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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

'Truncated Nightmare Hour Live!: Episode 1' at the Old Red Lion, 24th October 2016

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Horror/science fiction anthologies are having a day in the sun. Titans of the genre like Twilight Zone, Outer Limits or Tales from the Crypt once appeared to be a thing of the past, abandoned in favour longer, continuous narratives. Personally, I love the thrill of being introduced to a new world crammed with new ideas that bails before you have a chance to get bored.

Truncated Nightmare Hour is a sterling example of the anthology format and of what can be done with a generous splodge of imagination, performative charisma and top notch writing. What I attended was the recording of a podcast for later release rather than a 'proper' theatre, but it entertained as much as any play I've seen of late.

Our host for the evening is Sebastian Owl, owner of a sonorously authoritative BBC voice and aggressive presenter quips that reminded me of The Day Today era Chris Morris. Performing their own stories are James Hamilton and Molly Beth Morossa, together with a smattering of guest performers filling in the supporting characters.

First up was Morossa's The Thurstons, in which Owl poses as an obituary writer travelling to the isolated coastal town of Cradlestone, trying to unearth details about the mysterious and peculiar Thurston family. Rumours have trickled out about their strange bloodline: generations of inbreeding producing pallid skin, eyes with gigantic black pupils and tendency to be a bit bitey. If you have any genre familiarity you can probably tell where this one is going...

What transpires is a fusion between Fawlty Towers and Lovecraft - an unlikely but successful cocktails. Morossa plays a shy yet forceful hotel manager, trying to keep the prying journalist from the ominously locked room upstairs in which the last surviving Thurston slowly dies. There's a wonderful sense in imagining what's going on in that bedroom, from which unearthly, inhuman screaming and rivers of sticky black phlegm emerge. Despite it being funny as hell, there's also a genuine lyricism in the writing, particularly when we hear how Cradlestone changed once the sea turned black.

Up next was James Hamilton's The Goggles of Future Past. These goggles are a skin-crawlingly tantalising idea: when you wear them you can see a future you could have had, but now never will. Perhaps you would see yourself hoisting aloft the World Cup, or tearfully clutching an Oscar or accepting a Nobel Prize - all would apparently be within your capabilities, but now you will never achieve them. Who could resist? 

Not Ralph Stipple, who sees a vision of a reunion and idyllic future with an adored ex-girlfriend. He frantically tries to recreate the meet-cute circumstances that rekindled their love, but finds his efforts thwarted by a sadistic universe. We meet him tumbling down the rabbit hole of restraining orders and stalker obsession. The goggles turn him into a monster (and an all too real one at that), but a sympathetic one. We all embarrass ourselves in love from time to time, our own flaws recognisable in the pathetic creature Ralph has become.

Morossa, Hamilton and Owl are clearly onto a good thing with Truncated Nightmare Hour, it taps into the same cruel imagination that fuels Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, or the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. I'll definitely tune in for the coming episodes, featuring tales about punishment for not wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day, a sudden obsession with a football team and "high stakes deathmatches played against board games". 


(As it's not quite the end product, I won't give it any stars, but it was dead good)

'Truncated Nightmare Hour Live! is recording at the Old Red Lion every night until Friday (tickets). The podcasts will be here from 31st October.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: 'Fear in the Dark' at Abney Park Cemetery, 22nd October 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Nestled right in the firmly gentrified heart of Stoke Newington, Abney Park Cemetery is hemmed in on all sides by concept restaurants and cocktail bars. Yet just a couple of steps beyond its imposing wrought iron gates and you're somewhere else. Somewhere that nature has reclaimed. Somewhere the Victorian dead live. Somewhere ivy-clad stone angels loom from the thicket. Somewhere that light seems fearful to shine...

So, a pretty damn good place to stage a spooky Halloween play. Pandemonium Productions know this place well, having staged a couple of plays here, most successfully last summer's excellent Alice in Wonderland. That was a surreal summer treat, the sunset shimmering through gravestones upon in which the Cheshire Cat grinned.

Fear in the Dark is a different kettle of fish. The cemetery, difficult to navigate at the best of times, becomes chaos at night. Lit only by oil lanterns the performers march down paths where thorns threaten to ensnare your ankles. Disorientation beckons, the bustling city suddenly very, very far away. Worse, hidden behind the graves lie hissing monsters and distorted freaks, all ready to lunge out at any unsuspecting visitor.

