus One Podcast by Matt Boothman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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?

10 June, 2009

The Moon The Moon

Southwark Playhouse, 9 – 20 June 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The Moon The Moon explores, with harrowing psychological realism, our ability to harm one another even with the best of intentions. Attempting to cure the Man (Jon Spooner, who also directs) of a suicidal malaise, the Young Woman (Suzanne Ahmet) and the Older Man (Tim Chipping) progress, always with a genuine desire to do good, from an over-anxious suicide watch to drugging, incarceration and worse.

The Moon The Moon explores, with escalating surrealism, the blurred relationship between perception and reality. His memory and identity fractured by grief, the Man must choose between his human rescuers’ kill-or-cure approach and the unfathomable alternative offered by his supernatural suitor, the Moon (Helen Cassidy).

The Moon represents the Man’s memory of his wife, a dour but sentimental Scot, whom he must rediscover and petition for forgiveness before his keepers will be satisfied that he’s ready to leave the safety of his prison. Cassidy’s performance is restrained, and consequently cannot save the odd over-prolonged scene, such as when the couple read aloud from one another’s diaries, from becoming static and dull.

The Moon, a redheaded deity with a dirty mind and a knowing, mischievous kink in her cheek, makes no secret of the fact that she desires the Man romantically, whereas the mortal couple feel a more clinical responsibility to fix what’s broken inside him. Yet while they advocate rose-tinting and distorting his past as a route to recovery, she encourages him to acknowledge and own his grief rather than amputate it. Cassidy proves herself a versatile and confident character actor, successfully conveying the fickle and unknowable, yet flawed and human aspects of a being that wouldn’t look out of place in the ancient Greek pantheon.

Rhys Jarman’s set – a stark, bare stone basement – is full of nifty concealed compartments containing cupboards and windows.

Rhys Jarman’s set is walled with dozens of doors which allow the various competing forces in to influence the Man, but none of which can be opened from his side. The only way for him to reach back towards any of them is through Jarman’s giant moon – part window, part spotlight, given a cool luminescence by lighting designer Ben Pacey.

At its best, art invites multiple valid interpretations without becoming so diffuse as to sacrifice the clarity of the creators’ intentions.

The Moon The Moon is many overlapping things, but never feels like collage. Its elements complement rather than contradict one another, allowing interpretations from the supernatural to the naturalistic to coexist without ever suggesting that Unlimited Theatre are in anything less than complete control.

Written by Clare Duffy, Jon Spooner and Chris Thorpe

Crew includes Jon Spooner (director), Rhys Jarman (designer), Ben Pacey (lighting designer) and Mic Pool (sound designer)

Cast includes Suzanne Ahmet (The Young Woman), Helen Cassidy (The Moon), Tim Chipping (The Older Man) and Jon Spooner (The Man)

Need a second opinion?

7 April, 2009

About Tommy

Southwark Playhouse, 31 March – 25 April 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Once a war has dragged on for a few years, the media loses interest and the responsibility falls to the arts to maintain the public’s awareness. The ongoing conflict in the territories of the former Yugoslavia is no longer regularly in the public eye, usurped by coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, which makes it unfashionable but necessary subject matter for the stage.

Neither Britain nor the United States of America is a major player in this conflict, which means the Anglophone world is largely uninterested. Enter Danish playwright Thor Bjørn Krebs and Brother Tongue, a new theatre company specialising in translations of European works.

Translated by David Duchin and staged by Southwark Playhouse, Krebs’ play About Tommy focuses on a bunch of new recruits to the Danish International Brigade, a force deployed in the former Yugoslavia under the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR).

About Tommy attempts another fresh variation on that well-worn theatrical tradition, the horrors-of-war play.

The International Brigade are a peacekeeping force, which means their role is to protect diplomats from both sides on their way to peace negotiations, take care of wounded civilians and prevent the conflict from escalating. They’re forbidden to show preference for either side, or to shoot back when attacked by snipers with no regard for the supposedly off-limits U.N. colours.

The quandary is an interesting one: what happens when you train soldiers to kill, then forbid them to do so, even when threatened? The resolution is logical, and therefore predictable – though Gwilym Lee’s fresh-faced portrayal of eager Everylad Tommy allows us to empathise with the gradual erosion of his youthful idealism.

