Posts tagged ‘theatre 503’

18 June, 2010

Wild Horses

Theatre 503, 15 June – 10 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nimer Rashed

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

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

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11 April, 2010

Porn – the Musical

Theatre 503, 10 April – 1 May 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

It’s fair to assume that few people watch porn for the plot, and it’s best to take the same approach to Porn – the Musical. Erase the phrase “But what about…” from your vocabulary and you’ll find a pretty entertaining hour of musical theatre scattered through the two-hour running time.

The book acknowledges and embraces the leaps of logic and sketchy characterisation typically associated with porn and bad musicals alike. The whole production is suffused with a sense of fun, distilled in a couple of life-affirmingly glorious puns and some knowingly silly choreography (covering naïve Stefan’s (Brendan Cull) modesty with convenient towels and beach balls in ‘Naked on a Sunday’); and the whole cast commit to their roles with devil-may-care abandon.

The lyrics are often stretched a bit to fit the meter or rhyme, and there are too few energetic numbers in the second act, but there are one or two gems – chiefly those featuring hung-but-dumb porn stud Dr Johnny Long, PHD (Alain Terzoli). Johnny’s poppy introductory number is the highlight of the first act, and his entrance peps up an otherwise forgettable first act closer.

Unfortunately the fun stuff is heavily watered down with awkward metatheatrical asides.

First there’s a totally extraneous narrator (Malcolm Galea, one of the writers) who turns up with irksome regularity to recap things we saw two minutes ago, and to summarise thoughts and feelings we really should be discovering through the performances.

Then, throughout, the cast drop out of character to explain scenic devices to one another, a tendency embodied by the Miscellaneous Man (Ahmet Ahmet). He plays all the minor roles, and the other performers keep confusing whom he’s playing when, a joke that relies on jolting the audience out of their engrossment in the show. He even gets a number about how the rest of the company don’t appreciate him.

That’s not even the only purposeless number; the second act starts with the cast berating latecomers through song, and the show ends with a full-cast ballad devoted solely to informing the audience that the show’s over and they can go home.

The problem in a nutshell seems to be that the writers wanted to write about musical theatre – to poke gentle, self-effacing fun at its archetypes, tropes and clichés – but somehow accidentally wrote a musical about porn instead.

Written by Boris Cezek, Malcom Galea, Abigail Guan and Kris Spiteri

Crew includes Paul Robinson (director), Ally Holmes (choreographer/assistant director) and Rachael Canning (designer)

Cast includes Ahmet Ahmet (Miscellaneous Man), David Burt (Marvin), Brendan Cull (Stefan), Malcolm Galea (Narrator), Jody Peach (Jade), Alain Terzoli (Dr Johnny) and Sophia Thierens (Sanddy)

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19 February, 2010

‘I’d rather be in the pub’ is not an excuse

Written for The Collective Review, 19 February 2010

It’s understandable that a lot of people would rather spend their evening in the pub than at the theatre.  Who cares if the tickets are more affordable than you might think?  Theatres are stuffy and elitist, plays are boring, and you can’t even fortify yourself beforehand or commiserate properly afterwards because the beer is expensive and the wine is expensive and nasty…

…all right, you’ve caught me; that was a test.  If you found yourself showering that paragraph in indignant spittle then give yourself a pat on the back and move on.  If, on the other hand, you found yourself nodding in agreement, keep reading:  this article is for you.

I’m taken by surprise on a regular basis by people (theatre people and ‘normal’ people alike) who have no idea that there are theatres in pubs.  It surprises me because I see plays staged in little studios above or behind London pubs all the time (I’m the British Theatre Guide’s current go-to guy for pub theatre), and because they seem to me to be such a winning formula.

In this city at least, pub theatres (and theatre pubs – there’s a delicate distinction) are everywhere.  The tickets and the drinks alike are affordable.  There’s none of that gin-quaffing air-kissing atmosphere that puts so many people off the theatre.  The sets and lighting are often basic, but that encourages directorial innovation, and there’s a wealth of interesting, well-performed work to be found as a result.  So how come everyone I talk to reacts like pub theatre is London’s best-kept secret?

