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Friday, August 9, 2019

Review: 'River in the Sky' at The Hope Theatre, 8th August 2019

Friday, August 9, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Dealing with grief is like preparing a house for a tornado. You're scurrying around, boarding up the doors and windows of your mind to create a safe haven where the horror cannot reach you. You need time in this cocoon to build the courage to face your new reality: one that will forever be absent of the person you loved.

Peter Taylor's River in the Sky puts this process on stage, showing us a couple struggling to deal with the death of their newborn baby. Played by Lindsey Cross and Howard Horner, the pair had been dealing with fertility issues and miscarriages for so long that the joy of anticipation of being a parent was replaced with grim nervousness: "what's going to go wrong this time?". Then, miracle of miracles, they have a baby boy. The world is sunshine and roses, right up until an undiagnosed genetic heart condition randomly kills him. 

Sucks to be them.

The play picks up some time later, with the woman having retreated to an isolated cottage to grieve and the man returning to work in an effort to maintain a normal life. By the time we meet them they're shadows of their former selves. Their interactions are artificial, as if they're performing bad cover versions of their original personalities. These people will never be what they once were, but can they recover enough of themselves to move forward?

River in the Sky sensibly shies away from portraying grief as tearing of hair and renting of clothes. There's not even that many tears. What we get here is a bleak numbness: jokes made to a blank reception, small talk about biscuits to break the silence, and a palpable physical hollowness that comes with sleepless nights and low appetite.

Their coping mechanism for busting through this is to retreat into storytelling. Cross' character wears a Harry Potter top and is an author, with her partner apparently similarly enthusiastic about fantasy. To deal with their emotions they concoct an allegorical story in which their baby son is some kind of fantastical griffin creature who has been devoured by a slimy, black many-tentacled sea monster.

It's here that the play lost me. Using metaphor to deal with difficult subjects isn't exactly unusual, but I wanted to feel more raw emotion rather than the characters essentially tiptoeing around what they're feeling. Plus, this leads directly into an overly sentimental finale in which the parents get to talk with the ghost of their infant son, who unfortunately speaks in creepy falsetto.

But this is a wobble rather than the play completely going off the rails. The whole enterprise is anchored by Cross and Horner's nicely multi-layered performances. Though they begin the play isolated from one another we can clearly see the old conversational grooves that couples slide into when they've spent so much time together. It makes the moments where they snap at each other painful, we can tell they are hurting one another because even anger is preferable to the suffocating numbness.

River in the Sky isn't an easy watch, but anyone who's suffered loss will find much to recognise here. This can't be easy to write or perform, but successfully capturing the essential truth of these emotions is no mean feat. 

River in the Sky is at The Hope Theatre until 24 August. Tickets here.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Review: '80 Days - A Real World Adventure' at Underbelly Festival, 18th July 2019

Friday, July 19, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Over the years I've experienced Jules Vernes' classic Around the World In Eighty Days in a variety of forms. I've seen it told with Fogg as an anthropomorphic lion, as a bad Jackie Chan / Steve Coogan buddy movie, and as an amazing choose-your-own-adventure videogame. Hell, I've even eaten my way through it courtesy of the delicious Phileas Fogg brand of tortilla chips (FYI, I will happily accept a box of snacks for this plug).

And, as of yesterday, I've now run and puzzled my way through the journey. 80 Days - A Real World Adventure is the latest from Fire Hazard Games, who specialise in 'high energy street games', a form of immersive theatre with gaming elements. 

From the press release, I'd gathered the show involved traversing London and solving clues: enough to get me excited. But even after multiple emails from the company I still turned up with very little idea of what I'd actually be doing. So, as simply as I can put it without spoiling things, this is what 80 Days actually is:

Working in teams, you have 80 minutes to solve a series of clues based around locations in the Covent Garden/Strand/Charing Cross area. For example, you will be given a riddle that references a specific place, and you must go there and scour the exterior for the answer. Solving these riddles gives you (virtual) cash. You must use that cash to complete a shopping list of items you'll need for your journey around the world.

This is all done via a web page that you access via your smartphone. It provides the clues, banks your money and grants you access to the shops. Once you have completed your shopping list, you must return to the starting location in order to see how your purchases inform your trip around the world.

