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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

'Heckle: A Series of Perfomances' at Bosse & Baum, 28th March 2015

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Bloody pavement greeted me as I left Peckham Rye station on Saturday afternoon. Moments before I arrived, some guy had his hand chopped off by unknown assailants. Now, with the street festooned with POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape, forensic detectives swabbed blood off the concrete. Twenty minutes later everything was back to normal; smiling shoppers wandering down the street, over the rapidly coagulating bloodstains. It was a dislocating experience: I'd come for art, not mutilation.

Tucked away in the shadow of the attractively crumbling Bussey Building, between warehouses that ship goods to sub-Saharan Africa and optimistically affluent pop-up cocktail bars, Bosse & Baum isn't the easiest place to find. I'm helped when, as I'm wandering around, I'm accosted by a silent Romanian-looking woman wearing a leering mask of Nigel Farage.

There There (from their website)
Discombobulated, I was led into a warehouse and into a small tent. Shoved inside, the door was zipped up tight. Within sat a similarly dressed woman, this time wearing a David Cameron mask. She popped some headphones on me, from which burbled a robotic drawl. She then performed a silent palm reading before instructing me to clap my hands like a seal, then ushered me from the tent. My initial reaction? "What the hell was that?!"

Later research revealed this to be There There, performing a piece called Text Home to 78070 (the name taken from the famously crap Home Office campaign of the same name). Jamming together a stereotypical Romanian outfit with the faces of the politicians who'd use their presence for political gain, this work aims to jolt its audience into a new mindset. There's something quietly terrifying about being snatched off the street, shoved somewhere confusing and being given an obtuse lecture, the experience giving the tiniest of tiny tastes of the worst fears of illegal immigrants. 

Best of all is the conflation of monstrous, Daily Mail cartoon-ish visual stereotypes of Romanian-as-monster and the actual monsters of Cameron and Farage. Their smugly satisfied faces peering out from patterned headscarves chill the viewer to the bone; eyes like sharks and jaws locked in mock humour. This is my kind of performance; aggressive, ragged and intensely political.

Charlotte Law
After a quick pop out for some dinner, during which I unfortunately missed Ana Mendes' Self Portrait, I returned just in time for Charlotte Law's Ode Action. I'm friends with Charlotte and have attended a number of her performances over the last few years. Judging from what I've seen she's locked in a neverending loop - rigorously reconfiguring and reworking ever more worn materials.

From within a crinkled space blanket emerge what I'm pretty sure are the remnants of a burnt piano. This together with other junkyard ephemera, is placed on bungee cords suspended from the ceiling. Soon a row of gently bobbing Blair-Witch-a-like mobiles is improvised, weird new structures created from trash. Law continues this across the space; new shapes popping up, things being speared on one another or carefully balanced, before collapsing with a wooden clunk.

She's accompanied by another performer, who contributes apparently random barks of noise, before bending over to twiddle with a variety of gadgets, all of which emit ominous sounding voices. By way of reply, Law occasionally vocalises a stream of guttural sounds in a language I either don't recognise, or that's made up. There's a quiet aggressiveness to this that borders in nihilism, as if Law is playing in the ashes of a burnt world. Here form, language and architecture have deteriorated to their base elements, being cut up into jagged and unfamiliar new shapes.

Following that was Justyna Scheuring's Didn't you know that. Scheuring, with a drawn expression, bags under her eyes and a dead-eyed stare, looks like she really needs a good night's sleep. Wearing a superhero-styled black body suit and silver top she stands atop a small step and says either "Yes. Yes." or "No. No.". As she does this an assistant activates a smoke machine, sending polite plumes of dry ice into the audience.

Justyna Scheuring
Two things can happen after this. If Scheuring says 'Yes', she will find a place to pose in the gallery space, often imitating the body language of action of someone in the audience. If she says 'No', she will find a spot and let out a bloodcurdling scream. She's got a deadpan poker face throughout, the ridiculousness of what we're watching eventually sending rippled giggles around the hushed crowd. 