I think it’s largely a marketing issue.  The first time I visit a particular pub theatre I often realise I’ve walked past the pub before without realising there was a theatre in it.  From the street, the only evidence that – for instance – the Oxford Arms in Camden also houses the Etcetera Theatre is a sandwich board in the porch.  Presumably the publicans are worried pub-only punters could be put off by the thought of sharing the bar with a bunch of ginned-up luvvies.

Equally, while they don’t deliberately obscure the fact, few theatres make a selling point of being situated in a pub.  It’s possible to book online and turn up at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington and only then realise it takes its name from the pub it’s attached to; likewise the King’s Head or Hen and Chickens in Islington.  The name ‘Theatre503‘ in a listing or review does not immediately suggest a connection to the Latchmere pub in Battersea, and the Greenwich Playhouse’s website studiously avoids mentioning that it can only be accessed through an O’Neill’s.  They seem to want to be defined as theatres that happen to share premises with a pub, rather than the joint entity ‘pub theatre’.

It’s like the pubs and their theatres are determined to be the awkward bedfellows they are on paper – in which case we need to be the mutual friends determined to show them how perfect they actually are for one another.  No one’s consciously keeping people in the dark about the pub theatre movement, but people are in the dark nonetheless, and that benefits nobody.

22 January, 2010

Decade

Theatre 503, 19 – 23 January 2010

Reviewed for The Collective Review

What do you remember about the Noughties? (Yes, it turns out that is what we’re calling them.) Theatre503 asked that question to ten playwrights – five established, five as-yet unproduced – and the result is Decade, a collection of ten ten-minute plays, each one representing a single year. So what do the Decade writers remember about the Noughties?

First and foremost, they remember global catastrophes. Summing up a whole year in ten minutes of drama is a tall order, of course, so most of the ten focus on one or two iconic events – and it seems most of the iconic events of the Noughties were disasters. The Millennium Bug (okay – only a potential disaster), 9/11, the war in Iraq, the Christmas tsunami of 2004, Guantanamo Bay and the election of BNP MEPs all feature.

This could be because, as we’re often told, Conflict Is The Essence Of Drama. Alternatively, this could be how we’re fated to remember the last decade: as one disaster after another.

It was also a decade dominated by the USA, and American accents permeate Decade. Behind his vacant stare, President George Dubya Bush is dancing inside, in Beth Steel’s surreal 2001. Nimer Rashed personifies the post-9/11 USA as a seductive, manipulative but brutally wronged neighbour. In Richard Marsh’s 2007, two Guantanamo guards find themselves in thrall to an inmate’s superior knowledge of the final Harry Potter book.

Surprisingly, despite suspicion of Muslims and Middle Eastern peoples dictating many powerful countries’ foreign policy, and despite the landmark election of the USA’s first black President, race is hardly touched upon. Marsh’s inmate Khaliq (Sartaj Garewal) comments briefly on the consequences of assuming certain people are all the same, but it’s left to Rex Obano to tackle race single-handedly in 2009 – a task he accomplishes defiantly, though not without the odd flop in onstage energy.

The quality of the writing is consistently high enough that, without the programme, it’s difficult to distinguish the seasoned pros from the unknowns. Newcomer Nimer Rashed struggles to find an original angle on 9/11, but still outdoes Market Boy writer David Eldridge’s limp offering (though Eldridge’s scene isn’t helped by weak, overly static direction from Gene David Kirk). Amy Rosenthal and April de Angelis both deliver strong, pacey, dialogue-driven contributions, but so too does the unproduced Richard Marsh. Beth Steel delivers more meaning via her surrealism than Phil Porter’s weird, overwrought piece.

The finished product – cemented together with period pop music and news headlines – is a dreamlike reassemblage of half-faded memories. Not a complete picture of the decade by any means, but a more potent epitaph by far than the kind of bland, Jimmy-Carr-hosted nostalgia thrown together for TV.

