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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review: 'Trinity' at the Peckham Asylum, 21st June 2016

Thursday, June 22, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Trinity reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

It's Wednesday evening and London has been sweatily stunned by a nuclear heatwave. A thick haze oozes from the asphalt, the tube has become a temporary sauna, London Zoo's resident penguin colony is wishing they could change out of their tuxedos. So what better place to be than in a sweltering bombed out church with a corrugated iron roof, where sucking in a lungful of humid air takes real effort?

I'm a sticky mess, fanning myself with a programme, sweat stinging my eyes and my bottle of water quickly depleted. But if I'm roasting, how on earth must the dancer dressed like a giant vulva feel?

Ovalhouse and BraveNewWorld's Trinity is a bit like being trapped in a really good music video - but one in which the star is mysteriously absent. It's an abstract procession of bizarre & beautiful costumes and ritualistic dancing set to some extremely monged music. Taken purely on its own merits it's a trip. Nightmare nuns troop across the stage with spotlights shining out of her face, a mutated pregnant monster woman clumsily wobbles through the crowd, a woman made out of charcoal crumbles before our eyes. It's dead cool, if you're into the whole pretty weirdness thing.

But what does it mean? I think that a successful piece of theatre should be able to communicate what it's about without the audience having to resort to supplemental material. With that in mind, I purposefully didn't read the supplied programme before going in.

I worked out pretty quickly that it was about the historical subjugation of women. The play is stuffed full of yonic imagery, with the highlight being the 'nun' costume transforming into a giant flapping vulva with the nun's hood becoming a clitoral hood. There's also a tonne of religious imagery, all amplified by the religious setting. It's easy to glance up, past the plaques of dead Victorians, and see the stained glass, lily-white Jesuses peering down at us, bemused by what's going on in his Dad's front room.

So, what I got from it was a critique of how Christianity has oppressed and objectified women over the centuries, stealing the essential power of the matriarchy and enslaving women as biological machines whose function is to cook, clean and pump out the next generation of misogynistic zealots. 

How did I do? The programme sez: "Trinity explores the aesthetics of gender and the idea of sacredness in our visual culture, challenging the objectification and iconification of the female form, from the Venus of Willendorf to the Virgin Mary. The performance questions the ethics and politics involved in the representation, mutation and transformation of the body in our collective visual consciousness..." 

Well, I guess I was in the right ballpark at least. Trinity is one of those shows in which you get out precisely as much as you're willing to put in. Some people will probably dismiss it as a load of pretentious/portentous bollocks, but give it a fair shake and try and think about what you're seeing and it kinda, sorta, nearly comes together in a satisfying way.

And at least it looks and sounds great. Guoda Jaruseviciute, Valentina Ceschi and Kate Lane are all talented, committed performers (and they must have been literally cooking in those costumes), and the technical and artistic design doesn't put a foot wrong. 

But, despite the fact that I did genuinely enjoy myself, I suspect that the show is being deliberately obscurantist to camouflage that, for all the top notch visuals, there's a bit less going on under the hood than the programme claims. 

Trinity is at the Peckham Asylum until 27 June. Tickets here.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: 'Incident at Vichy' at the King's Head Theatre, 13th June 2017

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Incident at Vichy reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

It's 1942 in Nazi-occupied France and ten men sit in a holding pen as the Nazis decide which of them are Jewish. It's 1956 and playwright Arthur Miller waits on a bench outside a courtroom in Washington waiting to be grilled by the House Un-American Activities Committee. It's 2017 and roomfuls of refugees sit in legal purgatory in Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre awaiting judgment. Hannah Arendt's identification of the "banality of evil" remains as accurate as ever - the mechanical processes of bureaucracy allowing individuals to deny responsibility.

First performed in 1964 in New York City, Incident at Vichy is an Arthur Miller play that's fallen through the cracks. Earlier this year it was revived at the Finborough Theatre where it played to sell-out audiences and now it transfers to the King's Head in leafy Islington. It's a sleek and streamlined piece of theatre: ten men sit on a bench in front of a white background fearfully discussing why they've been detained and what might happen to them. They represent various archetypes: the artist, the businessman, the communist, the aristocrat, the boy, the old man, the Roma, the actor, the waiter, and the military man.

The rhythmic metal clanging of the cell door punctuates the action as the men are escorted through to examination room where they're given ritual emasculated, their cocks examined to see if they're circumcised, which is all the proof the Nazis need to consign you to the death camps. Some return from the examination clutching release papers. Most do not.