Easy highlights are the held moments when she picks on someone and maliciously eyes them, conducting a clinical dissection with her gaze alone. Next is when she's stalking the room looking for a space to scream. At one point we hear a timid knock on the gallery door. Like a shark scenting blood she makes a beeline for it, and presently we hear her yelling into the Peckham dusk. After this she dons protective pads, thumping herself around on the floor and walls before tottering about in heels with a piece of tinfoil in her mouth.

I have no idea what the hell this means - but I'm guessing this is a catharsis that can only be achieved with the hungry eyes of an audience upon the artist. I really hope the baleful expression and generally doomy presence was an act. If so, it's an impressive one. If it's not I hope that the performance - whatever it meant - helped in some way. Either way it was a pleasantly baffling experience.

A pretty neat evening of performance art in a pretty neat place. And, vicious street amputations aside, a wonderful time was had in Peckham.

Monday, March 30, 2015

'Wired Up' at Arebyte Gallery, 28th March 2015

Monday, March 30, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I love it when art and science climb into bed together. There's something thrilling about the friction of rigorous objectivity of science rubbing up against the subjectivity of art. Over the 2013-14 term I followed the progress of the Central St Martins Art & Science group, which combined the two brilliantly (articles here, here and here). These exhibitions stoked my curiosity, and I hungered for more in the same vein.

I found it at Arebyte Gallery's Wired Up "exploring social, neural and bacterial networks through art and science collaboration". Working as part of the University of Westminster's Broad Vision project, teams of artists and scientists have been devising work centred around the idea of being 'Wired Up'. In 2015 we're all wrapped up in network cabling like a fly in a spiderweb; every person a node in a hundred different networks, which are themselves networked together. It's a dizzying train of thought, one that proves the seed for some fascinating work. 

The most initially eye-catching was Internet by Alex Cottrill, Francisco Sajara Vidinha and Mary Woolf. A bamboo model of a telecommunications tower stands in front of a projected map of London. The map has been coloured to show the 'heat' of wireless signals in the capital. As can be expected from a major modern metropolis, this is a blister of angry red activity, only the very edges showing some lull. These shifting colours reveal London as a pressure cooker of electromagnetic activity, watched over by gigantic masts that we've quickly trained ourselves not to notice.

The piece also works on a straightforwardly aesthetic level. The organic bamboo tower works as a counterweight to its steel real-life counterpart and the illumination of the projection against it creates beautiful shadows and patterns. Also, quite simply, the shifting colours of the heatmap pop off the white gallery walls, making for an eye-catching display.

Living Wires
Nestled up against it is a similarly neat piece: Riccardo Branca's Living Wires. The artist explains that he's really working in collaboration with Physarum Polycephalum (a slime mould), to create an interactive exhibition that reacts to your presence. This consists of a box upon which a branch rests, terminating in a heartrate sensor. This is hooked to a projection that displays a closeup of the slime mould, which throbs in time with you. I've always dug slime moulds; they famously display a weirdly alien intelligence - able to puzzle out the optimum routes through mazes and (apparently) escape containers. Pretty impressive for a mould, and this one proves to be an excellent partner for Branca.

In Living Wires, the participant 'makes contact' with this inhuman world, giving us a taste of what it might be like to be part of a distributed plant consciousness. It's a teensy-weensy taste of course, functioning more as thought experiment than simulation, but in terms of provoking ideas it more than succeeds.

This is the best I could do in low light with my phone.
These pieces border the edges of a darkened box in the centre of gallery. This is The Room, by Mateusz Gidaszewski, Camila Gaspar, Shin-Young Wiz Choi, and Charlie Dixon. After being blindfolded, you enter a darkened space and are presented with softly glowing jars of liquid. Shake them gently and they glow brighter. Once you have them all glowing, the mirrored walls of the room place you within a spooky constellation of ever-dimming and growing lights, with squirts of peppery scent combining to create a strangely religious atmosphere.