It's easy enough to pick up, though a little confusingly explained by actors in character as Victorian eccentrics who profess not know what a smartphone is. Mercifully for a show so built around technology, it all works without a hitch with only a wobbly data signal having the potential to trip teams up. I would advise you make sure your phones are fully charged before beginning though.

Fire Hazard's promotional pictures show smiling teams dashing through alleys clutching maps - a depiction that proved 100% accurate. I had brought a friend along, and we spent pretty much the entire time sprinting around the busy streets, eager to score as many valuables as we could, the time limit cranking up our competitive natures. 

But I can't impress enough how active this show is. I'd advise groups to turn up in trainers and be prepared to dash about (an ability to dodge and weave through crowds is also a bonus). If you have mobility problems, then this show might not be much fun (the time limit discourages taking breaks) and it would be a miserable experience for anyone in bad weather. But for me it was one of the most enjoyable workouts I've had in a long time - the pint I got with my drinks token at the finishing line went down a treat.

Sadly, despite arriving back with a full shopping list and time to spare, my team didn't win. However, now that I know the rules I'm sorely tempted to give it another go and try to improve my time. Being able to play it again (presumably with new clues) is a testament to how much effort has been poured into 80 Days. I had a great time - sign me up for whatever Fire Hazard are serving next.

80 Days - A Real World Adventure is at Underbelly until 29th September. Tickets here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

'IT IS IS IT' by Silvia Ziranek, One Canada Square

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The first time I saw Silvia Ziranek perform was in front of a garage behind some flats in Bethnal Green. She was clearly a cut above the rest: my conclusion was that she was brilliant and that "It's a difficult thing to look classy with a panettone balanced on your head, but she effortlessly manages it.

Now she's the subject of an exhibition in the lobby of One Canada Square. This monolithic skyscraper is one of the primary symbols of capitalist Britain: a giant glass and steel obelisk penetrating the docklands sky, capped by a glass pyramid with a blinking eye on top. The symbolism kinda writes itself. In and around it lie the lairs of big finance: Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Citi, HSBC, Deutsche Bank and so on. So how does Ziranek's playful, feminine and enigmatic perspective fit into this pin-striped world?

As it turns out, it doesn't. And that's why the exhibition works. The lobby of One Canada Square is a cavernous, marbled place designed to impress and intimidate - to instil in visitors the notion that this is where very important things happen. 

IT IS IS IT subverts that. Most eye-catching are the selection of sloganeering badges ("ANYONE CAN APRON", "IT'S ME OR NEVER", "NOT UNDIRTY") that have been distributed throughout the years at her performances - blown up to fifty times their original size and pasted onto the walls. Seeing them festooned on the walls (and on Ziranek herself) makes the building (or at least its lobby) feel like an extension of the artist herself. Accompanying them are various messages, prose that agonisingly teeters on the edge of comprehension:
In addition to the badges, there are various paraphernalia from her archive: outfits, photographs, jewellery, leaflets and an extremely fetching collection of tiaras. There are also several life-size photographs pasted onto the walls. These show Ziranek in an appropriately regal-looking gold and purple outfit, hand on cocked hip, haughtily staring down the hordes of bankers that will pass by her each day.

The bits of the exhibition that emphasise the contrast between these two worlds are what made it fizz for me. I loved the austere white exhibition cases lined with pink fur, official-looking perspex boxes full of poppy and disposable stickers and sculptures made from children's lettering or safety scissors.

The biggest risk that this exhibition is running is that Ziranek's best work over the years is herself. Billed as "one of Britain's foremost Performance Artists", it'd be all too easy for this exhibition to lack a lodestar without the artist herself being present - how are you supposed to place this stuff in context without actually seeing her perform?

It's an impossible question for me to answer given that I'm familiar with her work, though there's such a strong sense of her personality in this art that any viewer should be able to quite accurately infer who Silvia Ziranek is and what she represents.

I can't quite get over how surreal it is to see an artist I'm familiar with in such intensely corporate surroundings. This is the kind of setting that would steamroller most artists into fine dust, but IT IS IS IT succeeds as a distillation of Ziranek's work to date and mischievously tweaks the nose of the patrician class this building caters for. 

IT IS IS IT is at One Canada Square, Canary Wharf until 16 August. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Review: 'Shadows' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 2nd July 2019

Wednesday, July 3, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Unrequited love is slow-burning torture. Whether because of circumstances,  sexual preference or simply a lack of social awkwardness - a person can end up spending hours in the company of someone who could provide everything they want but never will. Beyond that, there's the quiet desperation of sitting on the sidelines as the object of your desire pairs up, settles down and begins a future without you. All the while you observe mournfully as a potential future recedes into the distance.