Over 85 uneasy minutes the characters pick over their lives, the political situation, and their personal philosophies. Most of them begin from a place of stunned disbelief: surely being detained is something that happens to other people? But there's rub, one day the other person is going to be you. They gradually process their situation, realising with increasing desperation that nothing and no-one is going to save them. Then comes muttered rumours of trains packed with Jews heading to camps in Austria and the murmurs of vast incinerators.

It's a taut, smart as hell piece of drama -  you'd expect no less from Arthur Miller. What most impressed upon me was the futility of petty squabbling in the face of evil. Each of these men recognises that they're at the mercy of a sadistic nightmare regime, yet they simply cannot come together in organised resistance. Their differences range from political, social, physical - or, simply, cowardice. We repeatedly hear that there's just a single guard on the door and if all the men rushed him at once at least some of them would get away. But it is impossible for them to act as one, even if they're all facing the same fate. It's precisely this communal inactivity that allows for (insert your own oppressive organisation here) freedom to realise their twisted views.

But though it's a great idea to revive this and despite the satisfyingly meaty ideas being explored, the production is somewhat hamstrung by uneven performances. Some members of the cast stand out a mile - with Brendan O'Rourke's communist electrician is a powerful stage presence from the moment the house lights go up. Most of the men are nervously leaning back, but he stares out into the audience, seething with class injustice. PK Taylor's actor is also a real treat, nervously burrowing down into denial and refusing to face up the situation he's in. Jeremy Gagan's mute old man, despite not saying a single thing throughout the play, is also excellent - giving the play it's most memorably moment as he throws his hands to the sky and silently screams.

Yet these delights are offset by some intense stodginess from Henry Wyrley-Birch as a former military man now hiding in the country with his family. Throughout the play the character never fully comes into focus, exacerbated by him having the shoulder a lot of the more philosophical exposition. 

Then there's Lawrence Boothman's neurotic artist. I've got to hand it to Boothman, he sure does do a lot of acting, twitching, staring and fidgeting in reaction to every single line dialogue. Approaching this role as a histrionic and very camp Scotsman is perhaps the production's one genuine misstep, the character and performance coming perilously close to derailing certain scenes.

Incident at Vichy is undoubtedly a great play. The best plays about Nazism send a cool chill up the spine, scary in a way that surpasses any horror film. This does that, and the quality and scope of Miller's writing shines through, despite a somewhat uneven production.

Incident at Vichy is at the King's Head Theatre until 25 June. Tickets here.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: 'Punts' at Theatre503, 5th June 2017

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Punts reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Just how important is sex anyway? The various ramifications of gettin' on it bubble away throughout Sarah Page's Punts, plunging into a rather sticky mire of consent, class, morality and gender. 

At the core of the show is Jack (Christopher Adams) a 25-year-old with a learning disability. A brief period of oxygen deprivation in utero has left him painfully shy, awkward and nervous, a man treated with sympathy and wholly reliant on his parents Antonia (Clare Lawrence-Moody) and Alastair (Graham O'Mara). He's grown up watching his neurotypical younger brothers ride the rollercoaster of adolescent fumblings and subsequent heartbreak, yet seems resigned to being a mere spectator in intimacy.

Recognising this, his parents decide the best course of action is to book him a couple of hours with a sex worker, hoping that popping his cherry will loosen Jack up a bit and give him the confidence he needs to approach women. After extensive online research they pick Kitty (Florence Roberts), a confident, intelligent and extremely sexy woman who particularly empathises with disabled clients.

The appointment ends up having serious repercussions for all the characters, rippling outwards through their lives in unpredictable (but dramatically fertile) ways. Perhaps most interesting is when the characters are arguing over whether a man with a learning disability can consent to sex. In Punts this hinges on what Jack believes sex to be: the sweaty pumping in pornography and the laddish banter down at the rugby club, or a way to emotionally connect with another human being.

On top of that, his vision of sex is clouded by his parents' behaviour towards him. They're theoretically sex positive in a painfully British middle-class sort of way, dutifully providing their son with 'female-friendly' porn to watch yet balking at the idea of actually defining things like anal sex and cunnilingus. Beyond Jacks's personal experience, there's the uneasy sense that his parents are desperate for Jack to be as normal as possible, chiselling away at him according to their concept of masculinity.

We also examine femininity through Kitty (Julia in her off hours), who is happy, relaxed and sex positive, explaining "being a sex worker empowers me". She's pressed on this, asked "How about when some fat stranger is ejaculating on your face? You feel empowered then? ... How about when you're rimming some sweaty old man?" She responds: "ESPECIALLY then." For Julia, the work allows her independence and freedom, something Page slyly contrasts with the bondage of housewifery.

