Friday, August 28, 2015
Friday, August 28, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
The first thing you notice is the floor. It's strip of shiny black PVC that pours over the performance space like an oil slick. A walkway is provided to prevent the audience from scuffing it with their shoes, hinting at an aesthetic importance. It looks like an infinite blackness - to step on it is to plunge into the abyss.
And it's into the abyss we go. My Eyes Went Dark is a fractured character study, that examines grief, madness, rage and death. Our protagonist is Nikolai Koslov (Cal MacAninch), successful Russian architect, loving husband and doting father. In an instant all this is snatched away: his family are on board a plane that collides with another aircraft. Koslov is one of the first on the scene of the crash, finding the nearly intact body of his infant daughter stuck in a tree.
Crazed with grief he takes up a lonely vigil at their grave, trying to make sense of the absolutely senseless. Refusing to accept that his life could be shattered by something as trivial as a 'mistake', he resolves to find those responsible and punish them. He eventually fixates on Thomas Olsen, the air traffic controller on duty during the accident, with tragic consequences.
My Eyes Went Dark is a complex, multi-layered narrative with an awful lot bubbling under the service. First and foremost it's a thorough psychological autopsy of a morbidly fascinating real-life story. All this actually happened: Koslov is a thinly fictionalised Vitaly Kaloyev, who suffered the exact bereavement we see on stage. His grief, eventual retribution and the consequences arising from that make for tragic reading.
From these roots spring a play about the ways loss can deform the soul. Writer Matthew Wilkinson takes multiple factors into consideration, most notably how culture informs our decisions. Prior to the incident Koslov considers himself an refined metropole, a far cry from the North Ossetian traditions of blood for blood and warfare. As he struggles to come to terms with his loss, he falls back in deep-seated cultural and religious thinking. Koslov's transformation is disquieting, raising questions about whether we can ever truly escape our upbringing.
Running underneath that is a soup of symbolic imagery. The play is a knot of Russian traditions retribution, legalistic corruption, aircraft wreckage and mangled bodies, all of which inevitably summon thoughts of Putin's Russia and the shooting down of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. Though never directly named, Putin haunts proceedings in the way we slowly pick through Russian ideals of machismo and masculinity.
All this is conveyed through MacAninch's marvellously complex performance. Though studded with 'big' emotional moments; furious snarls, howls of anguish and so on, it's the smaller moments that really make the character. Micromovements of the muscles in his lips, hands clenching and unclenching, his darting, accusatory eyes and quick pauses in the dialogue give a complete picture of the man. This is powerhouse acting, though this level of skill is all but required for the play to work.
He's ably supported by Thusitha Jayasundera, playing every other role in the play. Displaying chameleonic acting skills, one scene she's a curious young child, the next a cool psychiatrist, the next a corporate lawyer. It's a credit to her performance that we're never in the slightest confusion who she's playing or what her motivations are.
Similarly buoying up MacAninch is a striking, austere set. The aforementioned PVC flooring is bordered on either end by powerful LED lights, allowing for a dynamic, expressionist design that dovetails with Koslov's state of mind. At times, the strong lighting creates scenery from beams of light, at point Koslov almost appearing as if crucified on an invisible cross.
When top class performance skills combine with a bold aesthetic and multi-layered writing, you can't go too far wrong. But perhaps the best compliment I can give My Eyes Went Dark is that it demands you approach it intellectually. Even writing this review I was determined to do it justice, though I still feel I'm scratching at the surface.
Though not one of my regular theatrical haunts, the Finborough Theatre has quickly established itself in my mind as a venue for serious, moving drama. So it's a shame that almost as soon as I discover the place I learn it's endangered by having luxury flats constructed atop it. I deeply hope it successfully fights against the planning application, any theatre willing to stage Operation Crucible and My Eyes Went Dark deserves support!
My Eyes Went Dark is at the Finborough Theatre until 19th September. Tickets here.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
Thursday, August 27, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
At first glance Thoroughly Modern Millie looks like it's onto a winner. This is a sugar-sweet trifle of a musical packed with vigorously Charlestoning flappers, toe-tapping tunes, ultrachic Roaring Twenties fashion and snappy screwball dialogue. It boasts a bevvy of high octane, charismatic performers and is generally suffused with an air of good cheer. This is a show with many arrows in its quiver - so how does it miss the target by a mile?
