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Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review: 'The Half Moon Shania' at Vault Festival, 6th February 2019

Thursday, February 7, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Shampoo are one of the most underrated bands of the 1990s. Best known for their 1994 hit Trouble, the band (Jacqui and Carrie) began as a Manic Street Preachers fan club and made up for a lack of musical ability with buckets of attitude. Sceptical? Check out their absolutely incredible video for second single Bouffant Headbutt and get back to me. So why am I talking about a largely forgotten 1990s pop-punk duo?

Well, because the G-Stringz reminded me of them as soon as I walked into the theatre (and especially when they began teasing me for sitting in the front row). The G-Stringz are Kerry (writer Cara Baldwin), Lola (Freya Parks) and Jill (Catherine Davies), the spiky teenage punks of Burnt Lemon Theatre's The Half Moon Shania.

The year is 1999 and we are in The Half Moon pub attending the make or break gig for the band.  The G-Stringz are sixth form pupils with dreams of stardom, dreams which might be realised if the talent scout from Diamond Records that's in attendance likes the show. They open with a slightly rickety punk cover of Man, I Feel Like A Woman, with their practised snarls and guitar moves papering over any bum notes.

As the gig proceeds, the songs are interspersed with vignettes through which we see how the three met, their thoughts on musical success and, for one of them, the decision on whether to accept a place in university or not. Their problems might be small and domestic, but the writing captures the way small things often seem like life and death when you're in adolescence.

I was pretty certain I was going to enjoy The Half Moon Shania from the moment I stepped into the room. I've been a huge fan of female-fronted punk for as long as I can remember: nursing a burning admiration not just for 90s pop-punk pioneers like Shampoo but for classic punk and riot grrl bands like X-Ray Spex, The Slits, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Why do I like them so much? Well, they're hugely important culturally and politically but mainly it's because women who don't give a single fuck screaming into a microphone to killer riffs are awesome.

But The Half Moon Shania isn't just surface level cool. The trio's onstage punk rock bluster is gradually revealed as an attempt to conceal their own vulnerability and lack of agency. After all, despite their aggressively independent image, they are hoping this gig will impress a talent scout (who they assume is a man). It introduces an awkward but interesting dissonance to the show, the band playing under an implicit male gaze and offering up their feminist rebellion for commodification by powerful men.

Late in the show, the danger of unaccountable men in positions of power and the vulnerability of the characters becomes explicit - and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the subtext rapidly becoming text in the final moments. Here the show heads into some pretty serious territory and then doesn't have the time to explore the consequences - ending on a frustrating and ambiguous note. But then maybe that's the point.

While I'm being a teeny bit critical, I also think the staging leaves a little bit to be desired. While the thrust staging allows the actors to transition from performing a gig on stage to 'real-life' on the ground, it also divides the audience into blocks and prevents any communal excitement building. Perhaps it was just the audience I was with, but I've been to a lot of punk gigs and I would have killed for a bit of the sweaty chaos you find there. The show is only 50 minutes long - why not have the audience stand as if this was actually a gig?

But realistically there was no way I wasn't going to enjoy The Half Moon Shania. It hits so many of my cultural touchstones that I was won even before I took my seat. The three actors are great and the show has an appropriately ragged DIY edge to it that captures the thrill and freedom of punk. Recommended.

The Half Moon Shania is at VAULT Festival until 10 Feb. Tickets and times here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Review: 'The Cult Of K*NZO' at Camden People's Theatre, 5th February 2019

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

When Paula Varjack explains that she was waiting at 4am on a November morning outside Westfield Shopping Centre to be one of the first to get into H&M, I felt a combination of pity and confusion. I neither care about nor understand fashion; it's as relevant to my life as what's happening on the surface of Mars. But I am ready to learn.

The backbone of The Cult of K*NZO is high-end fashion label KENZO's 2016 collaboration with high street retailer H&M. This was the latest in a series of this type of collaboration, with previous launches descending into chaos as shoppers swarmed through the shop and fought each other for whatever clothes remained. 