Sarah Page clearly isn't afraid of tackling some deeply slippery topics, piling into them with wit and energy. There's a core of intelligence and thoughtfulness running right through the play, presenting with a sexual battleground where class, education and privilege are weaponised. 

It's also a damn entertaining and funny piece of writing, speckled with well-timed lines that have the audience rolling. The interpersonal drama is also compelling, largely down to a quartet of obviously committed performers. The standout among them is Christopher Adams: playing a man with mental disabilities is a tricky proposition and runs the risk of derailing into stereotypes. In Adams' hands, Jack isn't 'just' a disability, he's a character with a fully formed personality and recognisable tics. 

My only slight nitpick is the staging. Amelia Jane Hankin's set is undeniably stylish - a glowing minimalist skeleton that throbs to the beat of the interstitial dance music. Yet the club aesthetic feels at odds with the naturalistic domesticity of the writing. I'd have liked to have seen a set that contributed to the characterisation. What are the posters in Jack's bedroom? What chintzy bourgeois knick-knacks dot the family kitchen? How does Kitty's sexualised presence contrast with the home she's visiting?

But this is a pretty small fly in a tub of very nice ointment. I generally hold Theatre503 to a higher standard than most fringe theatres - they've got ambition, they've got style and they've got enviable taste in picking plays to stage (they also have new seats, which is a godsend for the arse). Punts fit right in with what the place is about: an incisive, confidently written and bold piece of drama.

Punts is at Theatre503 Wednesday 31st May – Saturday 24th June, 7.45pm (Wed. & Sat. Matinee, 3pm). Tickets here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: 'Flip Fabrique: Catch Me' at the Underbelly Festival, 23rd May 2017

Wednesday, May 24, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Flip Fabrique: Catch Me reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

It's a real good time to be a fan of attractive people spiralling through the air. Compagnie XY have just wrapped up an excellent run at the Roundhouse and this year's Underbelly Festival promises a stellar lineup of acrobatic entertainment all summer long. As a mark of the upswing in popularity of these shows, Underbelly opens its gates with Flip Fabrique's 'Catch Me', an acrobatic show in which the laws of physics seem to be bent (and occasionally broken).

Hailing from MontrĂ©al, Flip Fabrique are Hugo Ouellet Cote, Jeremie Arsenault, Camila Comin, Bruno Gagnon, Christophe Hamel and Yann Leblanc. As is the style these days, they ditch sequins in favour of casual urban gear, which, combined with the chalk graffiti that appears throughout the show, the minimalist stagecraft, and the tasteful (if a little bland) contemporary music gives the experience a chilled out vibe.

But the aesthetic is just the side salad. The main course is their skills and boy howdy, these six are practically superhuman. All have physiques you could set your watch by and all have acrobatic and dextrous abilities borne of hundreds upon hundreds of hours of backbreaking training and working out. 

Even so, in most shows of this ilk, the first time someone flies through the air and lands with a smile the crowd lets out a collective gasp, but then repetition dulls the thrill as they become accustomed to what they're seeing. Not here. 

It's a mark of both their skill and showmanship that the routine that most audibly stunned us was their last. This was a trampoline routine that's a fine demonstration of Newton's laws. Hurling themselves off a high perch, the troupe loop and spiral around one another like a human perpetual motion machine. They run up vertical walls, rocket into a perfect handstand, and flip and tumble with geometric precision.

It's a breathtaking finale and a great example of the wisdom of saving the best for last. Of course, the rest of the show is no slouch. Each member of Flip Fabrique gets a moment to shine, with a particular gem being Hugo Ouellet Cote's jaw-dropping rope routine, which combines intense concentration with obvious taxing physical exertion, with a cherry of humour popped on top. 

The only thing us that next to the stunning acrobatics, the more traditional juggling and diabolo routines feel a bit overfamiliar. Don't get me wrong, it's a really good juggling act, but anyone familiar with this kind of show will be all too used to this kind of thing. The diabolo routine is a bit better - one of the best I've seen in a while in fact - but again it pales in comparison to the acrobatic routines.

Iffier are the show's stabs at comedy, which primarily consists of loud screeching, babbling nonsense and OTT mugging. Most of thiscomes courtesy of Bruno Gagnon, who appears to be trying to inject a bit of traditional clown slapstick into the show. Judging by the audience's baffled, laugh-free reaction to Gagnon's antics it simply isn't hitting. Perhaps there's a bit of cultural miscommunication here: the broad gallic comedy not a great fit for a British audience.

