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Thursday, May 5, 2016

'Mr Kolpert' at the Lion & Unicorn, 4th May 2016

Thursday, May 5, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Each of us enjoys the fruits of civilisation: manners, politeness, order and morality. But that stuff is an eggshell thin barrier above a yawning chasm. Somewhere deep down we understand that the universe is without purpose, that there is no underlying meaning and that every single action by every human who will ever exist, noble or evil, is irrelevant. The sum total of human endeavour is fruitlessly pissing into a vast, infinite void.

This nihilism fuels David Gieselmann's Mr Kolpert, which examines the life's pointlessness and the consequential emotional numbness through the time-old dramatic scenario of the middle class dinner party.

Our hosts are Ralf Droht (Peter Watts) and Sarah Kenner (Libby Rodcliffe). We're introduced to them as they fussily tidying in advance of their guests arrival, ominously chit-chatting about how they'll unknowingly provide the entertainment for the evening. Soon the happy couple, Bastian and Edith Mole (Benjamin Victor and Kate Austen) arrive and are summarily informed that the large chest in the centre of the room contains the body of the eponymous Mr Kolpert, who their hosts have casually (yet brutally) murdered. But does it really or are these mind games?

Gieselmann proceeds to put all his characters (along with Matt Lynch's confused pizza delivery man) through the wringer. The hosts reveal themselves as bourgeois sadists desperate to feel more than ennui, the Schrödinger's box at centre stage begins emitting a disturbingly organic thumping sound, the guests vicious abuse one another and the stage becomes spackled with vomit. Even their pizza order is screwed up.

It's horrible stuff, but it's happening to horrible people so it's okay. The gradual intensification of violence, combined with the dreary suburban backdrop reminded me of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, where we find ourselves both entertained by and implicated in violence. By the time we're in the final scenes we're completely on board with the same bored inclination to violence that's driven Ralf and Sarah to commit bloody murder 'just to see what happens'.

It's an excellent play, extremely funny but with meaning bubbling away just under the surface. Each cast member is enjoyable in their own ways - though I had an instant soft spot for Peter Watts' Ralf. He buffoonishly alpha males his way around the stage, to my mind channelling a bit of Boris Johnson. Though confident and cocky there's this tiny glimmer of fear in his eyes, Watts' performance making it clear that though Ralf revels in his amorality he can't understand where it arises in him.

But my absolute favourite was Benjamin Victor. Back in March 2015 he knocked my socks off in Blink Theatre's The Collector, and he did the same here (incidentally, both plays use the nauseating stink of Heinz Big Soup to their advantage). Victor has this incredibly intense stage presence that director Lotte Ruth Johnson harnesses for laughs, particularly his absolute indignance when playing Forehead Detective.

It all ends on a pitch perfect moment of awkwardness, the characters realising they've plumbed the depths of wickedness and they're still unsatisfied. Stuff like this is the reason I love fringe theatre - Mr Kolpert is a gem of a play that's staged in style and for the fraction of the price of some glitzy West End glamorama. Highly recommended!


Mr Kolpert is at the Lion & Unicorn until 14 May. Tickets here.

'Chaser' at the Lion & Unicorn, 4th May 2016

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Chaser is a classic example of a play that bites off more than it can chew. Ostensibly a story about a stalker's jealous observations of a married couple, it ends up tossing pretty much every dramatic technique it can think of onto the stage - from stream of consciousness to mime to tap dancing.

The play opens with John (Richard Dawes), perched in his birdwatching 'hide'. He launches into a disconnected babble about life, birds and human contact (among other things). It's chaotic, though the upshot is clearly that all is not right with this man. Cut to stage right, where we meet Antonia (Laura Meaton), the object of his affection, currently engaged in a sexually charged conversation about iced buns with her sex worker friend Sarah (Lowenna Melrose).

The trio gradually intertwine. John observes Sarah being paid for sex by Sam (Antonia's never-seen husband); John passively woos Antonia via a series of fake online personae; Sarah advises Antonia to break up with Sam; and John pays for Sarah's sexual services. As you'd expect, this all comes to a dramatic, emotional head in the final act.

I can't fault Chaser for its ambition, but it's a wildly undisciplined bit of playwriting. Careening from stream of consciousness interior monologue, to Mamet-esque stichomythia, to mime, to surreal comedy, to dance and so on obscures the characters and renders a relatively straightforward narrative needlessly confusing. In a best case scenario, a play that quickly cycles between disparate styles creates a distancing effect that a playwright can use to their advantage. Sadly, in Chaser, the technique feels like a smokescreen for lack of confidence in character and story.

