Posts tagged ‘the public reviews’

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?)

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4 October, 2010

Departure Lounge

Jack Shalloo, Steven Webb, Chris Fountain and Liam Tamne in Departure Lounge

Jack Shalloo, Steven Webb, Chris Fountain and Liam Tamne in Departure Lounge. Image courtesy of Jo Allan PR

Waterloo East Theatre, 28 September – 31 October 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

While they slouch about waiting for a perpetually delayed Ryanair flight home, four lads reminisce and recriminate about what they can remember of their Costa del Sol holiday. The best bits of Dougal Irvine’s new musical call to mind a sort of booze-hazy Rashomon: the natural disparities between the four lads’ perspectives are compounded by alcohol-induced memory distortion.

Comparing Departure Lounge to Rashomon makes it sound much more pretentious than it is. It rarely feels heavier than watching a bunch of mates larking about. But Irvine does have noteworthy things to say about laddism in general, and the idea of the lads’ holiday in particular.

What, for instance, is the difference between a lad, a guy, and a hooligan? And if the measure of a good night out is how little of it you remember, what’s the point of shelling out extra to have your nights out abroad? One particularly enjoyable number, ‘Spanish Hospitality’, suggests cheekily that entertaining raucous British holidaymakers is Spain’s ongoing penance for sending the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The book, minimalistically scored for two acoustic guitars, references the boyband pop subgenre with its catchy choruses, close-harmony singing and slightly self-conscious white boy rap interludes.

The dialogue between numbers is less well judged. We’re force-fed, not drip-fed, the characters’ backstories; the phrase “I mean” is used a few times too, often to execute handbrake turns in the flow of conversation; and the closeted character’s self-realisation and coming out is perfunctory and unconvincing – all of which are admittedly minor, but nevertheless disappointing, detractions from an otherwise enjoyable show.

Written by Dougal Irvine

Crew includes Pip Minnithorpe (director), Spesh Maloney (musical director), Cressida Carré (choreography and musical staging), Will Reynolds (lighting and set designer), Georgia Lowe (costume designer) and Gareth Owen (sound designer)

Cast includes Chris Fountain (JB), Verity Rushworth (Sophie), Jack Shalloo (Pete), Liam Tamne (Jordan) and Steven Webb (Ross)

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27 September, 2010

Theatre Souk

Natural Shocks in Between Death and Nowhere (or The Stairwell) at Theatre Souk

Natural Shocks in Between Death and Nowhere (or The Stairwell) at Theatre Souk. Image courtesy of theatredelicatessen on Flickr

3-4 Picton Place, 14 September – 16 October 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

If George Osborne slashes public subsidy for the arts on 20 October – something most of us have now privately accepted as inevitable, I Value The Arts campaigns notwithstanding – then to survive, theatre will have to start behaving like any other commodity: subject to the same market forces as a falafel wrap or a wire sculpture.

Theatre Souk, then, is a glimpse of the near future. Eleven companies have pitched their stalls in Theatre Delicatessen’s Picton Place building, there to vie like costermongers for consumers’ attention and pocket change. Theatre Delicatessen aren’t charging their tenants rent, so transactions are uncomplicated by overheads, processing fees or middlepeople: what you pay is, ipso facto, what the product is worth.

The experience calls to mind more than one kind of marketplace; the limited amount of time available, compared to the number of acts on offer, makes of us speculators as well as consumers. The set-up encourages judgement of artistic merit in terms of return on investment: is it better value for money to see as much as possible, spending recklessly but spreading your bets? or to invest conservatively in high-yield products like .dash’s Chaika Casino, which can potentially provide a whole evening’s entertainment for a one-off entry fee?

Your decision in this regard reveals something about your attitude towards money, and about the ways you judge the value of an artistic work; it’s then up to the works themselves to challenge those attitudes and judgements. The Lab Collective tackle our demonisation of bankers in Matador, a one-man play that’s simultaneously an apology and a shaming accusation. Flabbergast’s Puppet Poker Pit is an amoral morality fable starring a violent, foul-mouthed puppet determined to renege on the ultimate poker debt.

