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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Review: 'It's Not a Sprint' at The Pleasance, 17th October 2018

Thursday, October 18, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Running is one of my favourite things in the world. Whether it be half marathons with the family, long cross-country runs through pretty locations or the occasional ultra test of physical and mental strength - it's all very much my bag. It's one of the few times in life where you're doing something you can't be distracted from - and where there are no excuses for failure.

So I got a lot out of Grace Chapman's It's Not a Sprint, a one-woman show in which her character Maddy, teetering on the edge of 30, runs a marathon while pondering big questions about her future. She's accompanied by her inner critic (a pre-recorded Chapman piped in over the speakers), who sharply and sadistically quizzes her about whether she should settle for her current boyfriend, whether she'll need to care for her mother as she ages and her ever-ticking biological clock.

With her boyfriend/potential fiance waiting for her at the finish line, the race provides a self-imposed structure and deadline for which to untangle these knots. They are the topics that you would rather not spend too much time pondering - the things that keep you up in bed at night as you curse your misbehaving brain for not letting you drop off to sleep. But, as her brain constantly reminds her "This is going to happen. And sooner rather than later."

As the show proceeds Maddy's physical and mental wellbeing become inextricably linked. For the first easy miles she's blase and carefree, clinging to optimism even in the face of impending disaster. Then, as the fatigue sets in and muscles begin to cramp, there's a negative onslaught of possible awful futures: isolation, miscarriages, loneliness, death. Finally, as she makes it onto that last mile and realises she's actually going to do this, Maddy knows that she's not the failure her voice in her head insists that she is.

After all, if you can run a marathon, then that counts for something. Sure, on paper it's a meaningless distance rewarded with a tin medal, but it proves that you can commit to something, grit your teeth and get through it. As Billy Ocean so memorably sang: "when the going gets tough, the tough get going".

But while the miseries that plague Maddy are well communicated - they are exceptionally familiar miseries. I've seen an awful lot of shows about women feeling as if their lives are a mess as they approach 30, contending with the metronomic beat of a ticking body clock. Watching these shows has made me appreciate the pressure to have children that women feel as they leave their twenties, but each of them says the same things in broadly the same ways and It's Not a Sprint doesn't break the pattern.

Plus you can get to the point where, after endless heartfelt monologues about the woes of the relatively well-off middle-class, you get a bit blase. After a while, you begin to grit their teeth at watching the bourgeoisie sing the blues about their, uh, *checks notes*, long-term relationship, personal physical fitness and committed and loving partner. Pass me the violin.

Despite my misgivings about the show's well-trodden emotional territory, It's Not a Sprint undeniably hits its beats. That is works as well as it does is a testament to Grace Chapman's charisma and dynamism - pulling out all the stops and practically dragging the audience along this marathon with her. It's funny, it's sharply written, it's well performed - if it's over-familiar at least it does it with style.

It's Not a Sprint is at The Pleasance, London until 20th October. Tickets here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review: 'War With The Newts' at The Bunker, 16th October 2018

Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The foundations of Great Britain are sunk deep in blood. Stand outside Buckingham Palace look at the Caribbean and African countries celebrated as British property: countries plundered for their resources and their populations enslaved. It's this stolen wealth that bought the 'Great' in Great Britain, the sweat and tears of our slaves that bind the Portland stone of our great buildings and the perpetrators of these atrocities that we honour with great statues.

So what does all that have to do with newts?

Well, Knaïve Theatre’s War With the News is adapted from Czech writer Karel Ĉapek's classic 1936 science fiction book of the same name. The broad strokes of the story concern mankind discovering a subaquatic race of (what they perceive as) semi-intelligent creatures. Realising their capacity to learn, mankind enslaves the species and reaps the economic benefits of free labour. But soon the newts learn enough to understand their predicament and turn on their former human masters.

Writer/director Tyrrell Jones' adaptation opens in a world of newt supremacy. In a nice (but ultimately inconsequential) bit of audience participation, the audience are survivors making their way to one of the final human colonies left on earth. On the trip, we're kept entertained by distant masked observers communicating through television screens (who themselves may well be newts) who give us a history lesson on the last couple of decades.

These historical vignettes (performed by Everal A. Walsh, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi and Sam Redway) range from an oyster trawler dredging the sea and discovering the newts for the first time, a speech championing their commercialisation, fraught negotiations between humans and the newly powerful newts and British refugees fleeing to Kazakhstan.

The common thread throughout these scenes are the humans repeatedly underestimating the newt's capabilities, being blinded by their own greed and suppressing their consciences. The finest example of this is a disturbing vivisection scene, in which a newt's internal organs are removed by a friendly scientist who ensures us the creature cannot comprehend what is happening to it, as a heart rate monitor beeps insistently in the background. 