Before Morrissey turned into a fascist, he sang "want the one I can't have / And it's driving me mad / It's written all over my face". He knew the score. And so does Want the Moon Theatre's Shadows.

Nat (Madeline Hatt) does too - painfully so. She's caught in a romantic no-man's land with her co-worker James (Ross White). The play follows their relationship as they work in a pub, with the majority of the action taking place in the cellar amidst kegs of beer and crates of bottles. It's not the most satisfying job, with Nat summarising it as something you do for a while and move on. James doesn't necessarily agree.

Playwright Dan Sareen then works through an intriguing split narrative. We see each scene twice; once in the imagination of Nat in which she and James gradually grow closer and form a romantic bond; and once in cold reality, in which two co-workers put together by circumstance realise they don't have as much in common as they thought they did.

On paper, showing each scene twice sounds pretty terrible - why do I want to see a variation on something I've just watched? In practice it works very well, with the direction, writing and performances doing more than enough to make the contrast between the two versions of each scene interesting.

This narrative structure feeds back into some of the plays other elements. Throughout Shadows the characters discuss music: Nat is a classically trained pianist and James prefers rock music - with moments where they attempt to connect with one another through pieces of music they love. This is echoed in the structure of the play, in which the repetition creates a narrative melody that's gradually iterated on as the relationship evolves.

It's clever stuff and exactly the kind of experimentation that I look for in fringe theatre. This sense of ambition extends to the direction and set design. Initially, things look rather plain, the selection of white props creating a sense of place rather than a simulation of it. But these props are also used as a background for digital projection mapping in which we see fantasies of Nat and James' imagined perfect lives play out between scenes. Throughout the play, these surfaces are continually reconfigured, with the actors having to put props in exactly the right place to show the projections. It looks complicated and time-consuming, but the effect is well worth it.

Cementing all this into place are two great performances from Hatt and White, who are directed very well by Jess Williams. They nail the change in tone between the two versions of scenes, and for the audience it's painfully easy to spot parts of yourselves in each of them. Though there's a profound sense of melancholy running throughout Shadows, Hatt and White nail the funnier parts, and have a genuine chemistry without which the play wouldn't work half as well.

Shadows is a fine bit of drama. It's got a clear dramatic objective that everyone involved understands, meaning that cast and crew are all pulling in the same direction. This purity of focus and narrative discipline is surprisingly rare on stage - making this a tight and effective show.

Shadows is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 6th July (tickets here), then at the Edinburgh Fringe from August 2nd - 26th (tickets here).

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Review: 'Dark Sublime' at Trafalgar Studios, 27th June 2019

Saturday, June 29, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a golden age for British TV science fiction. Tom Baker was deep into his tenure on Doctor Who, while shows like Quatermass, Blake's 7 and Space: 1999 were cementing themselves in popular culture. What they lacked in budget they made up for with ideas, building passionate fanbases that persist to this day. But there's one show you won't have heard of: Dark Sublime.

It tells the tale of Captain Vykar and plucky crew of the space Skelder, who seek to prevent villainous interdimensional space queen Ragana from breaking through to our universe. All she needs is the Shadow Ruby and we will be doomed to slavery under her sadistic rule.

But that's not what Dark Sublime is about. Set in the present day, we follow Marianne (Marina Sirtis), who played Ragana. It's now been 35 years since Dark Sublime aired and for her, the show is a hazy memory amidst many other roles. That all changes when Oli (Kwaku Mills) enters her life. 

He's a cult TV superfan, having latched on to some grainy bootleg DVDs of the show and discovered something wonderful. He's on a campaign to bring the show back into the public eye, campaigning for a re-release and organising the inaugural Dark Sublime fan convention, at which Marianne will be the star attraction.

Though Marianne is appreciative of Oli's attention, his adulation makes her feel vaguely fraudulent. She simply cannot understand what they are seeing in a silly and dated show that was just another job for her. 

Bubbling away in the background (and often in the foreground) is Marianne's relationship with Kate (Jacqueline King). The pair have previously been romantically entangled, though that has runs its course. Now they've settled into a close friendship, though there's still a lingering (and unreciprocated) desire. Anyway, Kate is now in a new relationship with Suzanne (Sophie Ward) and life has moved on.