These memories are why Varjack was there so easy - even though that day was also the day of her book launch when she should really be getting some rest. The show uses the KENZO/H&M launch as a fulcrum to delve into the power of brand names. It quickly becomes apparent that the "cult" in the title isn't there for laughs, the show treats Prada, Dior, Chanel and Gucci as if they're ancient Gods that must be paid homage to.

The most crushingly depressing part of the show comes in a series of confessional moments when Varjack explains how intimidated she feels even looking in the window of a Dior shop in London. Later she dresses up (the outfit is of course very carefully chosen), in the hopes of passing herself off as a "rich bitch" that might just be able to afford something here. Once inside, she apes another shopper, fantasising about being like her.

Behaviour like this is part of why the world is such a shit place for so many. One of the best bits of bamboozling ever conducted by the wealthy and ruling class is convincing us that, if we just tried hard enough, we can be like them. But odds are ridiculously stacked against us. We are not future Dior customers. We are far, far more likely to end up sleeping on a cardboard box as Dior customers step over us.

Idolising these customers, the labels and their products contributes to the worship of wealth, which leads people to consider themselves 'temporarily embarrassed millionaires' who will vote in the droves for political parties that will lower tax rates on the wealthiest and cut away society's safety net. Sure, Dior et al are merely symptoms of the disease, but their existence is a reminder of the gross societal inequality that must soon be excised.

This process is quite neatly encapsulated in the way Varjack summarises her experience with KENZO/H&M. She can't afford a genuine KENZO dress, but the cross-promotion with a high street retailer means that she can get a taste of what it is like to be wealthy. And, for a brief moment, she does. For what it's worth the dress at the core of the show is beautiful and looks great on her.

Once we've admired it, there follows a fantastic coda in which she returns to H&M on Black Friday to discover that not only has the KENZO/H&M range not sold out, but that they're now actually discounting it. To a background of an expanding collage of Instagrammers all wearing the same 'unique' dress, we understand that she has been lied to. Sure, the dress is pretty, but its value as a commodity isn't just in its design: it's in its exclusivity, the way it summarises you as an individual and the way you shivered to get hold of it. The marketing team knew all this, went out looking for suckers and found you.

I really, really enjoyed The Cult of K*NZO. It does a great job of showing how people feel an indefinable void in their lives and how capitalism has taught them that the best way to squash that feeling is by consumption. The brands tease an unattainable paradise that's as much a fiction as anything L. Ron Hubbard could cook up. It makes a very convincing argument of fashion being a secular religion with its own gods, priests and rituals, and full of intensely symbolic totems whose worth is entirely divorced from the raw materials they're composed of.

It's a cracker of a show and I've already been sending people on their way to see it. Whether you're clueless about fashion or absolutely committed to it, Varjack will give you a hell of a lot to think about.

The Cult of K*NZO is at Camden People's Theatre until 9th February, then on tour. Details and tickets here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Review: 'Cuzco' at Theatre503, 28th January 2019

Tuesday, January 29, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Colonialism leaves an ugly scar. Peru was once home to the powerful Inca Empire, but the 16th century saw the arrival of Spanish conquistadors who invaded, murdered their way through the indigenous peoples and began extracting as much of value from the country as they could. Present-Day Peru is still affected by this crime - in language, architecture, politics and culture.

Victor Sánchez Rodriguez' play Cuzco (translated by William Gregory) tries to map out what colonialism means for contemporary Peru. His vehicle for this is two Spanish tourists, "She" (Dilek Rose) and "He" (Gareth Kieran Jones). They're on a pretty typical Peruvian backpacking holiday, hoping to explore the Ince Trail, eat some nice food, drink some beers and visit Machu Picchu.

What actually happens is their already wobbly relationship falls apart - its faultlines widening under the pressure of being in an alien culture and their postcolonial guilt. She holes up in series of identikit hotel rooms and battles altitude sickness while walking the streets alone. He makes friends with a swinging couple and slowly socially excludes her. They bicker, and gets worse the further they travel.

