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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: 'Reprehensible Men Part II' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 16th August 2017

Thursday, August 17, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reprehensible Men Part II reviewed by David James

Rating: 2 Stars

Dan Horrigan's Reprehensible Men Part II consists of five short monologues performed by various actors. As you can probably guess from the title, all are men, and all the characters they perform all fall on the wrong side of the moral compass. 

With an empty stage populated by a solitary chair (a second eventually arriving), director Phil Setren clearly wants to avoid any distractions that might get in the way of the performances and script. This proves a double-edged sword as performances run the gamut from intense to hammy and the writing has a nasty habit of disappearing up its own arse. 

The worst offender is the opening piece. Christopher Preston is lumbered with an absolute dog of a monologue that opts for self-conscious verbosity to defining character or telling a story. It's a real teeth-gritter, bombarding the audience with literary flourishes and half-assed rhetoric that reminded me of Harrison Ford's famous comment to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars: "George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it!".

Fortunately, it's all uphill from there. Each performer recognises the opportunity to show off their particular skills. Jamie Pigott gives a rangy, wounded performance as a guilt-ridden lover, with his monologue containing a particularly nice observation about concealing the intensity of past loves from your current squeeze. He's followed by Gareth Radcliffe, who does an excellent job of directly interacting with audience members and subsequently cranking up the tension.

But the best of the bunch comes last. Christopher Sherwood is an excellent actor and benefits from having one of the more straightforward stories to tell. He's all lean muscle and frustration, pacing the stage like a caged animal. In a successful dramatic flourish, he invites a member of the audience up on stage to read a crucial part of the piece. This is a gamble, but it paid off last night.

Five back to back monologues over the space of just over an hour proves to be a difficult writing exercise. Over just 10-15 minutes you have to introduce the character, set up, tell and conclude the narrative and, well, be interesting

Reprehensible Men Part II just doesn't achieve that consistently - the choice to sacrifice clarity for style making it difficult to properly get to grips with the characters or their stories. On top of that, despite the characters coming from a wide range of social and educational backgrounds, they all drop ten-dollar words as if they've guzzled a Thesaurus, unnecessarily revealing the author's hand.

If the best of these were expanded, maybe something with a bit of nuance and room for a bit of literary experimentation could arise. As it stands this is a painfully cramped show, the brief time we spend with each character and the unfocused writing preventing any real engagement.

Reprehensible Men Part II is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 19 August. Tickets here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review: 'Dark Room' at the Etcetera Theatre, 14th August 2017

Tuesday, August 15, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Dark Room reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

In Jim Mannering's Dark Room, four social misfits get together to discuss their shared passion. They spend their time bickering over the quality of the coffee, chatting about their club subscriptions and swap thoughts on the random stranger they're going to kidnap, torture and brutally murder.

Wait.. what?

This darkly comedic one act play introduces us to characters who're as domestic as they are psychopathic. We begin with 'A' (Roger Parkins), a corpulent Mummy's boy with the unfortunate hobby of exposing himself in parks. An organised, bookish type, he realises that the perfect murder will need accomplices, and forms a partnership with the angry and veiny 'B' (Jim Mannering) and 'C' (Rebecca Finch), who has honed her feminity to razor sharpness. The play opens with the introduction of new member 'D' (Arthur Gall), who is pleased as punch to be selected to join this exclusive club.

The rest of the play follows them as they stalk their target, conduct 'simulations' of his torture and get to know one another. Each of the four is sharply written, with their own foibles, mannerisms and peculiarities that cause low-level frictions within the group. For example, 'A' is fussy and precise, enjoying the power of being the group's leader and maintaining decorum almost as much as the disembowelling. Together they make for a finely balanced ensemble, having enough in common to make it plausible they're together while being so different that humorous situations naturally well up around them.

It's an impressive piece of writing: focused, funny and always moving forward. These qualities are enhanced by four performances that never put a foot wrong. I adored every moment Roger Parkins was on stage - frequently reminding me of a homicidally included Mark from Peep Show. Mannering's 'B' also impresses, forever teetering on the edge of caricature but never quite crossing the line. Finch manages to show some real demented dangerousness going on behind her eyes, flashing them seductively like a snake sneaking up on an unsuspecting mouse. 