Adapted from the cult 1967 Julie Andrews-starring musical of the same name, Thoroughly Modern Millie was revived in the early 2000s to broad acclaim. It tells the tale of new-girl-in-New-York Millie Dillmount (Francesca Lara Gordon). Sick of her podunk Kansas town, she arrives in the Big Apple with starry eyes and a head full of Vogue lifestyle columns. Her ambitions are fairly straightforward: to snare a rich husband and lead a life of easy luxury. If she has a bit of fun in speakeasies, society parties and fashionable clubs along the way, then so be it.
Complicating matters are a cold fish of a boss that ignores Millie's advances, an annoyingly persistent sweet young man who won't leave her alone, various money woes and dodging the prohibition enforcing cops. Unbeknownst to Millie, she's also got to tangle with her landlord Mrs Meers who's running a 'white slavery' ring that sells young girls to Hong Kong brothels.
|This is cool.|
First things first. Francesca Lara Gordon, in her debut professional performance, is an excellent Millie. Intelligent eyes sparkle under her Louise Brooks bob, giving a cartoonish character a tangibly human dimension. Physically she's all sharp angles, coquettishly posing as if she's spotted a fashion photographer secreted in the audience. Gordon also makes the most of some marvellously tasselled dresses which nicely accentuate her movements as she throws herself into the dance numbers with gusto. She isn't the greatest singer I've ever heard, but imbues all her numbers with personality - which goes a long way.
Similarly fun are Samuel Harris' stuffshirt boss, a stock role but played almost to perfection, getting some of the biggest laughs of the night. Christine Meehan also impresses in her various roles, wringing every comedic drop out of her lines and body language. All that, in combination with some neat dancing, a nice sense of energy and a decently malleable set should make for a basic success. Thoroughly Modern Millie isn't going to rewrite the musical playbook, but this sounds decent enough, right?
Well there's a fly in the ointment. An massively racist fly. Being previously unfamiliar with the story I was sat there basically enjoying myself until the arrival of the villain, Mrs Meers. She's a straight-up racist caricature; a woman in yellowface with a black bun hairdo, geisha makeup and cheongsam whose catchphrase is "so sad to be arr arone in the worrd". Compounding this is her slavery scheme, which derives from racist conspiracy theories of innocent white girls being preyed upon by secret and powerful foreign criminal organisations bent on defiling them.
|This ain't cool.|
Very slightly ameliorating things is Mrs Meers quickly reveals herself as a white woman disguising herself as Chinese. I suppose there's an argument that what we're seeing is the racism of the villain character, but imagine if the Mrs Meers character was in blackface and talking with a comedy 'Mammy' accent? After all, deep down the 'joke' here is making fun of the Chinese accent. This shit is unacceptable in 2015, bringing to mind Mickey Rooney's deeply regrettable Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast in Tiffany's.
Compounding matters are that supporting character Ching Ho is played by a non-Chinese actor. Alex Codd does a decent job in the role, but you have to wonder how hard it would be to find a London based Chinese actor to play a Chinese role (especially given that the show's already on some pretty thin ice), and not have someone trying very, very hard to talk in accented broken English without being massively offensive.
It boggles the mind that someone, sometime during production didn't point out that maybe this could come across as a teeny-weeny bit racist, and that perhaps the script could be altered to remove it. For me it spoiled what would otherwise have been a reasonably enjoyable production. Sadly, Millie proves to be anything but 'modern'.
'Thoroughly Modern Millie' is at The Landor Theatre until 13 September. Tickets here.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Friday, August 21, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
Daphne is the first show I've ever walked out on. I've sat through some painful productions in my time, but I tell myself I'm there to review, not to enjoy. After all, how can I write a truly objective review if I haven't seen half the show? So I won't be giving Daphne a star rating, but I'd like to explain exactly why I left. What was it about Daphne, one of the jewels in the Arcola's well regarded 'Grimeborn' opera season, that had me beating a hasty retreat?