Though the action stays confined to hotel rooms, the dialogue effectively paints a picture of the world outside, particularly in the experiences of "Her". She is received by regular Peruvians as just another tourist - having a baby llama shoved into her hands for a photo op, being coerced into paying for a relaxing massage, or given a hard sell on bottles of water. She had assumed that Spain and Peru's shared language and various bits of culture would make her feel at home - but quickly realises that these surface similarities make the profound differences much more pronounced.

When the play is dealing with their impressions of Peru it's at its best, but sadly the relationship drama doesn't hold up quite as well. Perhaps something has been lost in translation, but their arguments are often clunkily written, with the actors doing their best with dialogue that probably works well in Spanish but less so in English. In particular, there's a mini-monologue by "He" late in the play in which he seeks to prove he too has an artistic soul. I'll give the play the benefit of the doubt that it's a creative choice to have him deliver a word salad of tortured similes, but either way, it looks a pain to perform.

Also, while I respect the play's willingness to engage with the long-term consequences of colonialism (a topic still generally swept under the rug in the UK), Cuzco still ends up being the story of a wealthy foreigner on a voyage of self-discovery through someone else's poverty. There are no Peruvian characters on stage, which makes them feel at best an abstraction and at worst a prop by which the female protagonist comes to terms with herself. 

It leaves Cuzco as an interesting play with several interesting moments and an intelligent sense of the weight of history, but one that gradually loses itself in melodrama. My brain was engaged, but I never genuinely cared about either of these characters. Eventually, their shared plight becomes tedious and by the time we get to the somewhat confusing ending I was checked out.

Cuzco is at Theatre503 until 16 February. Tickets here.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Review: 'No Show' at the Soho Theatre, 24th January 2019

Friday, January 25, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Life as a professional circus performer doesn't sound much fun. 

Learning the skills is intense, painful and (I'm guessing) expensive. Relying on your body for your livelihood means that you must constantly train and watch your diet. An injury can permanently scupper your career. The pay is variable and generally not great. Then there's the simple fact that the nature of what you're doing comes with a baked in age limit - and there are always younger, fitter, bendier, injury-free people entering the industry. On top of that, as we learn with No Show, the circus industry treats women really shittily.

So why do people do it? Is that gasp you get from an audience as you spiral gracefully through the air worth all the misery? Creator/director Ellie Dubois and performers Francesca Hyde, Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Camille Toyer and Alice Gilmartin set out to deconstruct the traditional circus show, showing us the psychological and physical pressures behind the sequins and vaseline smiles.

In a way, the audience gets to have their cake and eat it. Not only do we get to see physical feats of strength, balance, flexibility and endurance, but we also learn about what's going on in the performer's mind as they do so.

Early on we get a statement of intent from the show in the form of a Cyr wheel routine from Camille Toyer. I've seen a bunch of these over the years and familiarity with this act has made me a little blase. Much of that was swept away here, as Kate McWilliam gives a running commentary on the potential injuries that can be caused: with the performer risking crushed fingers and toes, broken bones or a fractured skull. Explicitly outlining the physical dangers is a blunt way of cranking up the tension - but it works.

No Show really hits its stride when it gets into the way women are treated within the industry. McWilliam delivers a short speech outlining her career, explaining that while she prefers to do tumbling and gymnastics there is a constant pressure for women to do 'dainty and feminine' routines that emphasise their fragility.

Then you have Alice Gilmartin's repeated efforts to introduce herself to the audience - she generally only gets a few words in before the microphone is snatched from her hands and she's forced into a handstand on the canes. The other women provide a running commentary as she does so: criticising her poise, lack of engagement with the audience, make comments like "she's got her legs open as usual" and generally demean her. You realise that while it's all rictus grins on stage, there's an awful lot of misery going on in rehearsals.