The glowing fluid are cultures of Dinoflagellate (nocticula) and photobacterium phosphoreum. The action of shaking them, which introduces oxygen to the bacteria and makes them glow, proves extremely compelling. There's something magical and primordial about the gentle movements of the glowing liquid, the infinity of the reflected mirrors giving the illusion that we're in the boundless ocean, or perhaps floating through the interstellar void. I could have stayed in there for hours.

Most fun was Sensory Interfaces, by Coral Hermes, Pippa Ischt, Dagamara Rutkowska and Patrycja Wilosz. This comprised three interactive stations that combine our senses (vision/taste, touch/sound, vision/sound) and a fourth that explores the future of our senses. Devised no small amount of humour and imagination, this was straightforwardly fun. A highlight were two boxes, one containing cotton wool and one containing rocks. Place your finger in the former and you get soothing classical music, in the latter you get Slipknot.

It's a clever joke, and this light-hearted sense of exploration continues with the experiment that links taste and vision. Presented with a series of coloured liquids, you're invited to taste them and then sort them by flavour. The twist is that they're not the colours you'd expect them to be; for example, the lemon/lime flavour is dark orange and black cherry is bright yellow. It's curious how our brain fools us with expectations - I could have sworn that the bright yellow liquid was lemon flavoured... 

The vision/sound station is slightly less inspired next to the other two, but then these are two senses every human being knows to combine anyway. Finally the future headset, as represented by a faux-VR cardboard headset constructed from a mobile phone gives us a faintly endearing look at the future. There's something indefinably pleasant about this installation, which is geared - Science Museum style - to ensuring participants enjoy themselves while learning.

This is but a taste of what was on offer, though unfortunately this was a two day exhibition so your chance to see it has passed. But I'll be keeping an eye on work of this ilk, science and art perfectly dovetailing into one another to create exciting new hybrids.

Top picture from Dysfunctions by Andrea Fachini and Christopher Verhauwart

Friday, March 27, 2015

'Vernon God Little' at The Space, 26th March 2015

Friday, March 27, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

DBC Pierre's Booker prize winning novel Vernon God Little was first adapted by Tanya Ronder for Young Vic in 2007. Critically acclaimed, the production was hailed for its humour, ingenious staging, speedy pacing and impressive scope. Now, Ronder's script has been revived as the inaugural production of Burn Bright Theatre. 

Vernon God Little, with nearly 50 characters spread over ten actors, multiple locations, multimedia elements and a narrative that never stays in one place too long, is an impressive ambitious theatrical undertaking. Unfortunately, ambition is about the only positive quality present here.

Our teenage hero, Vernon (Callum McGowan) appears to be the butt of a cosmic joke. After his best friend shoots up their school, suspicion falls on the awkward Vernon, who was caught clutching a bag of ammunition nearby. As a hungry media descends on in the town, our hero becomes a pariah, every aspect of his life sifted through and sensationalised. With a town populated by grotesque caricatures, things snowball towards comic unpleasantness. Soon Vernon's on the run, heading towards Mexico with the authorities in hot pursuit.

This is an basic overview of an extremely convoluted plot. Having neither read the book nor seen the 2007 staging I spent large portions of the show not knowing what the hell was going on. Characters would arrive on stage, yell at each other in random accents and then disappear, sometimes there'd be a musical number, maybe a bit of slapstick and then onto the next thing. 

Not knowing what was going on quickly transitioned into not caring what was going on which itself soon transitioned into a simmering annoyance that I was losing a whole evening to this rubbish. As my arse gently fell into numbness, I endured gales of unconvincing accents, repetitive jokes and scenes that just. would. not. end. Perhaps I'd be a tiny bit more generous if the production at least had brevity on its side, but I felt every one of its painful 150 minutes. Beginning at half seven we don't get out of there until we're nearing half past ten and, considering that The Space Arts Centre is down in the Isle of Dogs, means anyone living North or East probably won't be getting home until nearing midnight.