Beatrice Curnew and Hywel Morgan ably populate the rest of the play, drawing characters with the broad physical and vocal brushstrokes necessary for rapid but unambiguous switching.

Tommy’s parents, meanwhile, are absurdly disproportioned dolls seated atop a sandbag wall, watching and commenting on their son’s progress from on high (i.e. back home). The faces of Rachel Atkins and Roger Ringrose animate the dolls’ giant, featureless white heads via prerecorded projection.

The play aspires to a documentary style, with events recounted out front in past tense by stationary performers. The brevity of each scene, along with Anna Watson’s choppy lighting design, just about excuses the potentially very dull and static staging this requires. Tellingly, when Tommy returns home and the pace becomes more relaxed, the play starts noticeably to drag.

Eschewing theatrical action in favour of static recollection seems calculated to trick us into thinking we’re watching Verbatim theatre. If we are, the programme and publicity make no mention of it. The goal is presumably to remind us that even if these particular characters aren’t real, real people are out there experiencing the same things.

Adopting the tricky structures of Verbatim without the moral strictures imposed by genuine testimony allows About Tommy to bypass Verbatim’s usual complaints – but naturally robs it of the veracity such testimony can lend to a play.

Written by Thor Bjørn Krebs (translated by David Duchin)

Crew includes Elly Green (director), Signe Beckmann (designer), Anna Watson (lighting designer), Matt Downing (sound designer) and Hywel Morgan (video design)

Cast includes Rachel Atkins (Mum), Beatrice Curnew (Charlotte Carting/Jette/Nurse/Chaplain/Girl), Gwilym Lee (Tommy), Hywel Morgan (Captain Overguard/Niels/French Soldier/Major) and Roger Ringrose (Dad)

Need a second opinion?

31 January, 2009

Southwark Secrets

Written for the London Theatre Blog, 31 January 2009

London Bridge is a bit of a theatrical Narnia. Discreet entrances, discoverable only by chance or by word of mouth, lead straight to the underground London of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – dark and improbably huge brick caverns and tunnels colonised, equally improbably, by theatre people. One such space is the Shunt Vaults; another is the Southwark Playhouse.

The Playhouse have tapped into their venue’s natural mystique for their latest initiative, Southwark Playhouse Secrets. Actually, not much about the programme is secret – it’s timetabled in full on the website, and if you sign up to the Facebook group you’ll receive regular invitations to upcoming events. But couple the name with the location and you can believe you’ve discovered an exclusive theatrical underground – an irresistible and addictive feeling.

The Secrets themselves are short theatrical happenings that occur in and around the Playhouse at lunchtimes, in the evenings and late at night (allowing you to catch some bite-sized theatre in your lunch break, after work or following a couple of drinks at one of the nearby Tooley Street pubs). The Playhouse’s main theatre space is off-limits, so Secrets take place in the bar, storerooms or even the toilets. Admissions for some Secrets are limited for this reason, so book ahead.

Because anyone can apply to the Secrets curators (soon to be joined by London Theatre Blog’s own Jens Peters) for a slot, and because the programme is intended to keep rolling indefinitely, the work featured is diverse and often eccentric. There’s music, comedy, dance, improvisation, work in progress and more.

Take Scratch Interact. While a man in his vest and boxers wanders around the bar taking a mute interest in empty beer bottles and offering people half-sucked Werther’s Originals scored from Blanche Marvin, we’re encouraged to sign up for “intimate” interactive performances in the toilets.

In one toilet is a woman surrounded by objects: tickets stubs, a cigarette lighter. You enter alone, with no other audience members to hide behind. It turns out you’re breaking up with her; the objects are the debris of your relationship. The stub from your first movie date. Your lighter, from before you gave up.

You get one companion for the other toilet, but you’re shepherded into separate cubicles and then the lights go out. In the dark, people whisper to you both. One pleads for reassurance that everything will be all right. The other points out you have no idea who he is. He could be a bad person. Who gets which voice is pure pot luck.