Great as all that is, I can offer Dark Room a rare compliment: I was disappointed when it finished. The vast majority of plays I see I generally think could lose 10-15 minutes of waffling or unnecessary subplots and still be great, but this ends at such a high point that I found myself craving more, wanting to see the grisly conclusion to the tale.

I was thinking about this on the way home and realised that there's a neat moral equivalency going on between characters and audience by the play ending this way. They, like us, are hungry for blood n' guts - hungrily anticipating watching someone jerk and gurgle on a meat hook. It both implicates wider appetites for violence and humanises the play's serial killer characters, and makes for a neat writing trick.

As you can probably tell I deeply dug Dark Room. It's nice to see a play that's confident enough to simply tell a well-written story. It's so engaging I think these characters and situation could stand being expanded to a much longer piece.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'A Girl and a Gun' at Summerhall, 9th August 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A Girl and a Gun reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

A Girl and a Gun takes its name from the famous Godard quote: "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun". It remains an accurate summation of much of a mainstream movie industry that's stuck telling the same two or three stories in slightly different permutations. Images of men with gritted teeth and distressed vests, a big gun in one hand and a simpering babe in the other, are so common that it's easy to take them for granted.

Louise Orwin is battling against that with this show, which deconstructs the language, visuals and themes of action cinema. It's as if a big box of DVDs has been poured into a cauldron and boiled down until only their whitened bones of the form are left: a collection of disconnected plot beats, snatches of macho dialogue and a big box of prop guns.

Orwin has used this detritus as the DNA of A Girl and a Gun, which has a fascinating gimmick. Each show stars Orwin and a different male performer who has absolutely no idea what the show will consist of. He simply has to follow directions on a video monitor that tells him what to say, how to behave and what to wear. It puts a juicy power imbalance dead centre, while Orwin's constructed narrative is all about steel-jawed gunslingers treating a submissive woman badly, what we actually see is a nervous man struggling to keep up with the script contrasted with a confident performer who knows exactly what's going to happen.

It leads to some funny moments: the male performer trying desperately to put on some cowboy chaps, or attempting to stylishly twirl his gun and accidentally snapping a piece off it. It also leads to some fantastic tension, both when the guy is told to verbally abuse and demean Orwin, and when he's ordered to slap her and spit in her face. The show excels in making these moments skin-crawlingly awkward, but with the twist that it's the man press-ganged into the role and the woman in charge.

The show also has an excellent grasp on the aesthetic of cinema. Filmed through two cameras, we always have something to mentally cut away to, or just to deliver a smouldering close up. The soundtrack is also on point, crammed fulla "familiar songs" very much in the mould of a Tarantino film. 

But while A Girl and a Gun is a successful, clear and forceful intellectual experiment, it's not amazing theatre. By dint of its construction it's very stop start, with a decent chunk of the run time spent watching the actors sit around silently waiting for their orders to appear. There are moments where the enforced artificiality creates a weird, almost Lynchian, disconnect between performers and audience, but occasionally it just strays into the realms of 'a bit boring'.

This wasn't exactly helped, in the show I saw, by a technical glitch that meant that the actor's commands began looping, and the performance appeared to start again. I initially thought it was some experimental alienation-y Brechty kinda deal, but actually, it seemed to be a screw up that necessitated pausing and restarting the show.

I enjoyed A Girl and a Gun, but with some reservations. I can't reasonably dislike any show that paraphrases Alien's "Look at all my shit!" monologue from Spring Breakers (a film which, incidentally, deconstructs a lot of the same stuff this show does), but the intentional artificiality gets a bit tiring. If you're going, just bear in mind that Orwin's priorities lie with making a point much more than entertaining an audience.

A Girl and a Gun is at Summerhall, Edinburgh Aug 10-13, 15-20, 22-27. Tickets here.

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Dust' at Underbelly Cowgate, 9th August 2017

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Dust reviewed by David James

Rating: 5 Stars

At first, dying doesn't seem so bad. No-one hassles you, there's no worries about eating, sleeping or shitting and you can go wherever you want. Much like your corpse, death looks kinda chilled out. Or least, it does for Alice, a newlydead suicide who appears liberated by the whole affair. It seems that death has done what antidepressants never could and cured her depression, which makes sense, you can't have fucked up serotonin levels if you don't have a brain!