For me, the highlight of the play was a late scene in negotiations where a desperate British ambassador pleads with a representative of the newts to save Britain. In recognition of the country's crimes against their species, the newts demand that the country be razed and transformed into a shallow breeding pond. As the British ambassador pleads and grovels ("Take Scotland! All of it!") you can't help but think of the ongoing disastrous Brexit negotiations.

And while it's a bit depressing to think of this country reduced to subaquatic rubble (in the play) or an economic basket case (reality), let's face it, we totally deserve everything that's coming to us. The fictional enslavement of the newts stands as a neat allegory for the many crimes Britain has committed to get us where we are today and - just as in the play - we are about to be righteously taken down a peg or two. It's time to pay the piper.

So yeah, I enjoyed it. Set designer Hannah Sibai's industrial orange packing crate scenery works beautifully, Luca Rudlin and Richard Williams video inserts are well produced, Tyrrell Jones' script nimbly encompasses comedy, horror and political sentiment, the cast doesn't put a foot wrong and it's a breezy, fast-paced 75 minutes in length.

My kinda theatre.

War With The Newts is at The Bunker until 27 October. Tickets here.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Review: 'Jekyll & Hyde' at Chickenshed Theatre, 11th October 2018

Friday, October 12, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Everyone knows Jekyll and Hyde, but I bet not many have actually read Robert Louis Stevenson's novella The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. That's with good reason: it's pretty damn boring. Readers in 1886 were blown away, but to modern audiences, the characters - especially the protagonist Mr Utterson - are straightlaced stuff-shirts, the epistolary style slows the pace to a crawl and the actual identity of Hyde is presented as twist when it's now too famous to surprise anyone.

Give me a toe-tappin' pop opera adaptation any day. This is Chickenshed's Jekyll & Hyde, who take the story, run it through a London Dungeon style funhouse horror filter, pump in billowing clouds of dry ice, a bunch of pleasantly lurid lighting and has some fun with it.

The tone is set even before the audience has had a chance to sit down. In a neat (and pretty original!) detail, the Victorian London stage design leaks out of the studio performance space and into the corridor, gradually easing you onto the cobbles of their foggy streets. 

Before the show begins, a hawker (Will Laurence - excellent throughout) hands out Penny Dreadfuls explaining the plot to the audience, bantering back and forth as he drums up business. I'm a big believer in first impressions and that you can tell whether a production is going to be good in the first couple of minutes. This all bodes well.

When we're actually up and running it's clear what vibe director Jonny Morton and his team are going for: this is Jekyll & Hyde via Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd (or any number of cranked up Victorian caricatures).

Even better, while I've seen some seriously plodding adaptations of this story in my time, this one doesn't mess about. The tale is told economically and quickly, skipping to and accentuating the exciting bits of gothic horror we all want to see. An early highlight is the 'Trampling of the Girl', in which the chorus watch from above as a cloaked, bestial figure has his way with 'Poverty's Child'. It's a neat sequence, followed by a well-choreographed dance in which her corpse is spookily paraded about the room - a real-life Penny Dreadful.

But it's Jekyll/Hyde we're all here to see, and Nathaniel Leigertwood doesn't disappoint. There's a sense of manic compulsion to his Jekyll as he wrestles with the implications and freedom of Hyde. His Hammer Horror laboratory is stocked with vials of strange liquids, making the division between the composed and elegant man and his raving private life that much fiercer.

Leigertwood absolutely nails the transformation sequences too, writhing and shuddering in dramatically - before becoming low, feral and simian, his hair raggedly hanging over his face. There's a real sense of danger as he prowls the stage, his voice lowered to a guttural growl. It's a real 'everything and the kitchen sink' kind of performance - and is key to the show working as well as it does. 

There are a couple of flies in the ointment. I wasn't a huge fan of some of the arrangements in the pre-recorded score, which occasionally sounded a bit like Casio keyboard presets. The melodies are great and there are a couple of brill hooks, but a more contemporary production would have been nice. In addition, there are a couple of vocal moments that are beyond the cast's capabilities, but I don't want to criticise an ambitious book too much.

So colour me impressed. As the autumn nights draw in and the mercury steadily drops, you could do far worse than to stalk the foggy streets of Victorian London with Chickenshed. 