After an hour and twenty minutes we were granted the small mercy of an interval, during which I seriously contemplated hopping on a bus and getting far, far away. I've never, ever, done this during a play I was reviewing (it's wrong to judge something you've only seen half of), but my god I was tempted. As I retook my seat, despair curled in my gut, sure that I was making a decision I'd regret.

If I didn't know that this script had already been successfully staged I'd probably blame its overambitious scope and confused tone for this production's many problems. Sadly, given that it has, blame must fall on the company. Simply put, Burn Bright Theatre have wildly overestimated their abilities.  I can't fault their ambition, but tackling a show like this as a low budget fringe production proves to be foolishness.

Even given all that there are a couple of performers who emerge mostly untarnished. Callum McGowan's Vernon is probably about as good as it can be, at bare minimum you can empathise with his confusion and annoyance as to what's going on around him. Bart Edwards' slimy would-be investigative reporter is also largely fine thanks to his strong physical performance. Everyone else is mired in overacting, their performances limited by their dodgy Jamaican/Eastern European/Spanish etc accents.

I don't take any particular pleasure in doling out criticism as negative as this, no doubt blood, sweat and tears have gone into making this show happen. But the end result is lumpen, boring and godawful.

Vernon God Little is at The Space Arts Centre until 11th April. Tickets here.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

'Madness in Civilisation' at the Wellcome Collection, 25th March 2015

Thursday, March 26, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A successful historian must play psychoanalyst to their period. Entire societies are gently laid on the couch, their ambitions, paranoias, pride and history intelligently probed in an effort to get at what made them tick. You could look at what they say about themselves, but this strays into the realm of propaganda, neither individual nor civilisation wants to look like a chump. 

You can approach this understanding of the past through many prisms, each refracting the past in their own way. Professor Andrew Scull has chosen the processes and understandings of mental illness: the understanding of cause, processes of diagnosis and treatment shedding light into the minds of our ancestors.

This interrogation is the subject of the 2015 Roy Porter lecture, hosted by the wonderful people at the Wellcome Collection. Prof. Scull, a former colleague of Porter, is Distinguished Professor if Sociology and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. His new book, Madness in Civilisation: The Cultural History of Insanity has just been released and provides the raw material for this lecture, which zeroes in on the nascent science of mental illness in the 1800s.

George Cheyne
Our introduction to this world is the pioneering work of physician George Cheyne. His publication, The English Malady; or, A Treatise of Nervous Diseases of All Kinds, as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal and Hysterical Distempers (1733) was a huge influence on popular conceptions of mental illness and depression. That title, with the English laying proud claim to mental disorders, initially feels a touch odd. Why would an proud, patriotic nation hurry to 'own' these conditions?

As a point of comparison, Prof Scull explains the shifting colloquial names for syphilis, which in England, was called 'The French Disease', in France 'The Italian disease', in Italy 'The Neapolitan disease' and so on, with the Turks throwing their hands up and simply calling it  'The Christian disease'. These pejorative names are reflections of nationalistic spite: after all, nobody really wants to be 'the syphilis country'.

George Durer's Syphilitic Man
What this reveals is that far from being a negative, 'nervous disorders' were proudly incorporated into the English psyche as a point of patriotic pride. The explanation for why is based around comparing 'primitive' and 'modern' man. The primitive has their mind occupied with acts of survival, a daily life and death struggle for food and shelter. Whereas the modern man, with his refined sensibilities, sharpened mind and rarefied talents, is akin to a precision-tooled piece of machinery - with many more components able to fail. Or, as Cheyne put it: 
"those of the liveliest and quickest natural Parts...whose Genius is most keen and penetrating were most prone to such disorders. Fools, weak or stupid Persons, heavy and dull Souls, are seldom troubled with Vapours or Lowness of Spirits."  CHEYNE (GEORGE) The Natural Method of cureing the Diseases of the Body, and the Disorders of the Mind depending on the Body. 
So, the more Britain succeeded economically, scientifically and culturally, the more 'nervous disorders' we should expect to see - with mental illness an unexpected herald of social success.