Having said all that, the performers come out of this relatively unscathed. Meaton, Dawes, Meaton and Melrose all acquit themselves well, though there's a sense that they're scrabbling through the gimmicky styles in order to find the emotional core of their characters. Meaton achieves this best, briefly attaining focus as a woman torn between dull security and the unknown. Melrose is hamstrung by playing a pretty flimsy cheeky sex worker archetype, but at least she puts her comedic chops to good use. Dawes suffers the worst from the stylistic switches - settling for an eager-to-please obliviousness that doesn't develop past the opening monologue.

Chaser is the inaugural work of playwright Howard Thompson and I feel a certain guilt in laying into a first time playwright, but it's an undeniably crappy play. There's nothing inherently wrong with throwing in everything except the kitchen sink, but it's got to be in service of something. Ultimately, Chaser feels like the work of someone fresh out of drama school who's determined to use every dramatic technique in the book at once. 

Chaser is at the Lion & Unicorn until 14 May. Tickets here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

'Might Never Happen' at the King's Head Theatre, 2nd May 2016

Tuesday, May 3, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It must be a pretty shitty feeling to have strangers reduce you to a pair of tits. But that's the dull reality that women face: a cacophony of men's voices emerging from building sites, on public transport, out of cars and yelled over pubs. It's tempting to conclude that these transitory acts of rudeness are small fry compared to 'big' social issues, and anyway, just how do you stop it? 

Doll's Eye Theatre's Might Never Happen makes the case for immediate action on street harassment: attempting to communicate a variety of arguments around the issue, show us everyday examples and begin to figure out a framework through which we can begin to sort this shit out.

Comprising eleven sketches, the show ranges in tone from light-hearted parody to bonechillingly upsetting realism, stopping along the way for a couple of mono/duologues. The creative team explain that they understand that each instance of harassment is unique, whether it be the actual method used by the perpetrator or the reaction from the victim. To this end they're eager to cram in as many different perspectives as possible. As you'd expect, we hear from people who've suffered street abuse of various stripes, but we also hear from women who consider it a compliment and from men struggling to see how they can realistically assist.

This is all grounded in research by Dr Fiona Vera-Gray and Dr Maria Garner, and I can understand the desire to present as many viewpoints as possible. The sketch format achieves that, though unfortunately results in an uneven experience.

To put it bluntly; when it's good it's very very good, when it's bad it's pretty damn bad. The nadir comes in an early scene where a couple argue over a relatively minor incident of harassment. The dialogue is corny and acting is flat - you sense that the writers are more concerned with hitting talking points than constructing a plausible conversation. It comes so early on that the heart sinks slightly, anticipating a rather painful evening.

Then things take a turn for the better. Set on the top deck of a London bus, we find a wheedlingly annoying arsehole (Ashley Sean Cook) harassing a random woman he happens to sit next to (Vicki Welles). It's so raw it's difficult to watch - I look away to see other audience members averting their gaze too, with one person apparently in floods of tears. It's a perfect, concise demonstration of how something that's often written off as idiotic rudeness (or even misconstrued compliments) can genuinely traumatise.

The rest of the sketches lie somewhere between these two, quality-wise; a scene contrasting a man's and woman's experience in a nightclub is well conceived, performed and effective in demonstrating the hazards of consent, yet eventually sputters out; a parody of Loose Women provides the lion's share of the laughs but goes on a bit; and a duologue between a woman scared of assault and an assault survivor is hamstrung by one side being far more interesting than the other.

It's never good reviewing practice to imagine the show you wanted to see, but I suspect the topic might be better served by a traditional linear narrative that incorporated a smaller but more focussed selection of the source material. When Might Never Happen hits, as in the bus scene, it hits hard. If it could sustain the mood of that scene over the course of an hour it wouldn't be an easy watch but it'd leave an indelible mark in the memory.

Having said all that, I can't deny that the show achieved its aim of educating me about street harassment, which the show treats as a key element of a wider spectrum of misogyny. I consider myself a pretty right-on sort of guy - I'd certainly never dream of yelling stuff at a stranger. Despite that, I admit that when I'm out with a group of friends and someone makes a comment about a woman that makes me wince, I tend to keep my mouth shut for fear of looking like a politically correct killjoy. But the show taught me something important - silence is complicity. 

Despite it being a somewhat disjointed theatrical experience, Might Never Happen provides much food for thought. So, a success, albeit a qualified one.


Might Never Happen is at the King's Head until 16 May. Tickets here.