But hey - this is all nitpicking. When Catch Me is firing on all cylinders it's utterly engrossing. I was on the edge of my seat in wonder at the best bits, finding myself gasping and applauding on pure instinct. It's a fantastic choice of premiere for a very promising Underbelly festival, and I can't imagine anyone coming away from this without a wide, happy smile plastered across their face. 

'Flip Fabrique: Catch Me' is at the Underbelly Festival on the South Bank until 9th July. Tickets and details here.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review: 'Cosmic Trigger' at the Cockpit Theatre, 4th May 2017

Friday, May 5, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Cosmic Trigger reviewed by David James

Rating: 5 Stars

Thus far, 2017 is a grey, chilly void. May is here but the darling buds are nowhere to be found: cemented over by unseasonally frozen winds, deprived of energy by a slate grey prison of an overcast sky, and trampled on by huddled masses who can't believe they're still having to put a fucking scarf on to go to the shops. 

Not to mention that (based on all current polling predictions) it seems as if this miserable May is here for the foreseeable future, presiding over a spiteful country hellbent on flushing itself down the economic, political, and humanitarian plughole. We're staring down the barrel of a shitty future and the present ain't too hot either.

All this makes me deeply appreciative of Cosmic Trigger, the theatrical equivalent of someone pounding a syringe of adrenaline into my gloomy heart. It's a primary coloured explosion of optimism and intelligence, delivered with sincere joy and a sincere love of humanity. 

Ostensibly an adaptation of Robert Anton Wilson's loose autobiography Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, Daisy Eris Campbell's play winds and curls through Wilson's text like a worm munching through an apple, chronicling the intellectual and spiritual evolution of seminal counterculture author Robert Anton Wilson (Oliver Senton), whose seminal conspiracy adventure books The Illuminatus! Trilogy (co-authored with Robert Shea) have subtly woven themselves into the popular consciousness. 

We first meet him as editor of the Playboy forum advice column, a position which brings him into contact with heavy hitters like William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, and Kerry Thornley (among others). The psychedelic culture propels him towards an esoteric magickal and political awakening via Crowleyian occultism, a process which alters his brain, causing him to reject the concept of objective truth.

But that's just the bleached skeleton of Cosmic Trigger - and it's the flesh surrounding it that's oh-so-juicy. This is a night that opens with a striptease from a goddess, features a man wildly fucking a giant inflatable apple, has a hovering shark swimming across the stage, cunnilingus on a female Stretch Armstrong, and... well. I could go on, but it'd be a sin to spoil the night's many delights. This one show has more interesting stuff going on than a whole season of other plays, each scene coming complete with its own idiosyncratic pleasures - be they dramatic, visual, or musical.

Whether we're in 1950s New Orleans, a mushroom party for magicians and technocrats, backstage at a Liverpool theatre, within a vast secret submarine or the cosmic depths Wilson's mind, the show keeps a firm hand on the thematic tiller. As far as I can see this is primarily because Cosmic Trigger's playwright has a supremely confident grasp on Robert Anton Wilson's philosophies. Then again, given that the playwright was apparently conceived backstage during Ken Campbell's groundbreaking 70s theatrical adaptation of Illuminatus!, if anyone's going to successfully map out this tangled territory it's her.

The play is composed of many tangled threads which eventually braid together into an exaltation of Wilson's optimistic conclusions: that social, sexual, and psychological limitations are largely imposed from within, that humanity has the ability to shed restrictive dogmas and ideology, and that reality is exceptionally mutable. Having this lesson taught so vividly made me feel like a drowning man finally thrusting his head up from the depths to gulp a full lungful of air. 

I originally came at Wilson via a meandering trajectory that began watching The X-Files as a kid, which led me to The Fortean Times, which in turn led me to many of my all time cultural icons: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chris Morris, Alan Moore (whose unmistakable voice and face appears throughout Cosmic Trigger), Grant Morrison (specifically The Invisibles) and to Wilson himself, whose writing blew my (at the time somewhat chemically addled) mind. 

Cosmic Trigger combines this panoply of influences into a singular experience - a distillation of mental rebellion against a system that damn near everyone realises is completely fucked, yet ticks along because nobody can think of anything better. For brief moments, this play allows us to imagine that 'anything better', the Cockpit Theatre all-too--briefly becoming a glimmering bubble of illumination amidst the miles of beaten down concrete.

There are times when you sense that Cosmic Trigger is merely the latest ripple in a ritual that's been gradually unfolding for generations - a throughline that began at Crowley and wound through the 60s counterculture, passing authors like Burroughs, Wilson, Dick, and Moore, through Ken Campbell's Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, the music of the KLF, and finally, tonight, to the Cockpit Theatre. The play bears this cultural weight with grace and style.

