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Sunday, December 21, 2014

'Chimera' at the Gate Theatre, 19th December 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

You pick up a scalpel and peel back your skin.  What lies beneath?  Somewhere in that tangle of veins, bones and tissue must be some 'essence of you'.  But what if 'you' wasn't really 'you' at all?  What if, squirrelled away in your cells was a genetic stowaway?  It sounds like some weirdo science fiction thought experiment, but it's real.  As an embryo it's possible to merge with a twin in the womb and so carry two loads of genetic material, meaning you can end up with parts of your body that 'belong' to a never-born sibling.  You become like the mythical chimera, a creature made up of different organisms.

This mindmelting condition  is what Chimera's Jennifer Samuels (Suli Holum) has to contend with.  She's a microbiologist and upon discovering her son Brian has a minor congenital heart defect resolves to find out which parent contributed it.  Her husband returns a negative and so does she.  Curiosity further aroused she probes deeper, eventually discovering her genetic legacy, and worse, realising that this absorbed embryonic sister is the biological mother of her son, making her the aunt of the child she birthed.  

Her scientific expertise crashes headlong into a maelstrom of guilt and self doubt, so she bails - abandoning her family and heading for parts unknown. Deborah Stein's Chimera is an attempt to map out this tangled, chaotic psychological terrain, to put intangibilities like the soul, maternity, selfhood on a microscope slide and try to discover their how and why.  These are the prickly patches where intellect rubs up against instinct.  

First impressions are that Jennifer Samuels is the very model of prim and proper middle-aged femininity. She's got the praying mantis poise you see in WASPish midwestern housewives; demeanour driven by the desire to maintain harmless cheeriness at all costs. But this surface plasticity hides turmoil, both genetic and mental.

Her character is mirrored by the set.  At the rear of the stage lies a symmetrical set of sheer white kitchen cabinets.  They look dully sterile yet turn out to (literally) conceal hidden depths.  Kitchen and woman merge together, the point where Jennifer Samuels is consumed by the waste disposal unit marking when things get really weird.

Concealed beneath these ordinary looking cabinets is a warren of connecting tunnels, allowing Holum to pop up in unexpected places and emerge wearing fascinating new costumes.  The sheer white also allows them to be used as a projection backdrop, taking us on psychedelic trips through DNA and outer space.  Given the surface austerity of the set these virtuoso sequences allow us to step past merely discussing theories and viscerally experience them

The pinnacle of Chimera's visuals is a spellbinding sequence where Samuels stands behind glass and slowly embraces a projection of herself.  Limbs writhe around each other, the boundaries of physical and digital bodies fade and we see two bodies dissolving into one liquefied mass before our very eyes.  It's an excellent summation of the conflict at the heart of the play; a body divided, trapped in endless war with oneself.  

These are deeply memorable visuals, but Chimera isn't all flash and no substance.  Serious thought has gone into the central themes of motherhood, care and nurture.  A highlight is an explanation of a cat abandoning the 'runt' of its litter.  In Darwinian terms this makes perfect sense; the mother would have have to expend extra effort in keeping this doomed kitten alive at the expense of its siblings.  So, hardhearted as it might seem, the runt must be kicked to the kerb.  But then you're strolling along and spot a helpless widdle kitty wheezing away.  You instinctively rush to help, expending time, emotion and money on trying to save a doomed cat.  What logic is there in saving some walking dead animal whose own mother has left it behind?

It's in this example that I most keenly felt the tug-of-war in the heart of Chimera.  The veneer of civilisation, represented by the sterile white cabinets, the costumes and the Stepfordian behaviour of it's lead character are an illusion.  A major component of this illusion is the idea that, through civilisation, science and technology, you can truly know thyself.  Yet the deeper we peer into this tangle of veins, primordial fluids and genetic code the more mixed up we become.  This is reflected in the concealed depths of the simple-looking set, domestic bliss sliding into dizzying hallucinogenia.