Over the course of Dust, Alice unravels her life, drifting invisibly between her family and friends and taking in their reactions to her death, as well as intermittently flashing back to the unhappy chain of events that terminated with pills and razorblades.

Written and performed by Milly Thomas, Dust yo-yos between sardonic chirpiness and bottomless existential blues. Alice is compelling company from the off, beginning the show in dialogue with her corpse as she apologises for the way she's mistreated it over the years and also ogling the way her pallid skin is attractively 'marbled'. In a weirdly touching moment she crouches down between her own legs to get a glimpse of her own genitals. Sure they're just beginning to decompose and her labia are flecked with dried blood (there is an impressively gross moment earlier when the mortician removes her moon cup), but hey - when else are you going to get the chance to peek up your own chuff?

After the morgue, she drifts back to her friends and family, whose grief and loss is played straight. It's moving stuff, particularly the moments when her father breaks down and lets out an animalistic bellow as he hugs her corpse, the blank-faced stare of her detached stoner brother, or the guilty tears of her ex-boyfriend as he receives an exceedingly miserable blowjob. 

Alice uneasily observes them, cracking jokes to try and puncture the tension. But while she has a very well developed shield of glibness that can deflect most emotional shit, this stuff hurts. Throughout Dust, a slow sense of guilt builds up in Alice as she repeatedly sees the consequences of her suicide, guilt that soon combines with the frustrations that come when you divorce the world of the living.

Alice's life was a chaotic spiderweb of anxiety, pain and misery, surrounded by people whose awkward, well-meaning help just made it worse. The only moments of purity and control came at the end of a knife, the pain of self-inflicted wounds briefly overriding away all the misery. Everything sucked and the future looked crappy. I hesitate to say that Alice makes a good argument for committing suicide but you can absolutely understand her motivation.

Dust is not pro-suicide, but rather than make a saccharine argument about the essential sanctity of life, Thomas emphasises the downsides of death. Removed from the living, Alice is cursed to permanently observe: having to cope with small annoyances like not being to use her smartphone ("it's just a lump of metal and plastic now") to bigger stuff like, y'know, being trapped forever in an isolated purgatory with no chance of escape. 

In Dust, the true tragedy of suicide is its absolute finality, arguing that sure, life may be utter shit right now, but as long as you're alive there's the possibility that things might improve. Hope is fragile, and in the pitch black of depression it can seem absent, but it never truly disappears. But Dust explains that, after death, hope is gone. You are trapped in aspic, preserved only in the memories of your loved ones. When Alice slowly realises this she can only scream "I'M STILL HERE!", as if the uncaring void gives a shit.

Milly Thomas walks paths most playwrights wouldn't dare tread, her style often reminding me of the darker works of Chris Morris. But while her other plays always contain eye-opening scenes and kickass dialogue, I've taken issue with their structures as a whole. But I've got no issues with Dust - this is a complex and bold piece of writing that makes a great philosophical argument at the same time as being really goddamn entertaining and beautifully performed. I've rarely seen a standing ovation so well earned.

Dust is at Underbelly Cowgate Aug 10-14, 16-27. Tickets here.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Victim' at the Pleasance Attic, 9th August 2017

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Victim reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

Victim is a neat little one woman show about the uneasy relationship between prisoner and prison guard. Written by Martin Murphy and performed by Louise Beresford, the piece switches between two people that occupy the same environment but from very different perspectives. 

We first meet Tracey, a confident and likeable woman who's been working as a prison guard for a couple of years. She's built up enough experience to be aware that prisoners can manipulate guards, but not quite enough to fully develop the mental plate mail that prevents them getting under her skin. Right now she's fascinated by new arrival Marcia, whose conviction for assisting in the murder of her baby has dominated headlines.

All too soon we meet a character on the other side of the bars. Prisoner A23174 Siobhan has murdered her ex-boyfriend and has set herself up as a 'fixer' to the other prisoners, able to provide drugs, mobile phones and favours... for a price. She's also the new cellmate of Marcia, recognising that she can use Tracey's interest in her for her own ends.