Pandemonium exploit this in their horror mashup of bits of Poe and Lovecraft. It all kicks off with a panicked man lurching from the darkness and trying to escape the park, informing us that he's searching for his lost 'Sarah'. Before we know it we're launched down a winding trail on which we find maniacal doctors, twisted abominations, unholy cultists and people that just. won't. die.

I don't want to spoil too, but it's pretty classically spine-tingling stuff boosted by the fantastic location and oil-lit ambience. Nell Hardy, my highlight in Alice in Abney, also excels here. She's a brilliantly bendy performer, managing the single most unnerving moment in the entire evening when she stretches backwards until her head is practically touching the floor. It just looks plain wrong, as if her skeleton is being stretched from within by otherworldly forces from beyond the hell dimension.

Unfortunately, despite Hardy (and an excellent Steve Fitzgerald), Fear in the Dark doesn't quite work. The main problem is that the narrative never gels, feeling more like a collection of loosely connected vignettes than a proper story. Simply put, it's difficult to follow what's going on. Throughout I was waiting for the moment where the pieces would finally make sense. I was still waiting when I found myself being ushered out of the cemetery, apparently having not realised that the climax was actually the climax.

I get that a good horror story relies on the audience's imagination filling in a lot of the blanks, but there are an awful lot of blanks in Fear in the Dark. Prime amongst them is that the theoretical main character is often relegated to silently observing the drama and only occasionally intervenes. By contrast, Alice in Abney used its Alice character as a guide for the audience and the focus of every scene. 

Also not helping is the size of the audience. Being alone in the dark woods is terrifying. With just a couple of people is scary. With about 40 people, you feel safety in numbers. Maybe this kind of thing can't be helped, but perhaps splitting the audience in two, as they did in previous productions, would have helped create the sense of isolation and danger.

I enjoyed the evening, but most of that enjoyment came from the simple atmospheric pleasure of being in Abney Park Cemetery at night. It's not that Fear in the Dark is badly performed or lacks atmosphere, but it's hamstrung by loose plotting and characterisation. Nevertheless it's going to stick in the memory - though it's the marching through the darkened graves that'll stay with me longer than the iffy drama.


Fear in the Dark is at Abney Park Cemetery until 31 October. Tickets here. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

'From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads' at the Waterloo East Theatre, 20th October 2016

Friday, October 21, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

In From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads, anxiety-ridden anorexic 18 year old Martin embarks upon an psychogeographical David Bowie odyssey. He visits the Stockwell house where Bowie (then David Jones) was born and grew up in, his primary school, the ratty Croydon pub where Ziggy Stardust faced his first crowd and the recording studios where he cut Five Years, Starman and Life on Mars - from which Adrian Berry's play derives its title.

I can sympathise with Martin, having undergone my own miniature musical pilgrimages. I've balefully stared at the gloomily semi-detached 384 Kings Road, Stretford, imagining the bedroom inside where a teenage Morrissey miserably moped. I've searched out the "unfit for human habitation" flat where Sid and Johnny squatted. And yes, I've run past Bowie's 40 Stansfield Road, of which the owner miserably opines: "It’s not the same as having a big star like Amy Winehouse's home, they’re much more sensational."

They're just bricks and mortar, yet you feel the tug of history, imagining your icons ignorant of their glittering futures casually opening the garden gate, opening the door and strolling inside. Perhaps a smidge of whatever propelled their geniuses remains deep in the cracked mortar? Perhaps some psychic reverberation exists in the air, creating a connection between us? Perhaps, essentially, I can now properly understand them?

Martin (Alex Walton) is sent on his quest by a long absent father. Having abandoned the family when his son was two, he left behind a bitterly alcoholic wife, a fucked up kid and a couple of boxes of Bowie memorabilia. Martin seizes upon this connection to his Dad, becoming a die-hard fan and apparently devoting his life to trying to understand the constantly shifting, difficult to pin down zen of Bowie. Getting in the way are his crippling anxiety and social awkwardness, an eating disorder and his general twitchy oddness.

