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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Review: 'Vivaldi Meets Werther: Four Seasons' at the Bridewell Theatre, 27th August 2019

Wednesday, August 28, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Vivaldi Meets Werther: Four Seasons is a highbrow cultural mash-up: combining Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. 

But director and creator Pamela Schermann doesn't simply stage a play with a Vivaldi soundtrack, more a kind of DNA cross-pollination between the two. For example, female lead Charlotte (Alda Dizdari) is also lead violinist and communicates solely through her instrument. It's a decision that proves extremely appropriate given the misguided attentions of her would-be boyfriend Werther (Samuel Lawrence).

At this point, I have to admit ignorance on my behalf. I'm fairly familiar with The Four Seasons, if only due it to it being probably the best-known violin music in the world. However, I knew absolutely nothing about The Sorrows of Young Werther.

So, here's how it goes down. Werther is a lovelorn guy who becomes obsessed with a woman called Charlotte. His obsession grows and eventually sours as she doesn't return his affections, only for her fiance Albert to return, causing him to collapse into a miserable little pile of sadness and commit suicide. 

It's drama with powerful incel energy. In the parlance of our times we see our virgin incel meet a Stacy and develop a terminal case of oneitus. He's quickly friend-zoned and driven to despair when her Chad boyfriend turns up - taking the wimp's way out and becoming an hero. 

Though written in 1787, Werther's letters could quite easily be the moany, self-obsessed blog of a million basement-dwelling losers. Perhaps in the late 18th century Werther would have been considered some sort of hero, but in this production he comes across as, in the best-case scenario, a total loser.

All this meant that I found Vivaldi Meets Werther unexpectedly hilarious. Part of this is that the decision to make Charlotte a silent character who only communicates through her instrument completely walls her off from any real communication with Werther. For the vast majority of the show Charlotte occupies the same area as the rest of the string players, leaving Werther isolated in the centre of the stage. This renders his affection totally unreciprocated, making his love appear more delusional than it ordinarily would.

The one thing Charlotte does show any feelings for is her instrument, with Dizdari dancing, smiling and cradling it like a newborn. Even the one direct interaction she has with Werther, where she makes him kiss a canary and then feeds it seed from her mouth, sounds like she's making fun of him in a roundabout way. It all combines to make the guy an inherently unsympathetic character, and by the time he's offing himself you sense that nothing of value will be lost.

The choice of The Four Seasons to accompany Werther's misery quickly feels more than a touch sadistic, given that they're joyful music focussed on vitality, community and the harmony of nature. But Werther just doesn't get it, ignoring the world and its delights to lose himself in a mostly imagined version of a woman who doesn't give a crap about him.

It makes Vivaldi Meets Werther a wickedly good time. The music is performed with precision, energy and passion - with Dizdari a brilliant performer and violinist. And Samuel Lawrence is a comically useless sadsack who it's difficult to feel sorry for. 

Vivaldi Meets Werther: Four Seasons is at the Bridewell Theatre as part of Opera in the City Festival 2019 until 30th August. Tickets here.

Photos by Time Zone Theatre

Friday, August 23, 2019

Review: 'Space Age Love Songs: A Queer Love Story' at Hen & Chickens Theatre, 22nd August 2019

Friday, August 23, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Space Age Love Songs sticks closely to a familiar template. It's 1984 and our heroine is Cami (Reanne Black), a teenage girl who doesn't fit in. School is full of preppy snobs, while she mopes through the corridors in a ragged Siouxsie and the Banshees top. Her cruel booze-soused mum badgers her to 'look normal' and 'fit in'. Her suit of armour is a pair of headphones and a Walkman - if life is going to suck it may as well have a great soundtrack.

It'd be easy to extrapolate a John Hughesian plot from that setup. Cami would struggle against societal pressure, meet a guy, have her one best friend give her a makeover, promptly realise true beauty is within, go to the prom and dazzle the bullies who once mocked her. Cue The Psychedelic Furs.

But Space Age Love Songs subverts most of this. Writer TL Wiswell takes what would ordinarily be a background element of these stories and brings it to the forefront. Here, the one person that recognises Cami's worth is Daniel (Robert Twaddle), who occupies the 'gay best friend' role in the narrative. He's a wonderful and rare creature, standing out in his dowdy environment like a peacock in a henhouse.

Were this most other stories, he'd be an ancillary character. But here he's essentially the secret protagonist. Wiswell's script goes in heavy in exploring what it would really mean to be a camp gay man in a 1980s high school: the omnipresent threat of physical violence, dealing with a father who desperately wants to fool himself that his son is straight, feeling the pressure to 'act straight' to fit in and the ever-present yearning to be free of this hell.

Cami is infatuated with him, though her affections quickly receive hostility and disgust from Daniel's boyfriend Matt (Andie Worth). He's essentially a gay supremacist, daydreaming of a world inhabited solely by gay men, where straight and women (who he refers to as 'fish' and 'tuna') simply don't exist. Hypocritically, he cares much more about fitting in by putting up a facade of straightness, to the point of having sadistic romantic encounters with women because "one mouth is as good as the next".

Robert Twaddle as Daniel
What follows is a loose romantic rivalry between Cami and Andie for Daniel's affections, all leading towards the end of year Prom. It all adds up to an uplifting paean to the way marginalised people can support each other - and specifically to the relationships between gay men and straight women. 

Overlaid on top of all that is an allegorical science fiction story about enslaved 'Mandroids' yearning to be free of the mines they're forced to work in that squash their talents. In this fantasy, Daniel is the leader of the Mandroids, becoming a revolutionary leader that squashes their human masters and lives forever in beauty and poetry. 

That all takes place in Cami's imagination (I think) and these sequences are probably the best in the play. The cast are uniformly great dancers, with the fantasy scenes giving them the freedom to really go for it. Cue dramatic lighting, new wave music and elbows violently thrown at sharp angles. It's great (especially so in the sequence set to Heaven 17's Geisha Boys and Temple Girls), and more than justifies the Flock of Seagulls referencing title.

Thing is, these fantasy sequences really only have a tangential connection to the rest of the play, leaving this feeling like two narratives battling against one another. Both are compelling, but having to compete diminishes them both. Perhaps if the allegorical elements were a little stronger it'd work better, but as it is the connection between them is tangible... but a little loose.

Fortunately, that doesn't stop Space Age Love Songs from being consistently and thoroughly entertaining. Reanne Black's performance anchors things emotionally, mainly via her impressively communicative eyes. They're able to convey awkwardness, annoyance, anger and sadness with merely a glance. She brings a nervous energy to the part that works gangbusters, her performance distilling a tonne of references down into one extremely likeable heroine.

But anyone who's seen this can't deny that Robert Twaddle is the centrepiece of the show. He's simply magnetic:, androgynous in all the right ways and possessing enviable precision and confidence on stage. This is all showcased in his fantastic 'ostrich' performance, in which he embodies the large flightless bird to a David Attenborough remix. It's and he are amazing.

I had a great time at Space Age Love Songs. It's ragged around the edges and the narrative vinyl skips more than a couple of times, but this is clearly a sincere labour of love from the entire cast and crew. Micha Mirto's direction pinpoints the exact right tone, the cast are committed and enjoying themselves on stage and the carefully curated soundtrack is great (it's also helpfully listed in the programme). Check it out!

Space Age Love Song is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 25 August (tickets here), then moving to the Two Brewers from 4-28 September (tickets here).

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.

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