First things first, Daphne wasn't groundbreakingly awful. The Arcola Theatre has a high standards, and for the most part this was no exception. Though performed for just one night show, lighting, costumes and set were as on point as you'd expect from a place like this. The performances were similarly competent: after all, when you attend an opera, you can be pretty confident that everyone on stage will have years of vocal training.
Here is where it starts to get a little awkward. You see, unbeknownst to me, Daphne was entirely in German. Now, this shouldn't be too much of a hurdle. Almost all of the operas I've attended over the few years have been in unfamiliar languages. I've even enjoyed a production of Uncle Vanya in Russian.
However, during all of these productions the audience has the benefit of surtitles or scene summaries to tell us what the hell was going on. These can be line by line translations, or short paragraphs explaining what's happening in each scene and who the characters are. Opera naturally deals in broad emotional strokes, so usually a couple of words like 'Character X wants to bone Character Y. But Character Z intercedes' are all you need.
Daphne had these scene summaries. But, here's the crucial thing from my assigned seat (G36), I couldn't see them. Some bright spark decided to project them in a place where those sat at the top of stage right had a brick wall blocking the view. This had the effect of rendering the show complete gobbledegook.
|I have no idea what is happening.|
Let me summarise what I saw. A mopey woman named Daphne hugs some ribbons for a bit. Then someone does a Nazi salute. "Ah-ha!" I think "okay, we're in Nazi Germany, maybe I've got a chance of figuring this one out". A bald man enters in a broken hat and parades around. Two women dress him in a skirt and woman's wig. A cowboy emerges. A man in a gas mask ominously appears and gets topless. What the hell is going on?!
It's like being in a bizarre fever dream where nothing makes sense. Cowboys? Gas masks? Fat guys dressed as little girls? Frantically I try to assemble them into some kind of narrative, but it's like jamming mismatched puzzle pieces into each other. The most I can gather is that most of these people appear to want to bang Daphne, but she's not up for it.
I can tell the audience in my row is getting a little testy. A guy pulls out his phone and begins answering his emails. Ordinarily I'd get a bit huffy, but for once I can sympathise. After all, I'm there on a complementary press ticket, but if I'd paid for these seats I wouldn't be at all happy.
Finally the interval arrives. I approach a woman as we're leaving and ask:
"Sorry, I don't want to seem like a dunce, but what's going on?".
"Oh, didn't you know it was in German?"
I hadn't, but that's never stopped me enjoying a show before.
"So, uh, who was the guy in the gas mask?"
"And the cowboy?"
Then she shoots me an incredibly snooty look and says:
"Next time you come to the opera maybe you should educate yourself a bit first?"
Daaaaaamn that's cold. Right, well, my next thought was "Bollocks to this. I'm going home." The Grimeborn Festival claims "it has consistently challenged the perception that opera is inaccessible and elitist." But from where I was sitting Daphne was about as inaccessible and elitist as it gets.
Thursday, August 20, 2015
Thursday, August 20, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
The Rabbit Hole is aptly named. Tucked away under a small but pleasant cat-populated pub, it's a small, black cubbyhole that seats about twenty people. It has the potential for claustrophobia, but with walls spattered with '77 era punk rock photos and teenage detritus scattered it's cosy. This is Craig's (Dario Coates) bedroom, though it may as well be an illustration of the inside of his head.
Born twenty years too late, Craig pines for the spirit of true punk rock. Not processed American skateboarder music, not teenage girl friendly eyeliner doused pop-punk - real punk. The kind of punk rock that blares from squats where damp climbs the walls, clinking bottles of spirits line the windowsills and a pile of used syringes steadily grows in the back the garden. Craig loves everything from that brief bloom in the late 70s, but is particularly fixated on the totemic figure of Sid Vicious.
Sid Vicious was as punk as it's possible to be: a man with a chip on his shoulder the size of Mt Everest, regularly engaged in self mutilation, dressed in grubby S&M chic, hooked on smack, skinny as a rake and with a crazy addict girlfriend who he later murdered in a failed suicide pact. He died of a heroin overdose while on bail, leaving a suicide note that read "bury me in my leather jacket, jeans and motorcycle boots Goodbye".
Sid now exists in Craig's head, a silent judge of his character and ersatz father figure - an impossible ideal that leaves Craig psychologically isolated. This manifests in a testy relationship with his Mum, worries over his uni-bound girlfriend and a general, nagging malaise.