The only division I didn't think quite worked were the repeated bashes on the fourth wall. We're repeatedly reminded that this is a set, that we're in a theatre and we are watching a performance.  The Brechtian distancing effect is keenly observed, particularly in a moment where the stage microphone is peeled away like Holum has discovered some parasite on her body.  Though ensuring we keep in mind the fiction/reality duality complements the themes of the play, it sucks away any chance of an emotional connection with the material.  

There's big fat ladles of intelligence on stage, but precious little emotional oomph - leaving us with a play that tickles the mind but ignores the heart.  Then again, Chimera is at pains to remind us that the heart is simply a bloody muscle endlessly jerking away within our guts, so any squirt of pathos risks hypocrisy. There's much to recommend here; a great performance by Suli Holum, a script quivering with intellectual gristle and stage design that's as high-tech as it is effective (also it gets all this done in 65 minutes, and I appreciate brevity).

But there's a piece of the puzzle missing somewhere, the disquieting questions Chimera asks still unanswered as we troop out.  Maybe that's the point.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

'Cabaret Confidential' at The Pheasantry, 18th December 2014

Saturday, December 20, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I've had good times in Pizza Express.  Sure the quality of the pizzas varies drastically from location to location, but I've never had a truly bad Giardiniera pizza (artichokes, mushrooms, peppers and olives yum).  And let's face it, any establishment that can successfully transform their offcuts into delicious garlic butter doughballs clearly has its business head screwed firmly on.

But it's a place I usually go after I've been out to somewhere.  Tonight's venue, The Pheasantry on the King's Road turns out to be inside a Pizza Express, the acts competing for attention with steaming piles of cheese, tomatoes and clinking glasses of mid-priced wine. The walls crow about the venue's sterling musical credibility; the faces of Jagger, Reed, Lennon and McCartney beaming down at you from the walls.  Apparently Eric Clapton used to live here.

But in December 2014 this countercultural credibility has been smothered under a beige tidal wave.  From the corporate art on the walls to the scratchy office-style corrugated carpet this not a place that inspires dizzying artistic passion.  In fact, the overall impression is that you're stuck in the secondary Lounge Bar of a cruise ship that's soon destined for a Chinese breaker's dock.

I don't want to sound like a snob, but hanging out in a branch of Pizza Express without any desire to eat pizza isn't my idea of a good time.  But then I'd be a fool to judge the night without seeing the acts, right?  Cabaret Confidential bills itself as a showcase for up and coming cabaret acts, allowing them to try out new material on a friendly audience. Our compère is Jamie Anderson, whose brooch-laden blazer and talon-like claws brings a smidge of much-needed razzle-dazzle to the room.  After a song and a bit of crowd-massaging stand-up we're off.

Claire Hawkins is on first and her act makes my heart sink a bit.  Don't get me wrong, she's a fantastic singer and a charismatic stage presence, but someone singing pleasant showtunes is precisely what I feared most.  This is entertainment that appears eager not to distract from the process of pizza consumption.  Perhaps my problem is that I don't actually know any of these semi-obscure numbers.  She looks like she's having fun belting them out, but I'm feeling a gnaw of panic in my gut.  How the hell am I supposed to say anything constructive about this?  It's good.  She hits the right notes.  The covers are alright.  What's left to say?

Things get a bit more interesting with a jauntily satirical Christmas tune about elves from A Woman Named Fred, who dons a woolly hat and sings about the misery of spending all year working for a nordic slavemaster on plastic tat for brats.  

My enjoyment of the evening has taken a tick upwards.  But it skyrockets once Marianna Harlotta struts onto the stage.  She's a Spanish diva, with a usual audience of royalty, state leaders and the Sultan of Brunei.  But tonight she (and her much put-upon violinist Vladimir Chestikoff) are playing to the Pizza Express crowd.  Her style is a breathless, yelping soprano backed by staccato violin stabs.  It sounds weird, as if she's self-taught from a half legible book on showmanship in singing.