Jekyll & Hyde runs until 20 October at the Chickenshed Theatre. Tickets here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Review: 'Love, Genius & A Walk' at the Drayton Arms Theatre, 8th October 2018

Tuesday, October 9, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

On the 26th of August 1910 in Leiden, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler met for four hours. Love, Genius and a Walk imagines what they might have said. For classical music buffs, their chat is a tantalising opportunity to get under Mahler's skin in the year before he died. We know he was having marital problems relating to his young wife Alma, we know he was working hard on his (never completed) Symphony No. 10,  and we know that afterwards, he was quite a different man.

This conversation is at the core of Gay Walley's play and comprises much of the final act. The rest of the play tries to get under the skin of Gustav's marriage with Alma, which includes a passionate affair with Walter Gropius (who would go on to found the hugely influential Bauhaus school).

All that is bookended by the marital problems of a contemporary couple in New York. He's a Wall Street risk manager / she's an unsuccessful but well-regarded author who is currently researching Mahler.

Writing a play about geniuses is never easy (for obvious reasons), and Love, Genius and a Walk struggles to convince. The act of Mahler's composition - which to me seems like one of his core elements - is reduced to him hunched over a desk occasionally. A little more egregiously we're constantly told but not shown how great his music is. There are frequent scenes in which it's breathlessly communicated how he plumbs the depths of human emotion, but we only actually get to hear a very short excerpt as the play finishes.

Freud doesn't fare much better - feeling like an aphorism-machine rather than a three-dimensional character. It's a bit weird when the Freud in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure is a more believable version of the man, but heyo.

Despite all that, Lloyd Morris and Brendan Wyer are decent enough actors and the conversation the play centres on works well enough. Their moments together are easily the best bits of the play. If the play had 'just' dramatised their conversation that might have been enough.

And then there are the scenes set in the modern day. Hot tip playwrights: if you want me to care about your characters' woes do not make them two of the most egregiously awful arseholes you can conjure. Now, Benjamin Murray's Steve being a prick is fine, sure he fails at being wryly unpleasant and lands at just-plain-unpleasant, but at least he's supposed to be awful. Helen Cunningham's 'The Writer' however - boy fuckin' howdy...

What theatre really doesn't need right now is privileged white women ennui-ing all over their fancy Manhattan apartments about how they're torn between their arsehole husband and some floppy-haired drip. Maybe its Cunningham's affected *yawn* seen it all before line delivery, maybe it's the way she and her husband casually shit all over what they consider 'low' culture, maybe it's just because for all their her supposed intelligence and culture she clearly has nothing to say about the world...

Let's just say it's difficult to care about characters' problems when you're imagining them blindfolded, stood against a concrete wall and being offered a last cigarette.

While the core idea of imagining what Mahler and Freud discussed is fine, I simply didn't enjoy Love, Genius & A Walk. It's over-long, pretty damn boring and, as a singer-who-now-shall-not-be-named once wailed: "it says nothing to me about my life." I suspect it won't say much to you either.

Love, Genius & A Walk was at the Drayton Arms Theatre on 7-8 October 2018.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Review: 'Rallying Cry' at the Batterseas Arts Centre, 4th October 2018

Friday, October 5, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

At some point in 2015 we unwittingly entered Hellworld. Now it feels like the planet is spinning off its axis, each glance over the headlines cranking up that churning feeling in your belly that we might be fucked. Sober scientists explain that we're way beyond the point of no return to ecological armageddon, politicians seem to be getting both dumber and uglier, and the large numbers seem happy to retreat into dosed solipsism. 

But not everyone. Apples and Snakes, a poetry and spoken word performance organisation, is culminating their 35-year celebrations with Rallying Cry, an ambitious piece of theatre that tries its damnedest to give audiences a kick up the arse. 

Set in Battersea Arts Centre (impressively rising from the ashes after the 2015 fire) the audience is divided into various groups of protesters (campaigners, slacktivists, lobbyists etc) and each group follows a marshall around the building, encountering performers in various rooms before gathering together for a big finale in the old council chamber.

Roger Robinson
There's an impressive list of poets on the programme, but time constraints mean we'll only get to see a selection of them. First on the schedule was dub poet Roger Robinson, who delivered a righteously angry diatribe against the racist killing of a black child by a white gang, asking us to stand up and protest this. Robinson has a magnetic stage presence - and though his rage is tinged with sadness and fatigue, it's no less visceral for it. At one point this extends to the audience - an offhanded comment that should become a politicians draws laughs, only for him to indignantly ask why that is so funny. 

Towards the end of the performance, he begins to act out the murder, making his own percussive sound effects into a microphone as he mimes the beating - showing us the kicks that broke the boy's jaw and the thrusts of the knife that killed him. It's capped off by a desperately sad moment where he imagines the final thoughts of the victim as he feels his blood seep down onto the pavement. We don't have to imagine this for too long, as it's concluded by dripping red fluid onto a projector, creating a gradually spreading crimson Rorschach behind him. 