Writer Michael Dennis (making his debut) has found a decent seam of drama in the world of cult TV fandom, conventions and actors living off their past roles. Most fan conventions any contain rows of desks populated by washed-up actors who once appeared in cult shows and a pile of glossy headshots ready to be signed. What does the man who once played Stormtrooper #14  really think of the people who turn up at his desk?

Casting Marina Sirtis as the lead makes this material fizz. She played Betazoid empath Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which means she has first-hand experience with dealing with fans at conventions and knows what it's like to be best known for a role she hasn't played in years. Sirtis' experience in dealing with fans shows in her performance, it's easy to surmise that Marianne isn't a million miles away from Sirtis herself.

Dark Sublime is at its best when it's getting under Marianne's skin and exploring her lopsided friendship with Oli. Unfortunately, the play also deals with a tonne of other, much less interesting stuff. For example, there's an interminable scene in which side characters Kate and Suzanne lie on the grass outside Alexandra Palace and idly chat about their jobs.

It means that large portions of the play are, to be brutally honest, very boring. This is particularly evident in the first act, in which the characters and their relationships are established at a glacial pace. By contrast, the second act starts with an energetic bang, with Oli excitedly introducing his convention and what we can expect.

This going to sound extreme, Dark Sublime would improve by leaps and bounds if the entire first act was cut. The fan convention is where the show's themes are strongest, it's where we get to meet big personalities, it's where the funniest gags happen and where there is genuine tension between the fans and the stars. By comparison, much of the first act is people sitting around in a living room having circular, meandering conversations studded with mediocre jokes.

All that's a pity, because Dark Sublime has clearly had a lot of love poured into it. The programme cover is a beautifully designed rendition of The Dark Sublime Annual 1982, and the interior contains tie-in books featuring the cast and TV Times cover stories (all by the obviously talented Clayton Hickman). The general design of the show is also pretty spiffy too - even though I didn't think much of the show I considered buying a t-shirt just because the logo was so cool.

Plus I can't pick any holes in the cast. Sirtis is great, but Kwaku Mills sometimes seems on a one-man mission to entertain us, and pretty much every moment Oli is on stage he's doing something interesting. Also great is Simon Thorp's brief appearances as Vykar, in which he neatly skewers the Shakespearian actor 'lowering' himself to run around with a toy raygun.

It's frustrating that Dark Sublime contains all these objectively great elements, as they end up diluted by so much unnecessary material that even they get washed away in a wave of ennui. 

Dark Sublime is at Trafalgar Studios until 2nd August. Tickets here.

Review is of the 27th June preview rather than the 28th June press night.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review: 'Tiger Under the Skin' at the Gielgud Theatre, RADA, 26th June 2019

Thursday, June 27, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Panic attacks suck. The common experience is an overwhelming feeling of doom and fear, that all but immobilises you. Sufferers think they're having a heart attack, or that they're being suffocated, or that they're about to vomit. Basically, it isn't fun. At all.

Tom Kelsey's Tiger Under the Skin tries to communicate what it's like living with anxiety and the fear of suffering panic attacks. Based on his personal experiences, we follow a fictionalised Tom as he struggles through an average day. We soon gather that he's in recovery after an unspecified spell at a mental health facility. He lives with his worried mother, rarely leaves the house and his closest companion is his dog, Digby.

We follow Tom as he walks Digby in the park, with even this wholesome and straightforward exercise fraught with tension. Then the day takes an unexpected twist when Tom is invited on a night out in town. Ordinarily, he'd make an excuse and cancel but today, for some reason, he accepts. His friends are as surprised as he is, but though going to a loud, busy nightclub is full of triggers for his attacks, he vows to make the trip. Maybe he's recovered enough to deal with this environment. Maybe not.

Tiger Under the Skin vividly communicates how anxiety manifests. There's a great moment early in the production where Tom's pessimism is characterised as a grumpy old Scotsman whinging away in the background: "it's pissing it down outside, you're staying in today", "you don't have friends any more", "you look terrible, and no-one is ever going to want you". 

There's also a wonderful scene in which a simple tube ride becomes an odyssey of pain. Being enclosed in a cramped metal tube deep underground sets off Tom's paranoia, making him convinced a bomb is going to go off, or the tunnel will slowly flood, or that a fire will inexorably burn its way down the carriage. He feels a sudden terrifying certainty that he's going to die here. The fog of a panic attack begins to seep in at the corners, and the only thing that can stave it off is nervously drumming on the back of his hand and humming the Star Wars theme.