Back in January I'd seen a version of this play, then titled Ode to Sid, as part of The One Festival at The Space. I liked it then, but felt it would have benefited from a longer run-time to better explore the character. I got my wish and am pleased to say it paid off. Sid has evolved beyond a quick sketch and into a fascinating character study shot through with excitement, tension and pathos.
Some elements have been jettisoned altogether and others have been accentuated or toned down, leaving a streamlined narrative that's wholly engaging. For my money, the most successful improvement is a close focus on class conflict. In his night out with his girlfriend's university friends, we can wholly empathise with Craig's growing anger as they plummily hold court on punk rock.
The conflict is derived from the students regarding punk as historical phenomenon to be dissected and analysed. This is anathema to Craig, whose personality hinges on the knowledge that punk is something you live, love and breath. How can punk be dead when he feels it pumping through his veins night after night? Craig needs punk to be real - a way that will rescue him from a life of dull working class bondage.
Sid, quite rightly, respects this idea of punk as tool of liberation. After all, spitting in the eye of the world and sweatily bouncing around a room to ragged guitar riffs feels free. But Sid goes further, probing the limits of punk philosophy. This manifests in showing Craig's arrested development, refusing to grow beyond teenager-dom. Soon, gently woven into the dialogue, Craig learns empathy for his mother and senses his own limitations.
This clash between the ideals of punk and the realities of life (filtered through the prism of Sid Vicious) proves to be fruitful. After all, the romantic image of Sid Vicious, ultimate punk rock superstar, obscures the grim reality of John Ritchie, the exhausted, lonely, suicidal drug addict. By the end, though he lived punk as much as anyone possibly could, Sid was deeply unhappy - and sensing this endpoint is what nudges Craig towards something better.
The process is beautifully performed by Coates. This is light years beyond his (already good) performance in January. The most potent arrows in his quiver are a willingness to engage with the audience, locking eyes with those in the front row as if Craig is trying to convince us of his sincerity. He also throws in a few brave moments of audience interaction, asking us to quiz him about anything to do with Sid Vicious (I ask who his father was and he answers correctly); and prompting us to kick out at the scenery.
Coates makes Craig an easy character to like: charismatically cocky, funny and energetic - as if he has some kind of electric charge stored up inside him. This makes the moments where he snaps extremely affecting - a lifetime of failed dreams, neglect, disappointment and pent-up anger violently erupting. He's a fascinating character, the hour we spend with him flies by.
Quick, energetic and focussed single person plays like this are why I enjoy the Camden Fringe so much. It proves that engaging an audience doesn't hinge on fistfuls of money, but on talented, incisive writing and performance.
Sid is at the Rabbit Hole, Hampstead until 22 August. Tickets here.
Friday, August 14, 2015
Friday, August 14, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 1 Comment
It's a bit like having an unpleasant time on psychedelics. A once friendly world curdles into a warped funhouse mirror. The faces of people suddenly look monstrous; stray nose hairs wriggling like angry tentacles; mouthfuls of cracked stinking teeth; and angry pimples gently oozing pus. It's as if the veil has been lifted and you can suddenly perceive the world in all it's rotting grossness. Bile rises in the throat, goosepimples tingle on the back and that hollow feeling grows and grows and grows and grows....
It ain't fun. And neither is Marsha: A Girl Who Does Bad Things. Tilly Gaunt plays Marsha, a Pollyanna-ish young girl who spreads sweetness and light around her rural village. Setting out to do some shopping, she meets kindly shopkeeper Mrs Hoare (Victoria Gray), grumpy farmer Mr MadDonald (Jessica Gillingwater) and protective new mother (Kerri-Lynne Dietz). Then she takes a nice swim to collect her thoughts.
So far, so sweet - this could be the plot of a hundred children's books. But then things get all fucked up. It's like lifting a stone on a sunny day to find pale insects swarming beneath, an injection of blind, painful and decay. There'd been tendrils of darkness from the start; Gaunt's ultra-innocent optimism all but begging to be dragged through the mud. Audience nerves are on edge already - forced into uncomfortable paper masks bearing Marsha's face - we look out to see a creepy sea of identikit grins. Not helping matters is that the dialogue from supporting characters is sung in awkward operettas.