As a show conceived and performed by women, No Show is something of an anomaly in the circus world. Generally, acrobatics and circus shows are mixed sex affairs, with beefy men launching skinny women high into the air. I'd unthinkingly accepted this as just the way things were, but Dubois and the performers gave me a lot to think about. 

It strikes me that (in much the same way as other corners of the entertainment industry) your professional career is at the mercy of powerful men with carte blanche to decide the nature of your routine. If that means you're being sent out in a skimpy Barbie-doll costume to grin and twirl before a leering audience, then that's the nature of the game honey, and you'd best get used to it if you know what's good for you.

Learning all this makes the most satisfying moment of the performance one of the most low key: the performers sit on the ground next to one another and silently eat a jam doughnut. It's a funny, dignified and weirdly moving protest, grabbing back a smidge of autonomy in an industry designed to stamp that out. 

No Show doesn't provide jaw-dropping stunts you can't see anywhere else, but it has a political dimension that no other circus show even attempts to provide. Check it out.

No Show is at the Soho Theatre until 9th February. Tickets here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: 'Original Death Rabbit' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 22nd January 2018

Wednesday, January 23, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

"The Internet Makes You Stupid" is the slogan of 1990s era humour site Back when they coined it, the idea was ridiculous. After all, the early online evangelists explained that the world wide web; would make the entirety of human knowledge accessible to everyone. This democratisation would inevitably cause society to move beyond petty ideologies and onward to a utopia of well-informed 'netizens' with a solid grasp on reality.

What the internet actually turned out to be was a fucked up mental bondage machine designed to reinforce prejudices, calcify bizarre beliefs and imprison us within echo chambers that distort the real world while mysterious algorithms try and figure out what we want to buy next. 

Rose Heiney's Original Death Rabbit gets under the skin of our dystopia, condensing the various online eras through a monologue delivered by an unnamed protagonist (played by Kimberley Nixon - who for the sake of disclosure I know personally). 

In the pre-social media 2000s, this character became a meme after inadvertently crashing a funeral while wearing a fuzzy pink bunny onesie. She explains how her photograph launched a tasteless fad of 'death rabbiting', culminating in her being doorstepped by reporters and exposed to merciless online critics who quickly deemed her an "ugly cunt". But by the time Twitter launches, her notoriety mutates into minor online celebrity and sends her spiralling down into social media addiction, anonymous trolling and a desperate need for validation.

Original Death Rabbit covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes: making time for lengthy discussion of Richard Curtis movies; whether it's possible to separate Philip Larkin's sexism and racism from his poetry; the nature of class and racial privilege; exploiting friends and family's lives for creative work; and, building up to a crescendo towards the end, the difficulties of talking about mental health.

As is repeatedly acknowledged in the play, "Mental health is a really difficult issue". It is, and Heiney treats it with empathy overlaid with a deft wit. We hear how the protagonist's father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his 50s, and we see in the behaviour of Nixon's character how it may be hereditary. One of my favourite things in the play is the chicken/egg conundrum between mental health and the internet: does being extremely online exacerbate (or cause) mental health problems, or do mental health problems cause people to retreat to a virtual existence?

There aren't easy answers to questions like these and Original Death Rabbit rightly doesn't attempt to provide them. What it does do is get under the skin of online life: exploring the layers of pseudonyms and characters people interact as, the endorphin rush of having a bona fide celebrity reply to you, the way that real life gently morphs into a series of potential Instagram opportunities and the rush of being able to tell someone you despise to just fucking kill yourself already jeez.

The early internet utopians never saw the Skinner box of social media and algorithm-driven content coming, but if they could have known how much future generations would be infested with brainworms I bet they'd have taken a crowbar to the ARPANET servers, Skynet-style. Or, as the play puts it,
"Thank you, Tim Berners Lee. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I bow down to you the way a dying alcoholic bows down to whoever the fuck first left grapes in a bottle too long."
So yeah, I really liked Original Death Rabbit. It's smart, funny, touching - and genuinely understands the history and culture of the internet in a way that most theatre doesn't. On top of that, Louie Whitmore's set is impressively detailed and allows you to get to know the character before she's set foot on stage. Plus, Kimberley Nixon is great - and I promise I'd say that even if didn't know her.