All this is imaginatively staged and performed, with much credit due to Kelsey and the backstage crew for synchronising the performance so well with many lighting changes and sound cues. It culminates in an ending where the Tiger Under the Skin becomes literal, in which Kelsey really gets to show off his physical performance skills.

But while the ending is visually striking, the descent into more abstract action overwhelms the small-scale personal story that's worked so well up to this point. The majority of the show feels small, personal and intricate detailed, so a finale that's full of broad strokes and dramatic twists didn't sit well. I get that there needs to be a sense of escalation, but the climactic scene felt a bit Hollywood (possibly because it ends by quoting David Fincher's Fight Club).

There was one other mild annoyance: every single word Tom utters (and sometimes each syllable) is accompanied by its own gesticulation. It makes things feel weirdly artificial: the character is supposed to be introverted and anxious, yet he slices the air with his palms like a CEO delivering a keynote speech. I get that against an empty stage in a one-man play a performer needs to ensure they're visually engaging, but I wish it this was toned down a bit.

Those criticisms don't stop Tiger Under the Skin achieving its goals. A lot of thought has gone into the best way to convey to the audience what anxiety and panic attacks are like, and by the time we're applauding it's done that a few times over.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Review: 'Me And My Whale' at The Vaults, 22nd June 2019

Sunday, June 23, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

We are currently living through the Holocene extinction event - the sixth and most dramatic mass extinction that has ever taken place on Earth. Previous mass extinctions, most famously the massive comet or asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous era, are thought of as quick cataclysmic events. Yet the extinction of the dinosaurs took place over a period of 10,000 years.

In the current extinction, humanity is the deadly asteroid smashing into the Earth - and we're doing a far more efficient job than some lousy space rock ever could. Overhunting, habitat destruction, disease, deforestation, global warming and pollution are decimating life on this planet at an ever-accelerating rate. One shocking piece of research claims that by 2050 there could be, by weight, more plastic than fish in the ocean.

All this brings us neatly to Xavier Velastin and Hannah Mook's Me And My Whale. This is an abstract, experimental piece of theatre that tells the story of a submarine captain falling in love with a lonely whale. While exploring the depths, she discovers the moving sound of his song and seeks to join him. 

On paper, that story sounds twee as hell, but the narrative quickly proves to be more a vehicle for a series of auditory and visual experiments. Staged in traverse, the performance space is bookended by two enormous sheets of gossamer-thin plastic sheeting. Between these lie a series of objects that are more art installation than set. Between them are three dangling bowls of liquid, an overhead projector with liquid on top beams rippling waves on to the walls and a big bowl in which Mook dips her face into and sings through the bubbles.

Velastin and Mook use the stage as a giant musical instrument, combining the pleasingly low-tech (the old style overhead projector gave me flashbacks to school assemblies) with what I'm assuming is live digital audio manipulation. I don't know precisely how they're producing this soundscape, but it appears that their interactions and movements through the set become translated into sound. This creates a unique hour-long piece of music that's different every time its performed.

This music is variously dreamy, meditative, funny and horrifying. The long stretches without dialogue give time to lose yourself in the soundscape, realising that the stage is a microcosm of the wider ocean: an ecosystem hemmed in with plastic and gradually chemically polluted as time goes on. This is complemented by long, low synthetic wails, which take on a morbid quality, as if we're hearing the dying gasps of the sea. We also get an idea of sonic pollution, with simulated and disorientating radar pings and drilling encroaching on a natural peace.

Horror aside, there's also a scene where a woman has passionate sex with a whale, so the show is never in danger of becoming truly miserablist. 

Me And My Whale isn't for everyone. You're going to have to come with this with a high tolerance for arty shit, combined with the ability trust that all this abstract noise and odd behaviour has a point. But I kinda loved it: it takes gumption to try and capture on stage the destruction of the oceans and the environmental calamity that mankind has wrought. Perhaps the only way to manage to communicate the sheer existential terror of what is happening right now is through arty shit.

Here's hoping Me And My Whale is performed more in future: we need more shows like this ready to push the boat (or submarine) out.

Further performances of Me And My Whale will be announced on their website.

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