Monday, May 2, 2016

'Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens' at the King's Head Theatre, 30th April 2016

Monday, May 2, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

My life is packed full of consciously important artybollocks. Plays about serious stuff: the kind of thing stern-looking people write opinion columns about in The Guardian. I know that the world is a terrible place and that it's probably getting worse. I know that culture has an obligation to shine a light into dark corners of society. I know that worthy theatre isn't afraid to tackle the depressing, the shocking and the achingly worthy.

But y'know, sometimes you've just gotta disco.

Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens is essentially distilled joy. A pleasantly ramshackle sci-fi alterna-musical, it's half pop concert/half night out at the Torture Garden. Set in the titular Saucy Jack's - an seedy intergalactic bar on the wrong side of the space-tracks, we're introduced to its deranged denizens. They range from naive saxophone virtuoso Sammy Sax (Ashton Charge), the tensely German Dr Willy von Whackoff (Tom Whalley) to the comely and ambitious waitress Booby Chevalle (Caspar Cordwell-James). This gaggle of reprobates are bossed about by club owner Jack (Hugh Stubbins), a stout n' sleazy lothario with a penchant for sexual deviancy.

But things aren't been all sunshine and crude innuendos at Jacks. As their cabaret acts are summoned to bigger and better things, they tend to wind up murdered - a high heel embedded in their chest. Who will solve the mystery of the diabolical 'Slingback Killer'? A trio of glitterbooted space vixens of course!

Making a dramatically dry-iced entrance, fully bedecked in rhinestone finery are Jubilee Climax (Jamie Birkett), Anna Labia (Lorna Hall) and Bunny Lingus (Zoe Nicholls). They're Space Vixens - members of a secretive intergalactic society devoted to justice and female liberation. And they kick a whole lot of ass.

As you can probably guess, a show featuring a character named 'Booby' doesn't exactly play things super straight. What transpires is an always funny, sometimes downright hilarious, rollercoaster ride with incredibly weird characters and some impossibly catchy disco-cabaret tunes.

The centrepiece numbers - Glitter Boots Saved My Life and All I Need is Disco - are stone cold classics. They're reprised several times over the course of the evening and are never anything less than a spike of undiluted good times straight to the vein. Helped by a thumping nightclub worthy sound system and a pepped up cast, they're the kind of tunes you find yourself singing away in the shower days after the show.

The solo songs are no slouch either. Two stand out a mile. Hugh Stubbins' gives us a perfectly pitched rendition of Tortured Plaything - a whiningly wheedling anthem to self-pity, overlaid with razor-sharp sadism. Stubbins' Jack is both odious and a monument to charisma, compelling even as he openly manipulates everyone around him. 

It's only slightly knocked into second place by Jamie Birkett's stunning Living in Hell. For a brief moment all the grease and glitz is pushed back and a clear white spotlight shines on Birkett's Jubilee. It's a fragment of sincerity - for a moment the woes of a Space Vixen torn between her intergalactic pledge and a dangerous infatuation feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Stubbins and Birkett are probably the standouts, but there's really not much in it. Everyone in the cast is more than worthy of praise but I'd feel bad if I didn't single out Tom Whalley and Lorna Hall as bringing a pinch of something special to their roles. Whalley possesses an inherently comedic bug-eyed stare and expert comic timing - playing things a bit like Dr Strangelove on speed. On top of that, he marches around with this absurd rubber-limbed gait that makes him look like a cartoon come to life. Hall's similarly hilarious, stuffing her dialogue and motions with oodles of character and energy - I found myself glancing over at her reactions when she wasn't the focus of attention, all which were funny when (I assume) nobody's supposed to be looking.

As the show finishes the night effortlessly segues into an actual disco. Now, generally I'm not a fan of getting out of my seat during the finale of a show - to me it feels like enforced jollity via peer pressure. But in Saucy Jack I was one of the first to my feet, hardly able to wait for the opportunity to progress my incessant foot tapping to some actual grooving.

Saucy Jack is an outstanding show and one that I can't foresee anyone having a bad time at. Every time I've remembered it over the days since I saw it a smile has appeared on my face. If you want to have a guaranteed real good time, check it out.


Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens is at The King's Head Theatre until 21 May. Tickets here.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

'Blind Man's Song' at The Pleasance, 21st April 2016

Saturday, April 30, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

John Milton said "To be blind is not miserable; not to be able to bear blindness, that is miserable." It's a sentiment that feels appropriate to Theatre Re's Blind Man's Song; an interpretive dance performance that attempts to recreate the imagination of a born-blind musician.

Sparsely staged; props are limited to a cane, bed and a selection of musical instruments within a piano. As the blind man (Alex Judd) plays a song he's visually accompanied by an abstracted romance. It's 'yer basic boy meets girl story, kicked off by a chance contact and developing into something passionate and heartfelt. The couple are dancers Guillaime Pigé and Selma Roth, clad in red and green and with  cloth wrapped around their heads.