Whichever character is being portrayed is shown by a red and blue light behind the performer, though this is arguably unnecessary as Beresford does such a great job defining each character's body language and behaviour. She's an easy performer to like, drawing the audience into the story with liberal amounts of eye contact and occasionally physically interacting with them. I had a pleasure of her in Siobhan mode draping her arm around me as she explained that women are more natural predators than men.

Murphy's writing is also packed full of entertaining and well-observed incidental details. Tracey relates the tale of a man whose arse was as full of treasure as Aladdin's cave, the gormlessness of a prison art therapist or the illicit thrill of having a breakfast of canned gin and Quavers on a train.

But while Victim is engaging I don't think the two women's stories dovetail together as neatly as they should. There's some meaty drama late in the production after Tracey slips up and gives Siobhan some leverage over her, but the consequences don't quite live up to their ominous promise. Perhaps a more steady and thorough corruption of Tracey and more extreme consequences for the two women would have made the title Victim that much more ambiguous.

It leaves Victim is an entertaining but not crucial watch. It's in competition with a hell of a lot of one woman/man shows across the Fringe, the best of which almost literally knocked my socks off. This has above-average writing and Louise Beresford can rightly be proud of her performance, but it doesn't quite do enough to distinguish it from the competition.

Victim is at the Pleasance Attic Aug 10-15, 17-28. Tickets here.

Edinburgh Fringe: 'Part of the Picture' at the Pleasance Dome, 9th August 2017

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Part of the Picture reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

On the night of 9th July 1988, the North Sea oil production platform Piper Alpha exploded. Owned and operated by Occidental Petroleum, Piper Alpha was the largest oil and gas platform in the area and provided employment for 228 workers. The explosion, a result of lax safety procedures, set off a chain reaction, engulfing the platform in flame and quickly tearing it to pieces. 167 men died as a result of the explosion with many of the 61 survivors having braved a 100ft drop from the helicopter platform into a burning sea. 

But up until this morning, I didn't know any of that. I had some hazy knowledge that there was a really bad disaster on an oil rig sometime in the 1980s, but had no idea of the specifics. So, if nothing else, Tom Cooper's Part of the Picture has provided a useful education to me about a disaster that seems all the more relevant in the light of the Grenfell disaster.

Part of the Picture is docu-theatre, but broadly follows the story of Sue Jane Taylor (Charlaye Blair), a Scottish artist with a focus on workers and industry. She considers the sudden eruption of activity in the North Sea oilfields an important part of cultural history that must be chronicled. And so, after finally convincing a PR man, she ends up on Piper Alpha, sketchbook in hand. 

Here she meets roustabout Jim (Ross McKinnon) and crane operator Robbie (Brian James O'Sullivan) and, after some initial scepticism from the all-male crew, she sets to work sketching them. A year later she's preparing for an art exhibition on industrial workers when she hears the awful news and realises that many of her subjects have perished in the disaster.

This is a precisely told and extremely touching story, the product of careful research and interviews with all manner of offshore oil and gas workers. Cooper approaches the men of the Piper Alpha with respect and sensitivity, communicating everything from the difficulty they have being separated from their families, the problems that arise in a testosterone-saturated working environment, their precarious employment status (shackled  to global oil prices) and the simple day-to-day experience of what it's like to work on an isolated platform in the middle of the ocean.

Helping achieve this is a cleverly designed set that does a lot with very little. The backdrop is an extremely evocative combination of corrugated iron as the sea and a plastic sheet as the overcast sky, the horizon dotted with the silhouettes of the distant rigs. Showing a sea that's become metallic and processed is a neat visual shorthand for how the industry regards its environment. The minimal scenery first buttressed by evocative language: the rig described as a "huge metal sea monster" and that "big men are made tiny by the scale" and secondly by O'Sullivan's atmosphere folk music soundtrack

Within this environment, the three performers excel. Blair is great as the inquisitive, passionate artist who understands the necessity of understanding the industrial world and technology through art - visibly toughening up as she emulates the sturdiness of her subjects. But it's McKinnon and O'Sullivan who provide the heart and soul of the piece. O'Sullivan's Robbie is a lively presence, keeping his travelling disco on the road when he's not at sea. For my money it was McKinnon who most embodies the stoicism of the offshore worker, recounting his own death with a weary, tragic pragmatism. 