She opens with the Talking Heads' Psycho Killer, so she's got my heart in her manicured claws from minute one.  Following it up she rattles through the unlikely combination of Beat It, I Am The Walrus, Toxic and, as tis' the season, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. During the last one she reluctantly invites us to sing along - though how on earth can we follow her on over her vocal high-wire?

The final act is Celia Delaneywinner of Best Newcomer award at the London Cabaret Awards, backed by Sarah Hobson on piano.  Her act is scaling a torturous mountain of self-deprecation.  I can't quite tell what portions of her situation are fictional and which aren;t, but as she tells it she fell asleep as a 30 year old single and fancy-free Londoner and woke up having spent 10 years living in Devon married to a balding engineer. Having ditched the engineer she's back in the Big Smoke determined to scrabble to the top of the showbiz tree.

Her songs are the equal parts funny and depressing exploits of a middle-aged woman contending with dating, biology, flat-hunting and sex in modern London.  Lyrically she's razor sharp, with a beautiful eye for evocative imagery and clever rhymes, coupled with a whipcrack tongue that nimbly dances over syllables and glottal stops.  You quickly see why she won that award, combining pathos, dark humour and casual sexiness into a consistently fun act.

So, probably the best night's entertainment I've ever had in a Pizza Express.  Though to be fair the only competition is when I overheard an engaged couple call off their wedding after a fierce and teary argument in the Clerkenwell branch.  It's definitely not the most inspiring theatrical space in the world, but hey, the acts were good and there's okay mid-price pizza. And really, does that sound so bad?  I'm glad I went. 

Cabaret Confidential is on monthly at The Pheasantry, King's Road, Chelsea.  Tickets and information here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Ex Machina' (2015) directed by Alex Garland

Wednesday, December 17, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Science fiction that ponders whether an artificial mind is truly conscious is hardly breaking new ground.  As far back as 1921 Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) explored the idea of lifeforms that are almost human, but not quite.  Since then they've been a mainstay in all eras of cinema, from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, through The Day The Earth Stood Still, up the modern day via stone cold classics like 2001, Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, The Matrix and Her.

So what new angle does Alex Garland bring to this crowded field? Set in an unspecified near future, our protagonist Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a hotshot programmer working for competition crushing search engine BlueBook.  He wins a company lottery, his prize a week long visit to the home of the reclusive genius and company CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan lives in isolation with his non-English speaking maid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) in the beautiful Alaskan wilderness. His mostly underground home is ultra high-tech and tastefully decorated, looking like a nuclear bunker as designed by IKEA.  

Soon we learn the reason for such isolation.  Nathan has made a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, and her name is Ava (Alicia Vikander).  Ava is intelligent, beautiful and ultraperceptive, yet also sheltered, childlike and naive.  Nathan quickly confesses that the reason for Caleb's visit isn't a holiday, he's to be part of an quasi-Turing test designed to evaluate Ava to conclude whether she's truly conscious.  The rest of the film revolves around a series of interviews between Caleb and Eva, as they open up to each other the film gradually reveals more about Ava, Nathan's ulterior motives and Caleb's true role in the experiment.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Nathan (Oscar Isaac)
I don't want to spoil too much, so I'm going to leave the plot there.  Much of Garland's screenplay is concerned with misdirection, sending both Caleb and ourselves down paranoid trains of thought while keeping 'the truth' in plain sight.  With a pared down cast of four (one of whom doesn't speak), the claustrophobic and increasingly sinister surroundings and the precise pace at which the film proceeds, the tension gradually ratchets up scene by scene as the truth is slowly unfurled.  

On a basic structural level, Ex Machina is a series of philosophical conversations in confined spaces.  Consequently, though the film is beautifully shot by Rob Hardy, boasts deeply impressive production design, a great synth score and seamless special effects, it lives and dies on the quality of the actor's performances.  All are excellent, though Isaac's vaguely Steve Jobsian tech guru stands out.   The programming geek stereotype is completely absent and with his shaved head and masculine beard he looks a bit like Russell Crowe's Noah, the epitome of the dirt-under-the-fingernails mythic paternal figure.  Isaac continually finds some fascinating new angle on Nathan, or fresh mood in each scene, both actor and character taking a sadistic pleasure in constantly pulling the rug out from underneath us.