Watching the play you get to thinking about all the weirdo online shut-ins who spend their days endlessly shitposting. What would their lives have been like if they weren't getting their validation from numbers ticking up on a website? Did so many people hate so much before there was an online void to project their hate into? Let's face it, the internet was a mistake.

Original Death Rabbit is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 9th February. Tickets here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review: 'The Daughter-In-Law' at the Arcola Theatre, 21st January 2019

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Written in 1913, DH Lawrence's The Daughter-In-Law teeters on the precipice of modernity. Set in a Nottinghamshire mining town, its characters unknowingly look down the barrel of the Great War while being rooted in traditions and languages that feel as if they're hearkening back to the Iron Age.

This working-class domestic drama revolves around newlyweds Luther and Minnie (Matthew Barker and Ellie Nun), Luther's brother Joe (Matthew Biddulph) and their mother (Veronica Roberts). A handful of weeks after he's married, Luther is stunned to find out that a drunken encounter with the daughter of Mrs Purdy (Tessa Bell-Briggs) has resulted in a pregnancy.

This chucks a bomb into their ordered world, blasting right through the firmly established social fabric of the mining community. It throws up questions of proprietary in which Luther must grapple with preserving his marriage and doing right by his impending child, with his mother trying her best to navigate a path through it. Meanwhile, Minnie's expectations of what a husband should be are blown to smithereens, throwing Luther's existing flaws into stark relief.

It's a decent story and, after a slightly slow opening scene, keeps the audience engaged. But while the narrative is the engine of the piece, there's an awful lot of interesting stuff going on around it. Most interesting to me was the palpable sense of the modern world struggling to be born. Rumbling away in the background of the story is the miner's discontent, which eventually boils over into a strike. Luther and Joe both participate in this to the point of violence against scabs (or 'blacklegs'), and you sense a burgeoning political consciousness rooted in experience and a sense of injustice rather than dry theory.

Lawrence balances the men's work at the pit with the women's domestic lives at home - each portrayed as strenuous in their own ways. It's a contrast that's neatly conveyed in an early scene in which Luther returns home caked in soot and eats dinner before cleaning up. Face and hands jet black, he looks like a negative image of his wife, who shudders as he breaks bread with his filthy fingers. And yet, for a moment, the pair harmonise with one another - demonstrating an equilibrium between the professional and domestic spheres.

The harmony doesn't last for long. Luther's masculinity comes under threat and Minnie makes a sorta-feminist break for Manchester, from which she returns in an outfit that makes her look like she's arrived from a different century. From this point, the play begins to ponder what men and women truly mean to one another (albeit from a 1913 perspective). Luther and Joe's mother hits the nail on the head when she explains that her love of her sons is balanced against the pain and fear they bring. 

It's a conclusion that feels universal - and despite the play being at a precise point in time and space it appears weirdly ancient. Geoff Hense's low lighting could be dim electric bulbs, gaslights or candles burning in the gloom. Louis Whitmore's set, anchored by a heavy wooden dining table, manages to be both naturalistic and suggestive of vast swathes of historical interior design at a stroke. The costume design, especially of the older women, also feels strangely archaic, with Mrs Purdy's flat leather hat looking like something that could be worn in the medieval era.

And then there's the language. The Daughter-In-Law's programme comes with a glossary helping you decipher the dense dialect. Most of it you can work out from context, but the characters often drop terms like "clunch", "flig" or "clat-fart" into conversation. In addition, they talk quickly and with a precise enunciation that requires you to pay attention to everything they're saying lest you lose the thread. I don't know how prevalent this dialect is now, but it goes a long way towards making the situation alien to a modern audience.