It was one hell of a performance - worth the price of a ticket alone. Oakley Flanagan's piece, delivered to his own illuminated reflection in a backstage dressing room, is an interesting rumination on identity and the various roles society demands he occupy. But while the piece is entertainingly and charismatically delivered it obfuscates meaning behind flights of literary fancy. There is real pathos and anger here, but it's dressed in so many fabulous layers of wordplay that you only catch glimpses of it.

More effective is Peter deGraft-Johnson in the Council Chamber Dressing Room, who achieves a surprising amount with silence. Beginning with an exuberant performance as a DJ he pauses, removes his headphones and stands in silence. For long moments we just hear the hum of the air conditioning and experience the awkwardness of having nothing to say. He eventually explains that silence is a weapon and can be terrifying when deployed in the right way - a useful perspective in a night that shows how effective words can be.

Antonia Jade King begins immediately afterwards with a lengthy bit of clowning around an over-extended microphone stand. This didn't do much for me, but the actual poem that came afterwards was brill. She speaks about participating in a Women's March and critiquing the casual way whiteness is considered 'normal' at it. It's a neat take-down of Instagram liberalism, with the best moment her indignantly asking why all the vaginas on the placards have to be pink. 

Antonia Jade King
After a beautiful performance of The Internationale by Abdul Shyllon, Heidi Vogel, Marcina Arnold and Geniyo, we're moved into to the Council Chamber for the climax. This consists of a beautifully written, delivered and photographed video by Lemn Sissay - the highlight of which is him pointing out that everything around us originated in someone's imagination: the poetry, the music, the roads we travelled here on, the reconstructed Battersea Arts Centre - even the very words we use. 

The concept behind this was later described to me as a 'state of the nation' - and this continues in Zena Edwards performance delivered from an upstairs balcony. Looking a little like Eva Peron, she delivers an upbeat piece about the importance of small acts of kindness. This does get a bit inspirational-postery with its commandments to smile at strangers and ask old people how their day was... but what the hell, I'm in a good mood now and this goes down really easy. They're followed by a live band, Tree House Fire, but it's getting late and I have to cycle back to East London.

Aside from the excellent poetry, I'm in awe of the clockwork precision of the night. Ferrying this many people around a building in synchronisation with each other to various performances (all of which must be precisely timed) is one hell of an ambitious undertaking. This experience, combined with the building being interesting in its own right, makes for a great framework: the performances as jewels beautifully set in a crown of competent and intelligent organising.

My only criticism is that knowing there are twelve performers and only getting to see three of them on a single ticket (and for that matter, not being able to choose who you get to see) means that it's impossible to experience everything the night has to offer. That I deeply wanted to do this probably tells you all you need to know about how much I enjoyed it.

Though the world might be fucked beyond saving, it's cheering to know there are pockets of warmth, creativity and talent like this nestled within it. The poster shows a woman waving a sign reading "We Are Better Than This!". I don't know that humanity as a whole is better than how we're currently behaving, but after Rallying Cry, I feel like we can at least imagine a better tomorrow. And as Sissay explained, imagining is the first step to making it reality.

Rallying Cry is at the Battersea Arts Centre from 4-6 October, 19:00 and 20:30 shows. Tickets here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review: 'Hear Me Howl' at the Old Red Lion, 25th September 2018

Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

There are few things more terrifying than the crushing weight of conformity. My personal hell would be trudging home from a mindless job to an identikit home on an identikit street, eating bland food and staring blearily eyed at a television as reality TV rises up around my eyeballs and slowly but inexorably kneads my brain into a soft, grey mush.

This quicksand can envelop even the most dynamic, interesting and cool people and it's what Jess (Alice Pitt-Carter), the lead character feels tickling her ankles throughout writer Lydia Rynne's excellent one-woman show Hear Me Howl.

She's a 29-year-old office worker living in London with a Tim-nice-but-dim boyfriend and a demeaning job as a PA. On paper, she's got it made: a steady source of income; a long-term partner; and a relatively secure apartment. On trips to visit her boyfriend's family winking  and handsy uncles press her on when the pair will finally tie the knot, which causes bile to rise in her throat.

The future solidifying into something ghastly makes her suddenly aware of her situation - as if she's a frog who has just realised the water around her is coming to the boil. Just as she's concluding things need to change, fate lobs a baby-shaped hand grenade into her life. Jess is pregnant, and now must grapple with whether to keep this baby. 