Good as Isaac is, the true star of Ex Machina is Alicia Vikander's Ava.  A trained ballerina, Vikander moves with inhuman grace.  She's so subtle in this that it's difficult to pin down individual moments; more that every action is millimetre precise, adding up to a queasy combination of sexuality and uncanny valley 'wrongness'.  Ava is intentionally designed to express sexuality, but some dark thing twinges in your brain when you realise you're turned on by a creature whose skin is a metallic lattice and whose robot guts you see whirring away in her belly.

Ava (Alicia Vikander)
Learning to love (and lust) for this bundle of fibre-optics, carbon fibre and rubber skin is at the heart of Ex Machina,  which treats its subject matter as a sober examination of what it will mean to live in a world where beings like Ava exist.  Thing is, though this is all very well conveyed, it's not exactly breaking fresh ground.  It's been more than thirty years since Blade Runner and though the world has seen a quantum leap in technology, the central questions of Ex Machina are almost identical to what Roy Batty and Rick Deckard violently debated on the rainy roof of the Bradbury Building.

Even the aesthetics are a bit familiar; Caradog James' excellent and underrated The Machine did the beautiful translucent robot girl (who, bizarrely, was also named Ava) thing a year ago, and the cosy pastel and natural materials set design is strongly reminiscent of Her.  This isn't to say that there's anything remotely lazy here, just that the visual punch of Ava is slightly dulled if you've seen a robot sci-fi film in the last ten years or so.  

Ex Machina finally breaks fresh ground when it eventually reveals itself not as a robot philosophy film, but as feminist science fiction.  As we explore Ava's humanity, both audience and characters objectify her.  As she is an object, this provides a useful path into a thorny subject. As we learn more about her creator, we come to understand Ava as a sex slave; most notably when Nathan proudly explains the myriad features of her robot vagina.   Later developments underline the idea the female body as equipment for men to use, the film gradually becoming less about the ethics of artificial intelligence and more about emancipatory feminist ideology.

That Ex Machina looks for all the world like it's about one thing, yet secretly turns out to be about something completely different feels pleasantly appropriate given the film as a whole. I really hope this finds an audience: it's got some really striking images, a bevy of fascinating performative tics and an absolute humdinger of an ending.  That intellectual, firmly adult science fiction films like this can be made gives me the warm fuzzies.  I hope it does well. It deserves to.


Ex Machina is released 23 January in the UK, 10 April in the US.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

'King Charles III' at the Wyndham's Theatre, 13th December 2014

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

As a dyed-in-the-wool republican (FYI to Americans, not that kind of republican) Mike Bartlett's King Charles III was practically pornography.  The play bills itself as a "future history", probing the constitutional knot the United Kingdom would find itself in if we were to have a misbehaving monarch on the throne.  

We open at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.  In a solemn line the black-clad cast ominously chant their way through Jocelyn Pook's rather Philip Glass-esque Requiem.  With old Liz mouldering six feet under, Prince Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) instantly levels up to becomes King Charles III.  

The real Charles is notorious for sticking his oar into matters that don't concern him, a tendency that's extended to its logical conclusion in Mike Bartlett's play.  We find him in a crisis of conscience over granting assent to a Government bill. His decision throws a wrench into the workings of power, setting the stage for confrontation between the Monarchy and Parliament.  This is too good a yarn to spoil later developments, but events spiral ever further into ridiculousness while maintaining a coolly logical progression.

Bustling around the periphery of the new King are the rest of the royals, each of whom have their own perspective on this crisis.  William (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson) regard Charles' rebellion with strained, frustrated concern.  William follows his grandmother's maxim that inaction is a form of power and tries to observe events from a distance. Meanwhile Kate, always the smartest person in the room, spies opportunity. Harry (Richard Goulding) merely wants off the royal rollercoaster, a decision spurred by his new relationship with rebellious student Jessica (Tafline Steen), who introduces him to the exotic pleasures of shopping at Sainsbury's and eating at Wagamamas.  