Intrigued, I venture back a week later for Home, a physical theatre piece by Tangled Feet. Behind the bar is a storecupboard door; after Scratch Interact I’m primed for a performance in a cupboard, but past all the props and costumes is another door leading to an arched vault twice as big as the Playhouse’s main theatre. It’s dark and chilly, there’s plaintive string music coming from somewhere, and the company’s torch beams only serve to accentuate the spooky vastness of the place.

What follows is by turns sinister, sweet, playful and almost spiritual. Eight performers, eight torches and eight rustly, plasticky one-man children’s easy-up tents make, lose, regain, break and mourn their homes in the vault through dance, silhouette play and the endearingly daft practice of rolling around the floor while still inside a tent.

Two Secrets can’t give a full picture of the programme, but they can begin to highlight some of the common threads tying the different pieces together. The most striking is the companies’ understanding of and enthusiastic engagement with the unconventional performance spaces on offer.

There’s also a strong sense of community building in the Playhouse bar. I ran into several of the same people on both my visits, a few of whom were future Secrets slot holders themselves. Community and word of mouth power the theatre industry, and the Southwark Playhouse Secrets seem to be effortlessly generating both. Long may they continue.

24 January, 2009

Love in (3) Parts

Southwark Playhouse, 12 – 31 January 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Southwark Playhouse’s Love in (3) Parts follows Paul (Rich W. Burton) and Claire (Sally Kent), a middle-class white couple, as their relationship progresses from awkward first date through all the surprises, arguments and reconciliations that follow.

So what is there to differentiate it from the morass of similar plays telling similar stories?

First, there’s the inclusion of musician James Dey, who provides incidental and background music on guitar, keyboard and glockenspiel, as well as singing. Like the play as a whole, Dey’s music is langorously, almost sleepily paced, especially for the first forty or so minutes of the seventy-minute production.

The whole affair is very relaxed and unhurried; there’s very little tension, either in the production or the relationship it portrays.

Dey’s instruments are cleverly built into various bits of Kath Singh’s set, a contemporary black and white Everyflat. Dey himself ambles about the stage doing his own thing, for the most part invisible to the couple. Whether he has any relevance to the plot, or is simply there to add an extra musical dimension to the production, isn’t made explicit until very late in the play.

This is symptomatic of the play’s general tendency to spend too long setting things up and leave itself too little time to fully exploit the situations they bring about.

The other major example of this problem, and by coincidence the play’s other major distinguishing point, is Paul’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He can’t leave the flat without clicking the lamp on and off three times; he can’t relax unless his pencils are lined up parallel on top of the television; and when he arrives home he has to fold his coat and scarf just so, and count out his loose change onto the sideboard.

Mostly this issue is used to demonstrate the play’s central axiom, tabled by Paul during first date dinner: that at first you love a person’s quirks, then they drive you mad, and eventually, when they’re gone, you miss them.

But for too long we linger on the threshold between stages one and two, in which Claire finds Paul’s rituals merely interesting.

It’s a shame, because when they finally do drive her mad we’re treated to the strongest scene in the whole play, in which Claire is driven to deliver a wholly unfair ultimatum – the “habits” or her – and enact it with unexpected cruelty.

It’s the one time either character does anything at all unexpected. Paul’s OCD notwithstanding, both are deliberately written as typical Everypeople. Neither one ever seems to strive for anything; they drift from one situation to the next as languidly as Dey’s music, without actively embracing or resisting a single one.

There are plenty of little ideas and devices worthy of some praise: from the satisfying eventual resolution of Dey’s ghostly presence, to the eerie moonlit ambience provided by the snowing television screen, to the well-observed and believable stumbles and false starts that break up the awkward, meaningless first date dialogue. Both performances, too, are surefooted, and thoroughly plumb what depths the characters do possess.

But ultimately the play needs more than little ideas in order to say anything about love that hasn’t already been said the same way a thousand times. The best thing to say about it is it’s nice. Not life-changing, but not bad either; just nice.

Written by John Shaw

Crew includes Dan Mallaghan (director), Kath Singh (designer) and James Dey (musician)

Cast includes Rich W. Burton (Paul) and Sally Kent (Claire)

Need a second opinion?