Events are kicked off by his receipt of a letter from his Dad, which was instructed to be delivered on his 18th birthday. The letter features a cryptic map of London and a command to follow the breadcrumbs to an unknown destination. These prove to be Bowie landmarks, each stop along the way bringing Martin closer to his father and closer to Bowie. Eventually the two absent fathers intertwine, leading Martin to a kind of godlike BowieDad (excellently voiced by comedian Rob Newman).

It's not easy watching someone fall apart this spectacularly, Walton pulling out all the stops in portraying Martin's collapse. Wrapped in skinny jeans and an oversize hoody, he physically straddles man and boy, all spidery limbs, golf ball eyes and a brow furrowed before its time. He looks painfully, obviously vulnerable, as if a strong wind could blow up and spirit him up into the sky. Martin is such a pitiable figure that we don't quite identify with him, but ache for him to undergo a Bowie-style reinvention.

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads was apparently written in about 1999 and performed to some acclaim at the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe. Some updating has taken place (the story is now set in 2013 alongside the release of The Next Day), but the biggest unspoken factor in this production is Bowie's death earlier this year. It layers on further tragedy, Rob Newman's voiceover feel unnervingly like Bowie is speaking to Martin from beyond the grave.

With a soundtrack of Bowie hits ranging from the famous to the relatively obscure (I was particularly pleased to hear Weeping Wall, and the amazing vocals only version of Five Years), the show feels like it's functioning as a kind of collective mourning. It's difficult to think of another musician whose death was still this keenly felt ten months on, but the flowers and candles at his mural in Brixton continue to be refreshed. This adds an edge to Martin's sadness - perhaps in earlier performances his Dad might be merely absent, yet now we're all but certain he's dead.

Perhaps it's cheating for a play's emotional resonance to primarily come from external events rather than what's in the script and performances. Even so, I can't deny the swell of sadness I felt in the closing scenes, a procession of Bowie memories flitting behind my eyes. 

Now, I didn't love From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads - perhaps a bit of fat could be trimmed from opening act and maaaaaaaybe it'd benefit from a firmer narrative structure (I was particularly fascinated by the all-too-brief therapy sessions) - but its come along at the right time. Reactions may vary - if you couldn't give a toss about Bowie you're unlikely to get much out of this. On the other hand, if you do, it could hit you like a juggernaut. Either way it's a fine meditation on a great man - on top of being a generally decent bit of one-man theatre.

From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads is at the Waterloo East Theatre until 6th November, then on tour. Tickets here.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review: 'The Man from Mo'Wax' (2016) directed by Matthew Jones (LFF 2016)

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"The Man from Mo’Wax is a very strange music documentary. Most films of this ilk are glowing accounts of an individual or band’s inexorable rise to the top of the charts, demonstrating their musical virtuosity, inherent genius and the growing adoration of their fans. Here that curve is inverted, director Matthew Jones painstakingly dissecting a person with next to no discernible musical talent as his career crashes and burns.

That person is producer and DJ James Lavelle – hardly a household name – yet kind of an icon to dance music aficionados. His career spans three distinct periods: the first is that of a musically teenage wunderkind who sets up his own cooler than cool record label, Mo’Wax Records. The second is as creative leader of UNKLE, where he collaborated with various musical legends to create a series of increasingly poorly received and badly selling albums. The third follows the disintegration of his personal and professional life, the lasting image being of a sad and lonely man trapped in a storage space surrounded by his broken dreams."


Review: 'Lake Bodom' (2016) directed by Taneili Mustonon [LFF 2016]

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"When four attractive teenagers go camping in the woods on the exact spot where four attractive teenagers were brutally murdered forty years ago, what the hell do they expect to happen? Lake Bodom, by Taneili Mustonon, shows us that the answer is… well, pretty much what you’d expect.

Setting it apart from the pack is that this backstory is ripped from reality. The Lake Bodom murders are one of Finland’s great unsolved mysteries: four teenagers sleeping soundly in their tents really were brutally murdered in 1960.

The killer introduced himself to his victims by plunging a knife through their canvas tent. Two hours later, three of the teenagers were mutilated beyond recognition and the sole survivor was staggering away with a concussion, a broken jaw and facial fractures. In a creepy detail the survivor reported glowing red eyes pursuing him as he ran through the dark forest. The killer promptly vanished, and he/she/it was never caught…"


Review: 'Psychonauts, the Forgotten Children' (2016), directed by Alberto Vazquez & Pedro Rivero [LFF 2016]

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"Psychonauts, the Forgotten Children is a weird, brutal and lyrical Spanish animated film (with no connection to the Double Fine game of the same name) that feels like the mutant lovechild of Hayao Miyazaki and John Kricfalusi. Alberto Vazquez, adapting his own graphic novel with co-director Pedro Rivero, spins us a tale of cute child animals desperate to escape their nightmare island.