But the centre of the play is always Charles, who in Bartlett's hands proves to be a fascinatingly complex dramatic figure.  Lost in a confusion of his own making he bumbles from one calamity to another, wallowing in self-importance and collapsing into delusion.  Pigott-Smith plays him as a walking paradox, a man who's built a shaky personality upon his warped conscience and suddenly being told to suppress it in order to be King. As the consequences of his actions mount he quickly reaches the limits of both his character and his intellect. Before we know it he's convinced himself that he's a representative of the people's will against an unrepresentative Government, begins dressing like a tinpot dictator and puts tanks in front of Buckingham Palace.  

Look at that great gormless expression.
Bartlett's Charles is the definition of stunted growth.  He's spent 66 years sitting on the bench awaiting his moment in the limelight, and this wait has rendered him servile and impotent.  In his submissive body language and crap self-deprecation he increasingly echoes none other than Alan Partridge.  Pigott-Smith approaches him with a fascinating, uncomprehending stupidity, someone who continually grasps the wrong end of the stick, doesn't see the consequences of his actions and who, most importantly, completely lacks initiative.  

This is the spikiest jab in Bartlett's arsenal, that the purported ruler is always sternly exactly told what to do. Even when he thinks he's had a bold new idea he's acting on someone else's will.  This bovine dumbness is especially ironic given that Charles comes to see himself as embodying a modern form of divine right to rule over his subjects.  What's drummed into the audience is that you wouldn't trust this man to run a chip shop, let alone a country.  Hell, you wouldn't trust him to work the fryer.

Eventually you come to see this joke embodied not just in Charles as an individual monarch, but in the very idea of monarchy itself.  The notion that someone has the right to rule purely because they splurted out of the the right womb is something that should have become extinct in this country when Cromwell lopped the head off Charles 1.0.  Bartlett's eventual punchline is the characters realising the monarchy can only exist by becoming a theme park attraction; William, Kate and Harry ending up with about as much free will as their waxwork doppelgangers in Madame Tussauds.

While Pigott-Smith is outstanding, the supporting cast are no slouches either.  Stand-outs are Richard Goulding's Prince Harry, who has a tragically clear understanding of his role in the Royal household; that of court jester, resigned to a life of being made fun of by the newspapers and ending up as the faintly embarrassing uncle to the nation.  But it's Lydia Wilson's Kate that surprised me the most, mainly because I found myself quite liking her. Amongst a gaggle of dunces she's at least clear minded in her ambition,  like a 21st century Lady Macbeth. 

Bartlett's core vision idea of a "future history" couldn't be better realised.  Chuckling away at a Royal satire like this made me feel like a groundling in Shakespeare's Globe.  And boy oh boy are these privileged people and medieval ideas in sore need of a comprehensive dramatic kicking.  King Charles III thus becomes a laser guided satire-missile aimed at some extremely swollen egos.  If it wasn't so damn funny I'm sure it'd send the Daily Mail into convulsive fits of apoplexy.

If you're stuck for something to see over Christmas there's not much better than this on a West End stage right now.  Whenever anyone asks me what they should check out, I'm going to point them in this play's direction without a second thought.  It's ace.

King Charles III is at Wyndham's Theatre until 31st May 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

'A Christmas Carol' at the Old Red Lion, 13th December 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

With a drag queen downstairs belting out Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner, a tinsel-decked pub filled with the fruity aroma of Christmas pudding and rosy-cheeked customers clinking glasses of mulled wine The Old Red Lion makes for a warm backdrop to Dickens' classic.  I've never actually seen A Christmas Carol staged before (my main exposure to it is of The Muppets, Blackadder and Bill Murray variety), but then this tale is as baked into the British consciousness as the Nativity.