My one criticism is that we never get to see any of Sue Jane Taylor's work in the piece. I'm guessing there was a rights issue preventing this, which is understandable enough. Still, when we spend so long watching her create her portraits it's a bit of an anticlimax to see them represented by blank picture frames in the finale.

The play concludes with the pointed message that while this industry takes place hundreds of miles from land where nobody is watching, we're all a part of it. From petrol to contact lenses, our cossetted lives are made possible by lonely men in dangerous jobs. Part of the Picture movingly memorialises those that lost their lives in Piper Alpha, as well as reminding us to be thankful for the danger their contemporary counterparts face every day.

Part of the Picture is at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh Aug 10-13, 15-28. Tickets here.

Edinburgh Fringe: 'The Unmarried' at Underbelly, 8th August 2017

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The Unmarried reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Luna is the woman you see illuminated for a microsecond in the strobe. It's 4am, you're in an amphetamine haze and there she is. Compared to the sweaty crowd around her she seems to move in slow motion, as at home on the dancefloor as a fish in the sea. Where the hell is she going when the party stops?

The Unmarried is a poetic monologue, interspersed with live renditions of 90s dance hits, that takes us through seven years of Luna's life. We meet her at fresher's week, she's ditched her hometown boyfriend is revelling in her newfound independence. It's like she's drawn a very short to do list: dance and fuck. But just as she embarks on the life she's dreamed of, enter Pete. Originally 'Fun Fuck Pete' after a night of amazing sex, he convinces her to go out for coffee. Unbeknownst to her, the handcuffs have just clicked shut.

And so the years spiral by. Wanting to preserve their independence they start trying to work out an open relationship but it doesn't work (it never does). Before Luna knows it the relationship has become long term: evolving from stranger to fuckbuddy to girlfriend to plain old partner. Luna and Pete even get on the property ladder, nurturing their flat like they would a child. Domesticity is quicksand and she's suddenly up to her neck.

Written and performed by Lauren Gauge, The Unmarried's Luna is electrifying company. She's forthright, honest and unapologetic, demanding happiness, sexual fulfilment and excitement like it's her birthright. Her eyes flash with intelligence, her body language is coiled and predatory, her joy infectious and exhilarating. She embodies freedom so fully that, as the play opens, you find it difficult to imagine anyone tying her down. But, like the proverbial frog not realising it's being slowly boiled to death, it's the slow trap that gets her.

Gauge displays a dab hand in conveying the slow burn tedium of routine sex, box sets and bourgeois non-conversation. As she puts it: "Love without lust is all bread, no crust", despairing as boring men drape themselves in stuff from the "Gap summer season sale". There's a palpable misery to scenes in which she watches Pete fixing the fence in the garden, wondering him when they turned into 80-year-olds. Her bondage is realised in the show's best visual moment - when she's cocooned in microphone cord like a fly in a spiderweb.

It takes a certain amount of skill to properly convey Luna's existential blues. After all, on paper, she's got a pretty great life - even I had to suppress a small pang of annoyance when she was complaining about the miseries of owning your own London flat. 

The Unmarried would work perfectly well as a monologue, but it's elevated by the presence of Georgia Bliss and Haydn-Sky Bauzon. She sings and he beatboxes, the pair providing a crucial rhythmic backbone to the show. Together they manage to infuse songs that repetition has beaten the emotion from genuine with poignancy - even making Nelly's Hot in Herre bristle with weird wistful longing.

This is a show about liberation from drudgery, boredom, conformity and predictability. 'Settling' for a peaceful, untaxing life is giving up - if you're not willing to push yourself forward then what's the point in getting up in the morning? A lot of Fringe shows stray into the realm of the self-obsessed: gloopy confessionals that exist more to wank off the performer's ego than convey anything useful. The Unmarried blows past all of this, instructing its audience to recognise their desires and not settle for anything less.

The Unmarried is at the Underbelly Med Quad Aug 9-13, 15-20, 22-28. Tickets here.

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