Any suspicions that this is for children vanish pretty quickly in the opening narration, which explains how Cute Animal Island industrialized itself and subsequently suffered a catastrophic nuclear meltdown. In an apocalypse scene reminiscent of Barefoot Gen, the mice workers are scorched into ashen skeletons by a wall of radioactive fire."


'Skin a Cat' at the Bunker, 19th October 2016

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Alana's cunt is broken. It is, as Thomas De Quincey said in Confessions of an Opium Eater, "sealed up, like the valley of Rasselas, against the intrusion of the world". Skin a Cat, by Isley Lynn, chronicles Alana's gynecological woes as she seeks to find out what's wrong with her and how she can fix it.

We first meet Alana (Lydia Larson) as a nine year old experiencing her first menstruation. Her embarrassed mother scuttles between holidaymakers trying to find someone with a pad, eventually spluttering a muddled explanation of what's going on to her half confused and half terrified daughter - merely the first in a procession of people gently, kindly but insistently telling Alana there's something wrong with her.

Her problems mount as she heads through school. Despite the urging of her friends, she can't bring herself to use a tampon. A disastrous pre-prom attempt at losing her virginity results in her falling into spasms on the bed, to the horror of her frightened boyfriend. It's not as if she's not a sexual person (she enjoys oral and taking it up the arse) - but by the time she's 25 she's all but resigned to being a vaginal virgin, drolly referring to herself as the girl with the "broken cunt". A medical diagnosis of vaginismus "an involuntary vaginal muscle spasm which makes any kind of vaginal penetration painful or impossible." hardly helps.

Lynn appears to be writing this play from personal experience, explaining in the programme notes that "I wish I could tell my 15-25 year old self that one day all this horrible vagina stuff would make a great play" and that she could use Skin a Cat to "tell other Alanas out there that it's going to be ok." It's a noble goal, and one Lynn largely achieves with play that's strong on kindness, peppered with (refreshingly unflinching) anatomical and sexual detail and pretty goddamn funny to boot.

Entirely staged around a large bed, Alana spends the play in a flesh-coloured bodystocking that gives the impression of nudity without seeming prurient. Most of the time she's speaking directly to the audience, delivering a self-effacing, modest autobiography of her life. Providing the supporting characters (and sound effects) are Jessica Clark and Jassa Ahluwalia, playing a range of roles from mothers to boyfriends to nurses to pretentious yet effective sex healers.

All three deliver their share of memorable moments. Clark, one of the highlights of summer's Rotterdam, is both scattily awkward as the Mum and touchingly caring as a Devonshire nurse. But it's Ahluwalia who gets the lion's share of the laughs, first in a stumblingly awkward multi-part teenage text message and later in the absurd yet hilarious quasi-buddhist art critic sex guru that patiently helps her through her psychological blocks. This character, Geri (which appropriately enough means "rules with spear"), is perhaps a smidge too broad in contrast with the rest of the play, but when he's this much fun it's difficult to care.

On top of all that is Larson's disarmingly excellent central performance. Simultaneously confident and paranoid, she continually switches gears between re-enacting the past and performing her inner monologue - and does all this with oodles of grace. Alana has depth simply on the page, but Larson latches onto a viscerally real part of her, nimbly scaling the emotional spectrum from despair to triumph. She makes us feel like (and want to be) her friend and confidant, which in turn makes the climax of the play work gangbusters.

Skin a Cat is definitely the most vagina-y (if I was a twat, I'd say yonic) play I've ever seen - and all credit to it for being so. As well as teaching me about vaginismus (I now realise I have encountered in a past partner and didn't know what it was), there's a casual yet forthright feminism baked into every character interaction and red-faced confession. 

Our culture cloaks vaginas in mystery and shame: to the point where our politicians hesitate to even say the word 'tampon'. Plays like this function as a rolling of the eyes and a crucial exhortation to grow the hell up. Recommended.


Skin a Cat is at The Bunker until 5 November. Tickets here

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