As soon as we enter we're warmly greeted by the mittened and bobble-hatted cast.  At our feet Bob Cratchit (Liam Mansfield) stamps away at an endless heap of documents, above him the thunderous face of Ebenezer Scrooge (Alexander McMorran), quick to scold if he dithers in his work. All too soon mean old Scrooge is being plagued by the spirits.  First the chain-clinking Jacob Marley, and then then procession of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet-to-come. 

Considering that we're about to embark on a supernatural journey through time and space the set doesn't look particularly otherworldly.  A Christmas tree has been unceremoniously stuffed into a wheelie bin, boxes of trash lie about the place and every corner is full of junky looking detritus.  The ensemble cast (Elizabeth Grace-Williams, James Mack, Rhiannon Neads and Cat Gerrard) huddles in tatty winter clothes, keeping a running commentary on events like a street urchin Greek chorus.

As we explore the past, present and future of Scrooge's Christmases the ensemble keep things moving in tick-tock rhythm.  From the clunk of Cratchit's stamp on paper to the tinkling of Scrooge's chain right through to the stomp of feet on wooden board, there's a the sensation that we're peering into a clockwork universe.  Choosing to proceed at such a deliberate pace runs the risk of robbing the material of spontaneity, shackling the performers to the beat.  Fortunately the cast are a uniformly talented bunch, able to improvise at short notice (including coping with Tiny Tim's crutch breaking!) and work with cool, confident precision.

At the centre of all this is McMorran's Scrooge.  At first I was a little wary of a 33 year old actor playing one of fiction's most famous mean old men. Can a relatively young performer really capture this bitterness?  Scrooge has a petrified soul so seeing even the remotest glimmer of youth would threaten believability.  But McMorran deals with this ably, planting early seeds in the character that blossom as his eyes are opened to the worth of charity, empathy and humanity.

In his early, grumpy guise; rejecting charity, talking about "surplus population" and celebrating the existence of the orphanage and workhouse Scrooge comes across as a quintessentially Farage-esque figure, smugly curling his head up his arse.  The performative magic trick is to gradually peel these misanthropic layers away, yet keep the character recognisable.

McMorran succeeds brilliantly.  In his face you see a candle flicker to life as he watches his younger self celebrating with his family.  This is gradually kindled into a fierce fire, making his eventual emergence as a huggable Christmas teddybear entirely believable.  Most importantly, we see the faint vestiges of the old Scrooge in the new one, a continuity of character being preserved right up until the final curtain.

Given the minimalist set and small cast, A Christmas Carol relies a lot on lighting to evoke mood and atmosphere.  There's a wonderful sequence early in the play when Scrooge hunts for the ghosts with a torch.  The stage is dimly lit and the air thick with dry ice, meaning the arc of the torch is clearly defined as it swoops through the air.  The effect as unsettling as it is visually dynamic.  Similar care is taken later on, when the actors are blocked so as to obscure spotlights behind them.  As they move bright shafts of light pierce the fog, as if the sun has risen behind them.  It turns out that this is all courtesy of Matt Leventhall, which makes this the second day in a row I've praised his technical skills.

I guess the ultimate aim of A Christmas Carol is to fill its audience with the festive spirit.  If that's the barometer of success then this production achieved it in spades.  Being jostled down Oxford Street with the leering face of Ben Stiller staring down at you it's all too easy to grow a cynical shell and regard Christmas as an exercise in conspicuous consumption.  But Metal Rabbit Productions dragged me kicking and screaming towards genuine cheeriness. And with Tiny Tim (an excellent Cat Gerrard) happily exclaiming "God bless us, everyone" I actually felt a mote of dust in my eye.

The modesty and reduced scale of the production works in its favour, boiling the story down to its core and relying on the audience's imagination rather than pyrotechnics and glitz. As I left I felt exceedingly festive, and what better recommendation can I give than that? 