With all this going on it's difficult not to ponder how much the world of these characters has been obliterated. On the plus side, the rigid gender roles that the characters struggle against are now much more flexible, marriage is not a life sentence and we live in a more permissive society. And yet there's a strong sense of identity and community in The Daughter-In-Law that's now a quickly fading memory. 

The characters talk of their pride in the engines of industry moving in their towns, the never-dimming light of the factories and the pride in the quality of their labour. This is just a memory now: coal mining and the communities it supported are extinct in Nottinghamshire. In their place lies a yawning void of zero-hours contracts, social deprivation and political disillusionment. I wouldn't want to live in the world of The Daughter-In-Law, but even so, I mourn its passing.

The Daughter-In-Law is at the Arcola Theatre until 2nd February 2019. Tickets here.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Review: 'Anomaly' at the Old Red Lion, 10th January 2019

Friday, January 11, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

I imagine that having a celebrity in your family is as much a curse as a blessing. Sure, there's someone with a bit of clout to bail you out if things get really bad and probably a couple of neat parties you get to attend, but at the same time your identity is forever in someone else's shadow and your family name is in their hands. 

This is the territory covered by Liv Warden's Anomaly. Taking cues from the #MeToo revelations (and particularly the case of Harvey Weinstein), the play covers the problems of high-profile Preston family. Weinsteinian film producer and entertainment mogul Phillip Preston created 'Preston International' in the 1980s, which has risen to Oscar-winning dominance. Along the way, he fathered three daughters: business heir Piper (Natasha Cowley); A-list actor Penny (Katherine Samuelson); and the reclusive Polly (Alice Handoll) (who begins the show in rehab).

Their lives are thrown into chaos after their father is been arrested for violently attacking their mother, following which a surge of revelations about his predatory treatment of women explode into the media. The three women are torn between loyalty to their family and their own individual reputations - not to mention the growing suspicion that to some degree they were complicit in his actions.

I've always had a fascination for how people deal with their loved ones being suddenly revealed as monsters. How must it feel to be, say, the family of Kevin Spacey? For decades he's been the golden boy and his family and close friends would have basked in his shared glory. When that limelight curdles, what on earth do you do?

Anomaly makes an attempt to answer this. Various reactions include a call for family unity and a warning on making judgments before the facts are clear, a violent separation from the family via publicly disowning them and a PR led hedging of bets - trying miserably to take no position at all. On top of that Piper and Penny have careers of their own to consider and must quickly decide how this is going to affect them - if they cut and run and their father survives this it's going to make for some awkward family get-togethers.

Anomaly is at its best when picking at this knotty situation. Unfortunately, there's a whole bunch of structural flaws that prevent it being half the play it could be. First and foremost there's the very strange decision to geographically separate the characters from one another and have them interact solely by phone. It means the drama stays cold-blooded and that we never see the conflicts between the characters boil over into catharsis. It also affects the performances, denying the actors the chance to feed off each other's emotions and results in what feels like a series of stitched together monologues rather than dialogues.

Along the same lines, it's a little confusing as to what's going on with the voice-over dialogue from various media presences - who seem to have supernatural powers of insight as to what's going on. I'm all for a bit of surreal blurring of reality, but in a play that's already far from straightforward them being perpetually undefined. Plus, the play's treatment of media is just a bit off, with lines that refer to the characters being together on "international radio" sounding weirdly archaic.

Then there's the theoretically simple plot becoming bogged down with needless twists. As it transpires, Philip Preston isn't just a predatory misogynist, he's an increasing number of other awful things as well. Throwing out melodramatic revelations towards the end of the play just felt like empty drama and added nothing to the core ideas about the ripples created by a #MeToo scandal.

Anomaly is striding across some incredibly fertile dramatic land, but somewhere along the line a number of bad decisions were made about how the piece should be structured and the finished product simply doesn't engage.

Anomaly is at the Old Red Lion until 2nd February. Tickets here.

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