It's all a bit League of Gentlemen. As events spiral downwards towards inky blackness you wonder if there's going to be some point to all this horribleness. Well, (spoilers) there isn't. Now, I've got no problem with cruelty, grossness and twisted morality - but here the mission statement merely seems to have been to be mega disturbing.
The tactic quickly feels a bit try hard; the operatically delivered dialogue drags on, the story unravels into grimdark silliness and the presence of one of those online-famous rubber horse masks makes you feel as if you're stuck inside an internet meme. Though a scanty fifty minutes the show sags in the middle, especially as we realise we're to trawl through at least three largely identical sequences.
Frustratingly there are moments where something special rears its head. Gaunt's monologue about swimming naked in a reservoir and being attacked by hungry sharp-toothed fish is extremely effective, her measured delivery, body language combining with cool lighting to create a suffocatingly nightmarish atmosphere. This is the most successful portion, though there are brief breaks in the mist elsewhere where quality peeks through.
But for the most part, I couldn't shake the idea Marsha is being cryptically weird to camouflage that it doesn't have anything to say. It's an interesting show, and mercifully brief, but not a particularly enjoyable one.
'Marsha: A Girl Who Does Bad Things' is at the Arcola Theatre until 15 August. Tickets here.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Thursday, August 13, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
Fucking Men is the epitome of a Ronseal play - it does exactly what it says on the tin. Within the four walls of the King's Head Theatre, ten toned bodies jostle each other. Opening with a curious soldier getting his dick sucked by a male prostitute, we journey along a daisychain of rimming, ramming and mutual masturbation. This ultimately forms ten duologues; we meet a new character, who goes into the next scene and meets a new character and so on until we've looped right back where we began. It's a journey takes us from a street corner to a student's halls of accommodation, to glitzy hotel rooms and back-stage broom cupboards and so on and so forth.
First things first, if you like ogling buff, pretty men without any clothes on then boy is this the play for you. Whether they're chilling out with a tiny towel teasingly dangling over their crotch, frotting up against one another or simply coquettishly shoving a hand down their designer boxers, this is a play stuffed with straight-up sexy dudes.
I've got to admit, the thought did strike me that all this lasciviousness is pandering just a teeny-weeny bit. But it's hard to argue with Fucking Men's unashamed and refreshingly sex-positivity. Buried deep within most Western fiction is a core of nagging Christian guilt that whispers that casually getting your rocks off is inherently shameful. Fucking Men says nuts to that, arguing that bodily intimacy is transferring kindness between people.
Each entwined pair comes with different power dynamics, young/old, rich/poor, successful/unsuccessful and so on. But despite their social differences it's their humanity that binds them together, sex acting as the ultimate social leveller. Let's face it, it's hard to be snobbily aloof when you've got a dick buried in your arse.
Fucking Men ends up being so convincingly evangelical about how awesome gay sex is that it half makes you want to pop on a crop-top and denim hot pants and hail a taxi to Soho. Problem is (obviously) sexuality isn't as simple as being won over by an argument. So, for hetero audience members, there's a sense of gazing enviously from the sidelines - something not helped by infrequent jabs at how boring and conventional straight sex is.
It's not all happy fun times though, a dark side in amongst all the slap and tickle. HIV rears its head a couple of times, though the play sensibly and practically approaches the subject. Self-loathing also pops up in sequences involving closeted men who can't admit their true desires, often bubbling over into violence. More delicately, the play addresses the psychological complications of promiscuity: the strain it puts on an open relationship, a nagging post-coital hollowness and a sense that you're commodifying human beings and yourself.
Though for the most part spikily quick-witted, these undertones grant the play pathos, which all eventually builds towards a movingly sincere sequence where a man grieves for a lost love. Here you reflect on the preceding scenes; the climax espousing the benefits of support, commitment and mutual long-term affection.