Only HalfCut truly follow through on the potential of the Souk format by allowing customers to pay more for a more intense experience. It’s at once playful and tense, asking penetrating questions about the commoditisation and value of people, their bodies and their comfort, while still clearly being all in good fun. But this marketplace’s must-buy product is Natural Shocks’ Between Life and Nowhere, a heartbreaking yet life-affirming aerial partner dance devised especially for the building’s stairwell.

If Theatre Souk is a projection of theatre’s likely future post-spending review, can George Osborne cut subsidies with a clear conscience, knowing theatre will survive commoditisation? Not quite. The Souk as a whole has an entry fee; fees for individual performances are a premium on top of that, an upgrade from a bland economy-class evening spent wandering the fee-free interstices to a business-class experience with in-flight entertainment. Whether it represents a failure of Theatre Delicatessen’s experiment or a piece of veiled anti-cuts propaganda, Theatre Souk positions theatre firmly as a luxury commodity.

Crew includes Jessica Brewster, Frances Loy and Roland Smith (joint artistic directors)

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2 September, 2010

The Caucasian Chalk Circle ****

The Zoo, 6 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

3BUGS weave a convincing illusion of thrown-togetherness around their production of Brecht’s scathing polemic against class and wealth divides. Design and casting decisions appear to be made on the spur of the moment, based on what or whom is immediately to hand. A severely limited make-up colour palette (containing only black) is all that unites a cast dressed in mismatched odds and ends of costume from several different periods. A few wooden crates make do as a set.

Behind the illusion this is a respectably efficient production, rattling through even the dreariest of Brecht’s dialectic set-pieces at a pace that demands the audience’s full attention. Certain scenes and certain performers, though, are brisk to a fault, with lines reeled off so quickly they become garbled, making it easy to lose the thread of the plot even when applying full concentration.

With its panicky energy, its simple yet inventive staging, its complete understanding of and adherence to Brechtian defamiliarisation techniques and its cute-as-a-button puppet toddler, this Caucasian Chalk Circle would be a surefire hit on the schools circuit.

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2 September, 2010

Pas Perdus ****

Zoo Southside, 6 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Do many hands make light work, or do too many cooks spoil the broth? Les Argonautes seem determined to find out, and do it entirely through trial and error. The quartet, clad in identical white tunics, enhance a variety of traditionally solo activities – playing the violin, for example – through cooperation, delegation and intervention.

The result is a gentle and at times hilarious exploration of teamwork both willing and reluctant, as well as a skilful circus act incorporating juggling (with unorthodox objects), balance stunts and a good deal of clowning. Everything’s neatly choreographed to appear inadvertent, so precarious balances accidentally result when supports are removed without forethought, and juggling just starts happening when people drop things.

To place their stunts and set-pieces in some context other than simple japery, the company sketch the bare bones of characters (the mischievous one, the show-off, the nervous one, the big lunk) and a scenario (they’re inmates or test subjects or some such; a booming voice keeps insisting they stay “CAAAAALM”). Adding an element of storytelling gives Pas Perdus a level of depth beyond appreciation of the skill involved, but also raises an expectation of some kind of arc or resolution, which is only half-heartedly fulfilled.

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27 August, 2010

Sparkleshark

Rafaella Marcus and Aumna Iqbal in Sparkleshark

Rafaella Marcus and Aumna Iqbal in Sparkleshark. Image courtesy of the Bookstacks marketing and press team

theSpaces @ Surgeons Hall, 14 – 28 August 2010

Reviewed for the Oxford Times

Is the pen really mightier than the sword, or is that just a comfortable fiction dreamed up by the people wielding the pens?

In Philip Ridley’s Sparkleshark, a group of teenagers face up to their parents and popularity issues, and even tame the school bully, all through the power of spontaneous storytelling. While it’s important to demonstrate to young people facing similar challenges that the underdog can sometimes triumph, this production isn’t quite believable enough: it comes across as the underdog’s fantasy, rather than as something that could actually happen.