This period of history, with luminaries like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley and Christopher Wren et al defining the boundaries of the universe and identifying hitherto unknown invisible forces like electricity, gravity and magnetism must have been an astonishing time to live through. Finally the nuts and bolts of the universe were being revealed, the role of God gradually moving towards to absent caretaker rather than a being that intervenes in the lives of men.

Anything must have seemed possible, an outlook that gave rise to the success of one Franz Mesmer. He invented the concept of 'animal magnetism'; that energetic transference takes place between all objects, animate and inanimate. By manipulating this process he claimed to be able to cure nervous illnesses. Word soon got around, and before long crowds rich and poor were clamouring for a taste of mesmeric therapy.

A mesmerist using his 'magic finger' to cure a comely woman. 
It was all bunkum of course, Prof Scull inferring that a decent portion of his success came from providing erotic experiences for buttoned down society women. With scandal constantly nipping at his heels, Mesmer hopped between European cities, eventually coming a cropper at the hands of a scientific dream team that included Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin,  Jean Sylvain Bailly, and Benjamin Franklin. They conducted tests, concluding 'biomagnetic fluids' to be a load of cobblers. Mesmer soon vanished into obscurity, the last 15 years of his life large unknown.

Though firmly discredited, his therapies acted as a seed in treated conditions of the mind. Mesmer's animal magnetism therapies evolved into hypnosis therapy (from which we get the word 'mesmerism'). We later learn that Sigmund Freud began his therapeutic career as a hypnotist, the interaction of patient and clinician eventually formalising into psychoanalysis.

It's here that Prof Scull links the behaviour of the past to the present. His examples outline the broad strokes of the 18th century 'personality': nationalism, scientific progress and a belief in progress. Mesmer's popularity inevitably leads the mind toward modern pseudo-scientific therapies, arguably more popular now than they've ever been. Similarly, the ownership of mental disorders feeds into identity politics: in an increasingly homogenous world everyone wants to stand out, with internet self-diagnosis leading to the rise of 'disease/allergy/mental illness as fad'. 

What will future historians think of us when they examine these trends? What rationale can be given for masses of people running to alternative therapies when faced with the myriad miracles of modern medicine? Why are increasingly large amounts of people desperate to find 'their' disorder? 

Perhaps it's only with the hindsight of history that the answers can really be theorised. Nonetheless, Prof Scull's lecture leads us down fascinating intellectual paths, subtly nudging us towards applying historical analysis to modern trends. It was a real treat watching him speak, I'll have to get hold of his book.

Prof Scull's book, Madness in Civilisation: The Cultural History of Insanity is available here.

'Altman' (2014) directed by Ron Mann

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

'Altmanesque' turns out to be a tricky thing to pin down. Throughout Altman, Ron Mann's biographical documentary about the late director, stars of his films pop up to give their two cents on what it means to them. Disappointingly, most of them spout banal platitudes about artistic bravery and idiosyncratic genius. It turns out that 'Altmanesque' is best defined, as Justice Potter Stewart famously defined obscenity in 1964, as "I know it when I see it."

And damn, experiencing an Altman film is like little else in cinema. Even now his loosely assembled (yet rigorously created) narratives and naturalistic dialogue send audiences through loops. You've got to involve yourself in an Altman movie, be able to cycle your empathy between characters even within scenes, let alone within the wider scope of the story. When everything clicks there's not much else that compares, my favourites being Short Cuts, McCabe and Mrs Miller and the astonishing Nashville. These are films that appear grown - like a crystal gradually emerging from saturated solution.

Ron Mann's Altman shows us how he arrived at this style, the ups and downs of his career and his general outlook on life. Made, apparently, with the full involvement of the Altman family, this documentary is a glowing portrayal that borders on hagiography. But then, Robert Altman seems to have been a genuinely pleasant, intelligent and interesting guy. With unfettered access to the Altman archives, Mann has knitted together interviews, lectures, family home videos, news footage and unseen experimental shorts, assembling 'the Altman story'. Narrative duties are split between his widow, Kathryn Altman and, from beyond the grave, Altman himself via archive footage.