A Christmas Carol is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 3rd January.  Tickets £14 (£12 concs) available here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

'Sikes and Nancy' at Trafalgar Studios, 12th December 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Of all bad deeds that, under cover of the darkness, have been committed within wide London’s bounds since night hung over it, that was the worst. Of all the horrors that rose with an ill scent upon the morning air, that was the foulest and most cruel.” - Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Singlehandedly conjuring up Dickens' London with just six chairs, a black overcoat and a bag of blood is a bold ambition. But then James Swanton is a bold performer. This one man show, having toured the UK for the last two years, has landed for a short run in the basement of Trafalgar Studios. Outside the biting winter wind chills the bones of scurrying shoppers; the Norwegian Christmas tree apparently having brought the Norse chill down with it. Even old Nelson seems to be drawing his coat a little tighter tonight.

This seasonal freeze makes the perfect background to Sikes and Nancy, a retelling of Dicken's most monstrously written murder; a spiral of betrayal, passion, lust, insanity and ladles of sticky, sour blood. The four principals: thuggish Bill Sikes, desperate Nancy, twisted Fagin and kindly Brownlow, all find themselves embodied in the tornado of jagged limbs, guttural howls and facial metamorphoses that is James Swanton.

Swanton is waiting for us as we enter the space, perched atop a chairs like a tattily dressed raven. He mutters incoherently, shaking as if suffering through some dark nightmare. From minute one he's got gravitas galore, the audience hushed in submission as we take our seats. As the lights go down he uncurls, spiderish limbs unfolding from within his long, pitch-black coat.

Dickens' prose, tangled and wordy like ivy consuming a wrought-iron gate, finds life as much in Swanton's body langyage as in his diction. In silhouette his face resembles nothing more than Mr. Punch; a half moon punctuated by a hooked nose and jutting chin. His arms and legs move at jagged acute angles, one minute embodying the solidly muscular sociopathy of Sikes, the next the wizened, crooked Fagin and finally the cowed, beaten Nancy. Swanton shuffles these persona like a cardshark with a fresh deck, effortlessly swooping about the stage in leering rage to huddled terror without missing a beat.

As the show goes on you're sucked further and further in, Swanton becoming increasingly magnetic. There's a subtle ascending rhythm to his diction as we progress through the tale. Early scenes are stuffed with menace, but it's slow burning and precise. Swanton's acrobatic voice is being put through its paces, switching from guttural gasps, saliva-drenched slobbering and squeaky awkwardness. As the cogs of the plot turn and the furious Sikes draws ever closer to Nancy the pace picks up, the delivery accelerating to a dizzying pace.

The peak is the murder itself, a disturbingly animalistic frenzy that leaves Swanton blood-smeared and manic. In the most chilling moment in a performance full of chilling moments, Sikes describes the burning of the murder weapon: “there was hair upon the end, which blazed and shrunk into a light cinder, and, caught by the air, whirled up the chimney. Even that frightened him, sturdy as he was.” These heights of physical and vocal performance can be best summarised by the genuinely disturbing gleam you see in Swanton's eye, as if he's become unhinged, lost in the maze of Oliver Twist.

After the murder comes swift justice as Sikes is pursued through the city. Eventually, standing atop a rooftop he fashions a noose. It's famously ambiguous whether Sikes planned to use the rope to escape or commit guilt-driven suicide. This is preserved here, though it's clear something has irreversibly broken inside Sikes' brain. He gibbers and sweats, Nancy's blood oozing across his arms and shirt and spittle r.aining on his lips. I watch in amusement as those sat directly in front of Swanton receive a spackling of spit from his drooling mouth. Then he places the noose around himself and leaps from the parapet. *CRACK!*

Sikes and Nancy is a hell of an intensive hour of a theatre. It looks physically and emotionally exhausting for Swanton, who leaves the stage gently panting, bowing with a drained expression on his face. What reserves of superhuman strength he's drawing upon to maintain this level of performative focus after two years of doing this night after night?