And, In the midst of this meltdown, the abrasive don't-give-a-fuck sounds of punk rock slice through the Gordian knot of her life.

The obvious pitfall that Hear Me Howl faces is that the troubles of a British middle-class white woman don't amount to a hill of beans these days. Fortunately, Rynne tackles this head-on, convincingly weaving Jess' guilt at knowing that there are people in far more difficult situations than her in the world into part of the psychic storm she's facing.

This storm gradually intensifies as the reality of her situation sets in - facing fears about the stigma she'll suffer from her friends and family after getting an abortion, the guilt of wondering what kind of life this potential human might have had, the fear that she might become infertile and bitterly regret passing up her one chance, the notion that maybe a child will transform her life and bring her happiness. 

All this is swirling around in her head - but then she discovers punk (well, post-punk but let's not split hairs). Though Jess has no musical experience she ends up as the drummer of a band called Finrot and suddenly realises what's been missing in her life all these years. The tangle of suppressed anger, indignation and humiliation that her bourgeois existence expected her to bear explodes out of her out in a clattering, chaotic boom of cymbals and drums.

In a way, this abandonment of conformity and embracing a subculture makes Hear Me Howl a kind of estrogen-fuelled reworking of Fight Club, with Jess finally comprehending her social bondage and screaming "up yours!".

With its use of percussion to communicate frustration and a set that looks like a gig is going to begin immediately after the play concludes, Hear Me Howl successfully captures angry punk liberation: the blissful liberation of realising you don't actually have to give a fuck, that perhaps what every advertisement paints as paradise is your nightmare - and that you've just discovered the escape hatch.

Pitt-Carter's performance is believably frayed but charismatic, constantly engaging with individual members of the audience to draw them into her story, and Rynne's writing is full of poetic yet unpretentious literary flourishes. Plus, the show really knows its punk (possibly due to Fay Milton, drummer of Savages credited as Music Consultant).. My kinda play - check it out!

Hear Me Howl is at the Old Red Lion until 29th September. Tickets here.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Review: 'Hamilton (Lewis)' at the King's Head Theatre, 6th September 2018

Friday, September 7, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

During the opening scene of David Eaton and Fiona English's Hamilton (Lewis) I'm warned that I won't get much out of it if I'm not familiar with (a) Hamilton, the hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda or (b) Formula 1 racing. 


Pretty much everything I know about Hamilton comes from the last season of Curb Your Enthusiasm and I'm completely clueless about Formula 1.

In practice, this means that the majority of the gags go right over my head. The majority of the audience is clearly familiar with the musical, so all it takes is for a certain beat to start playing to arouse ripples of giggles. Meanwhile, I'm sitting there slightly befuddled trying to work out if I've missed a joke I should have been able to get, or whether the scene I'm watching was actually part of Lewis Hamilton's life, part of founding father Alexander Hamilton's life parodied via Lewis Hamilton, or simply a surreal moment in its own right.

You could argue that attending a show billed as a musical parody and not knowing the show being parodied is a fool's errand (and you've got a pretty good point), but surely a really good parody should be able to stand as a piece of theatre in its own right without every audience member possessing intimate knowledge of the subject?

And, while I might be expecting a bit much of a show that freely admits they came up with the title first and worked backwards, it doesn't have much to say about Lewis Hamilton. This is a ridiculous comedy, but even so our hero doesn't have a narrative arc so much as a narrative flatline. There's a muddled moral about him losing sight of the pleasure of racing in favour of publicity and sponsorship that doesn't go anywhere and the frequent hints that he's secretly gay never sat quite right with me. It ends with the show admitting that Lewis Hamilton's life doesn't make for a satisfying musical, so at least they're aware of it.

That's far from the only moment the show makes excuses for itself. One thing I do know about Hamilton is that it's a densely lyrical rap musical. Hamilton (Lewis) does have the occasional rap number, but in the opening, it's explained that songs like these are really, really hard to write - so much of the show is going to be a traditional musical. Oh. Okay.

I'm probably coming down too hard on the show. It's not that I had a bad time - the cast (Letitia Hector, Liberty Buckland, Louis Mackrodt and Jamie Barwood) are all fine performers and wring the material like a wet dishcloth to squeeze out every drop of comedy they can.

But the show spends an awful lot of time making light of the fact that it's been slapped together very quickly and that it doesn't make a lot of sense. Points for honesty, but identifying your shortcomings doesn't magic them away. If you're a Hamilton fan this might be worth a look and if you're a Lewis Hamilton fan this might be the one chance you get to see a musical about him, but it didn't do a lot for me.

Hamilton (Lewis) is at the King's Head Theatre until 22nd September. Tickets here.

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