A good documentary about cinema should leave the audience hungry for more films. Altman certainly does that; serving up an opening course of tantalising clips of early television work. This footage, from late 50s serials like promising looking helicoptersploitation drama Whirlybirds or Alfred Hitchcock Presents looks as fresh as the day it was shot, remastered in beautiful HD. Even as a young TV director Altman was pushing boundaries pitching an episode of jingoistic war drama  Combat! in which a soldier would suffer from crippling shell-shock. After being told in no uncertain terms that the episode wouldn't get made, Altman made it anyway and was summarily sacked (the episode went on to win an Emmy).

Rebellious anecdotes like this pepper the documentary; the timely intervention of producer Daryl Zanuck's young European girlfriends ensuring that the bloody surgery scenes weren't cut from M*A*S*H; Jack Warner booting him off 1967's Countdown for the unconscionable crime of overlapping dialogue; Grace Kelly's horror at seeing Paul Newman struggling through Altman's 1979 sci-fi obscurity Quintet and many more. These make it all too easy to see why Altman is generally referred to as a 'maverick' director.

But there's a dark side to him that's only briefly glimpsed. His sons offhandedly mention that he was so busy working that they rarely saw him - resulting in them learning various film production skills so they could interact. Altman's willingness to throw caution to the wind, while arguably fuelling his best works, also has its downside. Early in his career, after quitting television but before cinematic success, his wife describes how he went to the races with their last $200 and bet it on a 20-1 shot. He won, flying them both to Vegas where he immediately bet the lot on a throw of dice. He won again, but there's a steel in his wife's voice when she explains that if he hadn't the relationship would be over.

Similarly, his more troubled productions - particularly Popeye - are skated over. As we hear of tropical storms destroying sets, an iffy script and subsequent terrible reviews we're desperate to see Altman's reaction to a rare, unalloyed flop. But the film swiftly moves on. If I was feeling charitable I'd assume that the apparently zen-like director let this slide off him like water from a duck's back. Uncharitably you might assume that the Altman family would rather there be as little about his failures as possible.

Altman certainly succeeds in educating the audience on the life of a fascinating director; it's difficult not to leave with a hunger to fill in your personal gaps in his filmography (I really need to see Gosford Park). Occasionally feels this like it could be the bonus disc in an DVD box-set; a smart but efficient documentary with few aesthetic frills and no effort made to deeply understand the politics or philosophy behind the films. Altman is broadly successful in being a history lesson and broad outline of its subjects personality, but it's fixated on the 'how' and 'what', neglecting the juicy 'why'.


Altman is on limited release from April 3rd.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

'Trainspotting' at the King's Head Theatre, 20th March 2015

Saturday, March 21, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

By attending Harry Gibson's adaptation of Trainspotting, you risk being hit by fake turds, having liquid spat over you, being shoved about, dragged onto stage to dance, your "stupid trainers" being insulted, shitty fingers rubbed down your cheeks and, worst of all, a psychopathic Scot screaming at the top of his lungs mere millimetres from your face. It's wonderful night at the theatre.

Taking more cues from Irvine Welsh's book than Danny Boyle's 1996 film, In Your Face Theatre's Trainspotting dials up the aggression, dunking the already dark tale of young Edinburgh heroin addicts into pitch black ichor. Every poisonous, nihilistic bit of philosophising is accentuated, leaving a bullet-fast production that seeks to disgust, horrify and overwhelm its audience.

Our hero, Mark Renton (Gavin Ross) is a petty criminal, utter waster and morally degenerate smack addict. Ross looks like he's wandered out of  the government videos they show to schoolkids to scare them away from drugs; all red-rimmed eyes, shaven head, sunken cheeks and stained clothes. A miasma of disease and decay appears to surround him, the stained scenery decomposing in his sheer presence. But though he looks like something scraped off a shitty boot he's got a fierce intelligence, though all that's got him is insight that modern life is rubbish. In a hypocritical, consumerist world he craves something pure and unsullied - and finds it in heroin.