What Ridley’s script asks us to believe — what Bouncy Castle Productions need to make us believe — is that the bully, Russell, would willingly set aside his traditional persecution of shy, creative ‘geek’ Jake (Alex Harding) in order to help act out a fairy tale made up on the spot by Jake and his allies.

Ridley provides several layers of justification for Russell’s turnabout — Jake’s shrewd, subtle flattery; the opportunity to impress some girls; rebellion among his more easily distracted minions — but the performances don’t quite sell that story.

Jack Peters comically overplays Russell as a pantomime heart-throb in the Lord Flashheart mould; he struts, preens and forgets his lackeys’ names with a self-absorbed disregard for anyone’s feelings but his own. This helps establish his bully credentials early on, and partially explains his behaviour — he’s more interested in asserting his own superiority than in any specific grievance against Jake — but makes it difficult to buy into his redemptive arc.

Meanwhile, Fen Greatley plays Shane, Russell’s right-hand man, as a shy and indecisive young poseur, instead of the moody and mysterious figure he’s built up to be before his entrance. When Shane decides to join in Jake’s game he is supposed to pull the more simple-minded Russell along in his wake, but the way Greatley plays him he seems like just the sort that Russell would absent-mindedly crush, not grudgingly follow.

When every member of the cast approaches their role with such enthusiasm, the production can’t help but produce some uplifting moments. When Russell does finally, reluctantly accept his role and settle into his “golden chariot” (a shopping trolley) for a spin around the stage, it’s impossible to resist a little smile.

The spaces between these heartwarming moments, however, are too far apart to hold the attention of the target audience. On the day of this review, there was just one member of the appropriate age group in the audience — and he was fidgeting by 15 minutes in.

Written by Philip Ridley

Crew includes Aumna Iqbal (director), Parisa Azimy (costume designer) and Simon Johnson (lighting designer)

Cast includes Fen Greatley (Shane), Alex Harding (Jake), Aumna Iqbal (Finn), Anna Lewis (Speed), Rafaella Marcus (Polly), Julia McLaren (Natasha), Jack Peters (Russell), Roz Stone (Carol) and Nai Webb (Buzz)

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23 August, 2010

Threshold *****

Zoo Roxy, 9 – 20 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Everything about Threshold is a secret. The location is a secret. Most of what happens there is a secret. Whatever happens that isn’t a secret happens for secret reasons. Everything we learn is a secret revealed: scraps of overheard conversation; scenes glimpsed through the undergrowth; comments that slip out in unguarded moments: all information we know we shouldn’t know, and for that we treasure it all the more.

Three hours in the late afternoon is a big commitment at the Fringe. Be reassured that Threshold is a three-hour show, not a one-hour show plus two hours’ travel time, even though two of the three hours are spent travelling. The outward journey is for tipping us subtly, uncomfortably sideways and out of the real world. The return journey is for sharing the secrets we’ve learned. The moment you think it’s over is the moment Threshold puts on its triumphant final spurt. It is worth three hours of your time.

The middle hour is one of excitement, adventure, voyeurism, uncertainty, guilt and heartbreak. With a few deft touches our hosts gain our trust: from the start they trust us enough to share secrets, enough to rely implicitly on our support in a confrontation, and so we trust them back. When our guide breaks into a run and we follow suit without a thought it’s not just because we know we’ll get lost or miss the action if we don’t keep up; it’s because we understand why they’re running, so we run for the same reasons.

A secret isn’t a secret unless someone’s left in the dark. Roughly one fifth of the people that witness each major event in Threshold will be party to all the information required to fully understand it. Each occurrence we do understand strengthens our conviction that first, there must also be explanations for the events we find incomprehensible, and second, there will be people on the return journey who have discovered those explanations.