The narrative eschews words and is told in broad strokes. So broad that if you approach Blind Man's Song hoping to be told a story you're liable to come away rather disappointed. Instead this is a show about communication through movement, music and touch - attempting to understand the ways in which person without sight might perceive the world. 

Apparently taking visual inspiration from Magritte's Lovers II, erasing the dancer's visual features forces the audience to understand them through body language. Pigé and Roth are beautifully expressive dancers, each constantly informed by the others motions as they show us a developing romance. At times Pigé reminded me of Gene Kelly stomping through the rain, hat and cane swirling through the air, his movements brimming over with personality and character.

For me, the most impressive moment came early on, as the two lovers' first contact is endlessly looped in the blind man's memory. Emerging from a train, they accidentally collide, this couple of seconds endless replaying - a plaintive piano chord repeating at their first touch. Gradually the speed is dialled down, until this tiny, forgotten fragment of time becomes invested with big heaping dollops of juicy meaning.

All through this, Alex Judd (who also wrote the music), makes for a neatly scrappy presence on piano and fiddle. He looks like a refugee from a production of Oliver Twist, all scruffy leather coat, vintage sunglasses and lovelorn expressions. He's the mystery at the core of the show, one that's slowly unspun as we work through the contents of his head.

At just an hour long, Blind Man's Song moves along at a pretty breezy pace. That said, there were times when the somnolent qualities of the music got to me a bit and, after a long day, my concentration occasionally drifted a little, not exactly helped by a scene in which the characters themselves go to bed. I didn't get as bad as the guy in front of me though; after a particularly dreamy bit he emitted a guttural honk of a snore, causing his wife to give him a sharp elbow in the ribs.

Anyone that did silently drift off into unconsciousness was in for a shock. Towards the end of the show there's this piercingly sharp sine blare that just goes on and on and on, I guess to present the character's mental turmoil. It's a bit of a shock that such a relatively sedate show is willing to dish out audio trauma on its audience, and I noticed a couple of people covering their ears to escape it. I personally found it annoying at first, but I appreciate aggressive theatre and, hell, at least it woke me the hell up.

I imagine the ideal attendee for Blind Man's Song to be an enthusiastic and knowledgeable follower of contemporary dance. That's not me, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. It's the kind of show where you get out as much as you're willing to put in.


Blind Man's Song is at The Pleasance until 15 May. Tickets here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

'Hair' at the Bridewell Theatre, 26th April 2016

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Hippies drive me up the wall. I should know - I was one. My late teens and early twenties were spent in a dreadlocked, tie-dyed marijuana cloud. Turns out I could only take so much lounging about doing fuck all, listening to people yammer on about crystals or humouring someone's bright idea of constructing a home-made septic tank in the back garden in order to keep his sewage from 'the man' (no, I don't understand either).

As a result I was having pretty fierce flashbacks almost from the moment Hair started. The stage was packed with the precise people I've tried to extricate myself from: painfully sincere, fuzzily angry but with limited political awareness, dosed out on ludicrous quasi-spiritual bullshit....

And yet... 

I couldn't bring myself to dislike Hair.

I came with vague ideas that it had far-out trappings, an antiwar position and that the cast got naked at some point. What transpired was an extremely loosely plotted conceptual musical that takes perverse pleasure in narratively meandering all over the place. Characters dip in and out of the plot, scenes warp into avant-garde drug trips and it tackles racism, sexism, conservatism, religion and war (often within the same song).

The nub of the show eventually proves to be two characters' reactions to receiving their Vietnam draft card. American flag shirt wearing hippie clown Berger (Barry Lattimore-Quinn) burns his and embraces pacifism, whereas the conflicted Claude (Franciscus Prins) finds himself torn between hippie ideals and his sense of duty to his country.

At surface-level Hair looks chaotic. Props are discarded at the sides of the stage, the large cast sprawls at the borders of the action and the choreography is loose and energetic. But getting something to look this free n' easy is extraordinarily difficult: this is a cast that've clearly knuckled under and approached the show with a rigor and seriousness that pays off.

On top of that, there's a shedload of great songs. Iconic tunes like Aquarius and Good Morning Starshine bristle with infectious optimism, going a long way towards thawing out cynical souls in the audience. Real sparkle comes later though, primarily via Melisa Minton-Djoumessi's Dionne, whose voice blows the roof off. White Boys, Walking Space and Abie Baby are all showstoppers, combining virtuoso singing and imaginative choreography - all loaded with impressively bold political rhetoric. (I also particularly enjoyed Pippa Welch's Frank Mills, though embarrassingly up to last night I thought it was written by Evan Dando).