All that makes Fucking Men a worthwhile piece of theatre, putting themes that more timid playwrights might shy away from front and centre. This actual production, on the other hand, has a few patchy moments that stall it somewhat. Prime among these are some seriously uneven performances; highlights of the show are Richard Stemp, Darren Bransford and Richard de Lisle - each of whom infuse their brief roles with character and depth. This makes the less successful performances stand out so much more - Harper James' curious soldier suffering from a wandering accent and stilted delivery, and Johnathan Neale's closeted filmstar morelike a caricature. There is, intermittently, the suspicion that casting was more focussed on abdominal definition than acting skill.
Also unfortunate is the lack of racial diversity in the cast. Fucking Men aims to offer a variety of perspectives on contemporary gay life, yet the absence of (for example) a black perspective feels like a crucial oversight, and one that'd have added a further layer of depth to a play that occasionally feels a tiny bit frothy.
That said, Fucking Men is hands down the best play about gay sex I've ever seen. It offers a pleasantly mature perspective on sexuality without heavy-handed moralising, and thus is an easy recommendation.
Fucking Men is at the King's Head Theatre until 30 August. Tickets here.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Wednesday, August 12, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
Last night I looked a woman in the eyes and told her she was going to die. She looked right back at me and told me the same. It was disconcerting: you compartmentalise mortality and death deep down inside - sure, at that at some day you're going to die, but dwelling on it isn't particularly healthy. But My World Has Exploded A Little Bit thumps death down on an autopsy table and spills its guts, picking through bereavement, loss and grief.
The tone varies from sentimental miserablism to blunt honesty with stop offs on the way at anger and joy. This is the brainchild of Bella Heesom, who previously impressed in last September's The Woman in the Moon. Beginning as a practical guide to bereavement, she gradually switches gears and ends up at painful self-appraisal. Throughout she's assisted by Esh Alladi, who plays a piano accompaniment and provides comic relief.
The underlying narrative chronicles two deaths. The first is a daughter struggling to cope with her father's fatal illness. Having been diagnosed with an aggressively malignant brain tumour things are gradually winding down, and the daughter explains the stages by which you cope with care, planning and emotional reinforcement. Next up her mother dies, and we repeat the stages, now shot through with a faint anger and guilt.
First impressions are worrying. The prose used to describe the daughter's reactions is syrupy and laden with clunking similes. This, in combination with a manipulative 'okay, cry now' piano score left me primed for a sickly dose of grief porn. Fortunately, the show quickly demonstrates a nimble self-awareness that allows the tone to vary wildly while maintaining a narrative and thematic throughline. Contrasting emotions clash up against one another: moments of deeply felt misery pricked by a comic flourish or upbeat bit of narration.
This gives My World Has Exploded A Little Bit a powerful core, especially as we quickly realise that the 'case studies' we're exploring are obviously derived from Heesom's own experience. Ordinarily I'm deeply suspicious of performers using their shows as a form of therapy. This brand of drama tends towards the narcissistic, treating the audience as distractions along for the ride on someone's personal growth. But though the show is obviously therapeutic for Heesom, it's also a worthwhile piece of drama in its own right.
This is almost entirely down to Heesom's performance - it hits like a freight train. To devise a piece of theatre around your parent's deaths is either bold or foolish - transforming moments of intense pain into something to entertain a bunch of anonymous strangers. But Heesom gradually peels back all the layers of artifice, arriving at a white hot ball of confusion, anger and self-loathing, which explodes in a climax that's spinetingling in its raw honesty.
That said, there's a few flies in the ointment. Esh Alladi grates as the comic relief, his performance a man-childish set of ingratiating grins and clownish waves. I get that for this to work you've got to have a little sugar mixed in with the salt, but his mugging quickly becomes an annoying distraction. He's not exactly helped by the task of tunelessly thumping a keyboard to mark scene changes. I don't know if it's a volume issue, or something to do with the mixing desk, but the sound ran through me like nails down a blackboard.
This aside, My World Has Exploded A Little Bit is an undeniably powerful piece of theatre. Death is an incredibly weightier subjects to tackle, but Heesom approaches it with a perceptive, clear-eyed intelligence. All around me audience members were sniffling and dabbing their eyes - their reaction not caused by sentimental manipulation, but by hard-earned, keenly felt pathos.
Not exactly a cheery night out, but nonetheless an extremely rewarding one.
My World Has Exploded A Little Bit is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 15 August. Tickets here.