His friends are similarly screwed up. Tommy (Greg Esplin), while not a smack addict, is happy to guzzle every other drug under the sun. Sick Boy (Neil Pendleton) lives up his name, a poised, smarter-than-thou presence with zero interest in anyone other than what they can do for him. Franco Begbie (Chris Dennis)  is a some monstrous manifestation of psychotic aggression, a veiny pumped erection of a man full of booze and clutching the thin end of a pool cue.

Taking place over just an hour and ten minutes, the plot is condensed down into a series of vignettes. The later, London-set scenes are omitted, as is poor Spud, elements of whom are folded into Renton and Tommy. This paring of the fat leaves a chaotic, hard-to-map experience where themes, aesthetics and snatches of dialogue loom larger than narrative progression. 

Key to Trainspotting's success is a refusal to portray drug use as inherently immoral. Both film and book were famously criticised for glamorising heroin use, in reality this 'glamour' is really extreme empathy. Welsh, himself a former addict, took his audience under the skin of the addicts, a place most people would rather not go. After all, track marks, AIDS, shoplifting, constipation and shooting heroin into your genitals is something that happens to other people isn't it?. But in by placing us in their shoes and lyrically describing the 'why' of heroin ("Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you're still nowhere near it.") he approaches an awkward but undeniable honesty. That honesty is the dramatic bedrock of Trainspotting, upon which Welsh builds the eventual horror of withdrawal, disease and death.

Gavin Ross as Renton
In Your Face's production understands this, beginning in speedy, anarchic hedonism before undergoing tonal collapse into horror and misery. This is perhaps best signified by the way it begins and ends. The space is laid out like a scummy nightclub, the hazy dry ice air sliced apart by twirling laser beams, 90s trance house blares over the PA, the room dancing to Faithless' Insomnia. It's a perfect facsimile of a nightclub; yet scarcely an hour later this sensory overload has been reduced to a single fluttering candle. Navigating this rapid slide to the bottom is disorientating, the audience undergoing a rough simulation of what its like to lose a couple of days and wake up in an unfamiliar place.

That said, for all that we're encouraged to climb inside these character's heads the production places them in opposition to the audience. Throughout we're manhandled and generally treated like shit. Here the differences between book, film and stage are most apparent. We can maintain a cosy distance from these people in the latter mediums, which makes them palatable and vaguely likeable. But Renton and company are somewhat less fun when they're picking on you, especially when Dennis' terrifying Begbie has decided that you're looking at him funny.

This aggression, manifesting primarily in a willingness to stain our fancy Friday night outfits with a variety of sticky fluids, is a direct challenge to the audience's bourgeois sensibilities. It acts as a weapon against those that'd wish to giggle at the cheeky, chirpy Scottish heroin craziness and go home unsullied - the character's anger implicating us in their circumstances After all, when Renton's raging against "rotting away at the end of it all, pishing you last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you've spawned to replace yourself." that's us he's talking about.

This is a beautifully horrid piece of theatre, revelling in dragging both characters and audience through shit. But In Your Face have grown flowers from this shit. Wonderfully staged, intelligently adapted, near perfectly played and with a soundtrack to die for - In Your Face's Trainspotting is a blast of sadistic brilliance.


Trainspotting is at the King's Head Theatre until 11th April, with multiple shows per day. Tickets here.

Friday, March 20, 2015

'Hiraeth' at the Soho Theatre, 19th March 2015

Friday, March 20, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Before moving to the big city I grew up in a farmhouse in Wales. This makes Hiraeth, about a girl who grew up on a farmhouse in Wales before moving to the big city, very easy to empathise with. The show tells the life-so-far of writer and star Buddug James Jones and though the wrinkles of our stories differ, she unearths a barrow-load of half-forgotten nostalgia. This easy familiarity is hardly rare; like a powerful magnet London winkles out the adventurous and creative from small towns all over Britain, the city ever-bulging with those for whom small town life is bondage.