Credit must also go to the astonishingly effective lighting by Matt Leventhall. The show wouldn't be half as effective without these brightly coloured gels highlighting every one of Swanton's twisted expressions and long swishes of his coat. It's this that creates the heightened sense of reality that's needed to make this work, dragging us kicking and screaming through Dickens' darkest literary moment.

That said, if you're after a heart-warming, post-shopping Christmas show this probably isn't the place to be. There's precious little festive about this descent into madness, and the two children in the audience left looking mildly shell-shocked. But if you want to watch a masterclass in one man theatre there's no finer place to be in London on these bonechilling winter nights.

Sikes and Nancy is at Trafalgar Studios until January 3rd.  Tickets £15 available here.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

'This Is Not a Christmas Play' at the Top Secret Comedy Club, 11th December 2014

Saturday, December 13, 2014 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

This is Not a Christmas Play feels like the Christmas special of a sitcom that ran out of ideas a couple of series ago. Worse, someone forgot to pipe in the canned laughter. Were this television we could change the channel, in a theatre, we're trapped in our seats.

The gossamer-thin plot revolves around flatmates Tim (Jordan Kouame) and David (Matthew Leigh). Tim is a slobbish, goofy, unemployed layabout and David is a persnickety, fastidious jobsworth. As odd couples go, they come across as a Poundland Peep Show. Anyway, it's Christmas Eve and David is having his ex-girlfriend around for dinner because reasons and wants Tim out of the house. Polite bickering ensues. This is interrupted by the arrival of Mary (Alice Coles) and Clive (James Unsworth), two burglars who're casing the house under a series of disguises. What follows is a series of unlikely misunderstandings and cases of mistaken identity that should, in theory, result in hilarity. In theory.

There are few things more painful than an unfunny comedy. Uncomfortable embarrassment writhes in your belly as punchlines are greeted with stony silence. It's not like the audience doesn't want to laugh either, we cling to the semi-successful jokes like a drowning man clings to a piece of wreckage. But when the absolute height of humour include lines like: "I can't deliver a baby! I can't even deliver post!" you're in desperate territory.

I should emphasise that I don't blame the cast for this. They're struggling as best they can to get through this material, a dramatic process that appears akin to being trapped in quicksand. By far the best thing here is Jordan Kouame, who puts an heroic effort into wringing every possible drop of humour from this material. Kouame becomes Sisyphus, painstakingly heaving Robert Wallis and Liam Fleming's boulder of a script up Mount Comedy but being periodically steamrolled flat like a Looney Tunes cartoon when it rolls back down.

Matthew Leigh's David is also not entirely devoid of charm. With his high-strung intensity he's a little like Leonard Rossiter's Rigsby, scurrying to and fro on the set and balling his fists in exasperation at his useless flatmate. Coles and Unsworth are similarly blameless, but they're still stuck playing sketches rather than actual characters.

Jordan Kouame as Tim and Matthew Leigh's David
The bare bones of the plot are solid enough: two old friends on bad terms realising each other's qualities in the face of an external threat. Unfortunately this key relationship is very shakily established. Tim comes across as an unsympathetic freeloader who's taking advantage of his friend's goodwill and we come to understand David as a delusional doormat. There's no reason why we should want these two to remain friends, which drains pathos from the conclusion.

That said, none of the above would matter a jot if This is Not a Christmas Play was funny. As it stands there are long sequences that function as gag deserts; where the audience treks, tongue parched and feet blistering, through silent, numb tedium. These aren't sequences in which the jokes fail to land, rather, they're sequences where there are no jokes at all. It's excruciating to be part of an audience that's obviously not enjoying itself, trapped in the doldrums of a dead silence punctuated only by muffled coughs.

After about an hour of loosely plotted, unfunny monotony things eventually just stop. It's less an ending and more like the last few pages of the script fell behind the sofa and no-one bothered to retrieve them. Eventually someone (I think maybe the stage manager) starts clapping. We join in, but this is the applause of relief rather than the applause of praise.

This Is Not a Christmas Play is at the Top Secret Comedy Club until 4 January, Tickets £12 available here.

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