Whether anyone can be persuaded to reveal what they’ve learned is another matter. Threshold relinquishes but one piece of advice willingly: that some secrets are best kept locked away.

Written by Fred Gordon, Lowri Jenkins and Thomas McMullan

Crew includes Susanna Davies-Crook (director) and Vasiliki Giannoula (costume design)

Cast includes Kristina Epenetos, Nicky Ingram, Hayley Kasperczyk, George Kemp, Adam Loxley, Pablo Navarro-MacLochlainn, Tom Ross Williams and Seda Yildiz

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18 August, 2010

Pedal Pusher ****

Pedal Pusher

Pedal Pusher. Image by Holly McGlynn, courtesy of the EdFringe Media Office

Zoo Roxy, 6 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

It’s notoriously difficult to choke verbatim theatre into life on stage, but you wouldn’t guess that from watching Pedal Pusher. You’d be forgiven for not noticing that it’s a verbatim piece at all, in fact. It seems the trick is to choose the right source material. Sounds easy, and Theatre Delicatessen certainly make it look that way.

So what’s the right source material for the story of Lance Armstrong, Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich, three of the greatest competitive cyclists ever to have lived, and the Tour de France, the toughest and most prestigious cycle race in the world? Press conference transcripts, for the most part. Dry as that may sound, press conferences are naturally dramatic, performative events. The rehearsed statements are superficially anodyne but – thanks to the insights we’re given into the athletes’ habits, personalities and relationships – laden with fascinating subtext, and there’s something of the courtroom drama about the open-floor interrogations that follow.

That the subtlety and theatricality of the text is appreciable, however, is down to the cast, who wrap their jaws nimbly around some potential deadweights. We don’t see much more than one side to any of the characters – Armstrong, fresh from beating advanced cancer, is practically messianic in his drive to succeed; Pantani, victimised by the doping officials, succumbs to self-pitying matyrdom – but what we do see clearly, in the performances and in the text, is the hardwired competitive urge that made each man great.

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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.

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10 June, 2010

Beating Berlusconi

Paul Duckworth as Kenny Noonan

Paul Duckworth as Kenny Noonan. Image courtesy of Martin Shippen Arts Marketing and Media

King’s Head Theatre, 8 June – 4 July

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

If you’re on tenterhooks for the World Cup, you could do worse for a warm-up than Beating Berlusconi. But you don’t need a review to tell you that; you can work out from the poster alone that it’s pitched at football fans. This review is for everyone else, in whom the idea of the World Cup inspires anything from indifference to nausea, and its advice is this: give Beating Berlusconi a try. It’ll surprise you if you let it.

In a nutshell, this one man show is the story of one Liverpool fan’s quest to see his team beat AC Milan at the Champions’ League final in Istanbul – and to nearly lamp Silvio Berlusconi in the process. But it’s as much about how and why he gets there as it is about the match (or the Berlusconi encounter); and the forces driving him Istanbul-wards are personal, political and social as often as they are sporting.

Paul Duckworth is Kenny, our affable EveryScouser; and as well as being a fine comic character actor, Paul Duckworth knows how to play to the crowd, which is invaluable in a play that encourages a certain amount of chanting and heckling. He’s got that instant familiarity that turns the show from Theatre into an extended barstool anecdote.

But it’s the occasional touching, visceral appearance of his lifetime’s worth of emotional baggage – his indignation at the demonisation of his community after Heysel and Hillsborough, the regret he carries after parting on bad terms with a close friend, his estrangement from his father – which, whatever your views on football, will make you root for Kenny to reach Istanbul whatever it costs him.

If you need an antidote to World Cup fever, Beating Berlusconi is not it. Beating Berlusconi is an inoculation. Even if you don’t buy into the hype yourself, it might help you understand why the game means so much to so many people. Like most things worth getting excited about, theatre included, it’s “a chance to escape all the shite”.

Written by John Graham Davies

Crew includes Matt Rutter (director) and Mike Wright (designer)

Cast includes Paul Duckworth (Kenny Noonan)

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