With James Jones playing herself, Max Mackintosh takes up the role of the entire supporting cast. Displaying remarkably chameleonic talents he cycles between a paranoid Welsh farmer's family, the wise Mamgi, immature teenagers, cocky Portuguese lotharios and, eventually, a fictionalised version of himself. He's quick to remind us that he's a trained actor and, as promised, functions as the bedrock of the show - a secure foothold for James Jones to work with.

Beginning in the small town of Newcastle Emlyn, we're given a quick overview of the who, what and why of Buddug. She's the greenest branch on a sturdy family tree composed entirely of farmers.She explains how each of her forebears were notable, one of whom is remembered solely for once growing a cucumber in the shape of Abraham Lincoln. The scope expands to the present, dragging us to a cosily provincial Welsh farmer's social, where cider and black is downed and sprayed and politely limited mayhem ensues.

When Buddug's boyfriend tips over a portaloo with a poor woman inside, coupled with her meeting a globetrotting musician, something awakes inside her. She announces her intentions to "go to London", a prospect greeted with confusion and fear by the provincial locals (and some of the provincial wildlife). Soon she's off down the M4, her parents escorting her to university in London. Here she desperately searches for genuine human contact amidst the surging, unfriendly crowds.

There's a lot to admire here, most of it arising from the loveable, charismatic lead. Constantly assuring us that she's not an actor "but I'll do my best" she makes what could easily be indulgent subject matter into something that's equally interesting, funny and surprisingly meaningful. A decent wodge of the play is spent hammering home the maxim that there's two types of people in the world, rocks (dependable, secure sorts) and rivers (who move 'like electricity' and flow free). Despite lip service being paid to the need for the 'rocks', Hiraeth's sympathies lie firmly with the 'rivers' of this world. It's her 'river' nature that separates Buddug from her family and Welsh friends, a bravery and ability to adapt to shifting circumstances that leads her inexorably towards the gleaming spires of London.

It's also nice to see Welshness and the language on the London stage. Unsurprisingly you don't tend to hear Welsh too often in London, so there's a simply homely novelty of watching people speaking and singing it in the heart of Soho. I don't want to give the impression that this show is exclusively 'for' Welsh speakers (it's all instantly translated), or even primarily aimed at Welsh people, but the sound of the language is like pulling a much loved old jumper on and being hit with a whiff of intense nostalgia for something you didn't even realise you missed.

Buddug James Jones
This fed into my favourite bit, a song entitled 'Cool Cymru' where Welsh nationalists attempt to convince Buddug to remain in country by extolling its virtues. Buddug, in full Welsh national costume, delivers a vaguely threatening argument for isolationalism. Given that I associate this outfit primarily with schoolgirls on St David's Day it's odd to see someone looking so intimidating in it.

Enjoyable and personable as all this is, there are a couple of things that don't really work. A repeated gag of the lighting tech yelling at the cast to "get on with the show!" falls flat. Increasingly these fourth-wall busting techniques work as a shield against criticism. After all, if the cast and crew aren't taking things seriously why should we? It's a reflexive, modern snarkiness that very slightly tarnishes the sincerity that's fuelling the  show.

Slightly more befuddling is the repeated mild-mannered (in-character) racism against gypsies. I didn't know what on earth to make of this and judging by the confused silence, neither did the audience. I certainly don't think anyone in Hiraeth is racist against gypsies, so I guess this is some West Wales reference that befuddles when you get east of Carmarthen. Whatever it is it didn't work.

Minor quibbles aside, Hiraeth is attractively warm and, most importantly, funny. Buddug James Jones understands that inside everyone's head they consider themselves the star of their own movie. With that in mind she's taken the clay of her life and baked it into a fine piece of theatre. While the beats of her life might feel familiar to many (and to me in particular), her individual story has never been told before, and it, while not mind-blowing, is a more than pleasant way to spend an hour.


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