Written by April de Angelis, David Eldridge, Fraser Grace, Richard Marsh, Rex Obano, Phil Porter, Lou Ramsden, Nimer Rashed, Amy Rosenthal and Beth Steel

Crew includes Jessica Beck, Anthony Biggs, Gemma Farlie, Antonio Ferrara, Steve Harper, Gene David Kirk, Tim Roseman and Charlotte Westenra (directors)

Cast includes Victoria Bavister, Phil Brodie, Jamie de Courcey, Sartaj Garewal, Vincent Jerome, Jamal Noland and Henry Steele

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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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19 November, 2008

Word:Play 2

Theatre 503, 18 – 22 November 2008

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

New writing showcases like Box of Tricks’ Word:Play are like regular infusions of aqua vitae that keep the theatre industry looking healthy and vital.

Too often these life-giving draughts are bulked up with uninspiring tap water, but this second Word:Play event boasts a consistently high standard of both writing and performance.

The premise remains the same as the original critically acclaimed instalment: six playwrights each produce a fifteen-minute play inspired by a given word, in this case “vengeance”.

The staging is similarly simple: some basic furniture and a small prop cupboard per play, ensuring smooth, speedy transitions between pieces.

Opener The Captain of the School Football Team, by returning playwright Kenneth Emson, establishes a dizzying pace and energy from the off.

Its rollicking verse style evokes memories of happy-go-lucky schooldays in a manner reminiscent of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, before tearing off the rose-tinted spectacles with a horrifically unsettling act of onstage violence.

By building up the comfortable hierarchies and harmless rebellions of school life, only to shoot them down, the play delivers a lesson about the unplumbed darkness present even in people or situations we thought safe and familiar.

Daniel Kanaber’s offering, The Surety of Numbers, continues in a similarly sinister vein. Though once again it begins with hearty reminiscences about school and ends with something altogether less wholesome, the turnaround here occurs more gradually.

Small hints – loaded pauses and troubled looks, or seemingly insignificant disagreements about past events – slowly build a foreboding sense that one of these two schoolfriends’ intentions may be less than friendly.

Kanaber resists melodrama for a more ambiguous, cerebral parting shot that could be meaningful or deliberately obscure, but which lingers, intriguing and perplexing, throughout the rest of the event.

The closest thing to a bad apple in the barrel is first act closer What Cheryl Did Next by Leo Richardson. Though not a weak piece of writing by any means, it suffers by close comparison to its five companions.

Richardson tries too hard to confound the audience’s expectations of the “vengeance” theme, and in the process introduces too many implausible deus ex machina devices. The chirpy humour of his beauty salon girls is refreshing, however, and provides an upbeat ending to an otherwise rather bleak first act.

Elinor Cook’s Greek Tragedy, which begins the second act, is an incisively observed study of holiday romance with a wholly unexpected supernatural twist.

It is the most unashamedly theatrical of the six pieces. Bold devices, through which resort lothario Mark simultaneously seduces two friends in different hotel rooms, expose the scripted and formulaic nature of male flirtation while highlighting the much wider range of potential female reactions.

Such devices also serve to reinforce the clarity and intelligence of Cook’s characterisation. Her three female leads are worlds apart without quite descending into the broad strokes of stereotype or caricature.

The final two pieces, Chopping Onions by Becky Prestwich and Fish Missing (Fishing) by Joe Harbot, provide a calmer counterpoint to the breakneck pace of their companions.

Prestwich’s play uses the interesting (but at first confusing) technique of splitting one of its characters in two. The elderly mother – around whose reconciliation with her adult daughter the play revolves – is represented by one mute and one invisible actor.

The invisible mother – embodying the younger self that now only exists inside her – sheds light on the two women’s troubled relationship that the daughter cannot or will not hear, providing a powerful sense of dramatic irony.

Finally, Fish Missing is a cringe-out-loud black comedy of escalating pet-related revenge. Excruciatingly awkward silences prove that short plays don’t always have to be crammed to the gills with quickfire dialogue in order to function within the imposed time limit.

The links to “vengeance” are sometimes a little tenuous, but if Box of Tricks can maintain the high standard of the writing for Word:Play 3, it should cement the event’s reputation as a launchpad for top quality new talent.

Written by Elinor Cook, Kenneth Emson, Joe Harbot, Daniel Kanaber, Becky Prestwich and Leo Richardson

Crew includes Adam Quayle and Hannah Tyrell-Pinder (directors)