Despite all this there are moments, predominantly in the first half, where you sense things might go awry. A couple of the performers, particularly Barry Lattimore-Quinn as Berger, just don't convince as 60s counterculture rebels. Saddled with a cheap-looking wig, he plays the role too stagily, fostering a weird sense of artificiality around him. For me, the show worked best when it was most sincere, but whenever Berger was front and central it felt a bit like the 60s being fetishised and costumified rather than properly understood.

Franciscus Prin's Claude fares much better, the show shifting up a gear in quality as he grapples with the Vietnam draft. The emotional pinnacle of the show - Claude emerging uniformed and buzzcutted - worked brilliantly, as did his baleful detachment from his former friends.

My only other real criticism is a slightly awkward one to make: but I was genuinely disappointed that they chickened out on the nudity front. I think some of the cast get naked at the climax of the first act, but they're hidden behind dry ice and a dazzling blue wash, so it's difficult to tell. Obviously no-one should be compelled to do something on stage they're uncomfortable with, but not fully committing to Hair's 'the human body is a beautiful thing' philosophy weakens this production's credibility.

At 50 years old, Hair still feels forward thinking. The hippie aesthetics might be dated to the point of cliche, but the sheer courageousness of tackling colossal social issues head on retains the capacity to startle. For example, I doubt a contemporary show would even dream of approaching racism in the way Hair does. All too often stage musicals wrap their audience in cotton wool, paying mere lip service to politics for fear of alienating the audience. Hair vehemently strikes out in the opposite direction - it's radicalism passionately and sincerely felt.

This particular production has a few wonky elements but Geoids have undoubtedly captured the essence of Hair. I'm glad I got to see it.


Hair is at the Bridewell Theatre until 30 April. Tickets here.

Friday, April 22, 2016

'Blue on Blue' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 21st April 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Set primarily in a dingy, damp flat, Chip Hardy's Blue on Blue charts the fractious relationship between two damaged men. The first, Moss (Darren Swift) is a veteran who had his legs blown off in the Middle East after being accidentally bombed by Americans. Despite that, he's a gregarious and opinionated type who's reluctant to indulge in self-pity (though nurses a growing bitter streak). 

The second is Moss' nephew Carver (Daniel Gentley), on parole for burglary. Carver initially seems a bit Jack-the-Lad: he's good looking, dresses smartly and seems confident. This proves to be a smokescreen, we soon learn that Carver is just as damaged as Moss; albeit mentally rather than physically. Events are kicked off by the Carver learning of visiting nurse Marta (Ida Bonnast), whose relationship with the both men becomes more than professional.

Darren Swift is responsible for most of what's good in Blue on Blue. From the first scene he's an incredibly charismatic stage presence, all but forcing the audience to like him in spite of his half-baked racism and sexism. Moss is a complex guy, spending much of proceedings blusteringly asserting himself while concealing deep-seated misery. He clearly craves physical contact, the highlight of his week the bathtime hand-job he gratefully receives from Marta.

Additionally, he plays his interactions with Carver with careful complexity. Moss is domineering, manipulative and often insulting towards him, yet there's a core of paternal care that we see more and more of the further we progress. All that is boosted by the simple verisimilitude of a veteran double-amputee playing.. well, a veteran double amputee. Simply watching the way Swift transfers himself from the settee or the floor to his chair just cements the feeling that Moss is a complete, three-dimensional character.

Sadly, the same can't be said for Carver and Marta. Carver, in an excruciatingly obvious bit of nominative determinism, self-harms. This is presented as a symptom of extreme anxiousness and self-loathing - under stress the character regresses back to childish helplessness. There's little to genuinely like about Carver - his persistence in trying to spoil Moss' one moment of happiness each week doesn't exactly endear him to the audience. Frankly, the whole psychology of the character is under-written, leaving Gentely without a dramatic centre to build on, resulting in a one-note performance.

The Marta character is more straightforwardly bad. Written and played as a broad Eastern European stereotype, the efforts to give her depth (Her Dad was an architect! She's studying to be an accountant!) just don't ring true. Things aren't helped by Bonnast's unconvincing cod-Hungarian accent. All that could be overlooked if she was actually funny, but the forced chirpiness quickly gets old.

Swift's performance prevents Blue on Blue from being a total wash - but Moss really deserves to be in a better play. The rest is a stodgy, unpleasant drama that doesn't hit the targets it aims for.


Blue on Blue is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 14th May 2016. Tickets here.

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