Perhaps this isn't the most objective of reviews - I went in a fan of Robert Anton Wilson and, let's face it, any play that features Alan Moore as a supercomputer called FUCKUP is going to be hard for me to resist - but this  was one of the most enjoyable, uplifting and entertaining plays I've seen in quite some time. The cast are all fantastic, the stagecraft is phenomenal, and the writing is sensitive, witty and (when it needs to be) outright heartbreaking. Cosmic Trigger is a real triumph of theatre: boisterously beating back the grey, dystopian miseries of Trump, Brexit and allllllll the rest. 

Cosmic Trigger is at the Cockpit Theatre until 27th May 2017. Tickets here. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Review: 'All Our Children' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 2nd May 2017

Wednesday, May 3, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

All Our Children reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

"An average annual removal of 700,000 to 800,000 of the weakest of a million babies means an increase in the power of the nation" so said Hitler in a 1929 speech. A perversion of Darwin's 'survival of the fittest', this philosophy of racial hygiene and a vision of a 'purified' German people was to lead to the darkest nights of the human soul. The most notorious of these was, of course, the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were incinerated in the ovens of death camps.

Somewhat less well known is Aktion T4, in which German doctors were given authorisation to select patients judged "incurably sick" and euthanise them. This programme became a way to excise disabled children from Hitler's brave new world, variously arguing that they're putting them out of their misery, that they're an economic burden to the state, and that they cannot allow 'harmful' genes to proliferate. The architects of this policy anticipated opposition to the systematic murder of children, so told the parents of disabled children that they were being cared for, covered up that they'd been gassed and burnt, and falsified death certificates.

Stephen Unwin's All Our Children dramatises the bureaucracy behind this horrible machine. It's set in 1941, and takes place entirely within the cosy, wood panelled office of Dr Victor Franz (Colin Tierney), Chief Paediatrician at the Winkelheim Clinic, near Cologne. Dr Franz has the pragmatic air of the experienced physician,  comfortable in his skin and confident of his experience. He's assisted by his maid Martha (Rebecca Johnson), with whom he has the casual back-and-forth that comes with old colleagues.

Were these normal times, Dr Franz would spend his time caring for his young patients and doing his best to ease their various discomforts. But these are not normal times. Newly arrived at the clinic is SS man Eric Schmidt (Edward Franklin) - a Nazi fanatic eager to bloodily realise Hitler's utopia. And so an unhappy Dr Franz spends his days choosing which of his patients to dispatch to the gas chambers, each signature chipping away at his soul and his perception of himself as a 'good man'. Over the course of the play, his self-deception is gradually demolished, first by an angry parent (Lucy Speed) demanding to know what's become of her son,  and then by the visit of Bishop von Galen (David Yelland), who argues for the basic sanctity of life (and you know you've screwed up when the Catholic Church is lecturing you on mistreating children).

Unwin's play largely functions as a tautly, righteously angry evisceration of the intelligent but morally weak Dr Franz. He, like many of his generation, wilfully suppressed their consciences for the sake of maintaining a steady lifestyle, which Unwin conveys through a metaphor of the literal internal decay of lung cancer mirroring his moral decay. His are feet that need to be held to the fire, and Unwin takes no small pleasure in doing so. There's more than a whiff of Hannah Arendt's analysis of the 'banality of evil' in Nazi Germany, the doctor's actions bringing to mind her famous quote: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” 

But All Our Children isn't just a furious condemnation of Nazi atrocities. Throughout the play Unwin returns to the concept of a citizen's financial worth to their society, with his Nazis brandishing figures that 'prove' a disabled person is a net drag on the state's funds, arguing that money allocated to them could be used to benefit the best and brightest. 

By the time the characters are talking about 'scroungers' the play becomes a none-too-subtle allegory for austerity politics, through which politicians assign blame for economic woes on those least able to defend themselves. This is why we're taught to hate and fear the desperate refugee, the disabled person claiming state benefits, or simply those temporarily without work. Meanwhile, the politicians, economists, bankers etc who're actually responsible for economic misery skate by in a cloak of invulnerability - at worst suffering a slap on the wrist.

It adds a further layer of anger onto an already furious theatrical experience. The Jermyn Street Theatre is a compact, claustrophobic place, making the audience feel hemmed in with the characters. This, coupled with the beautifully low-key realism of the staging and performances, beats out a steadily increasing rhythm that held me rapt for its 100-minute runtime. 

It's an excellent play that rarely puts a foot wrong and honestly, it's refreshing to see a straightforwardly realistic presented and mature of drama that doesn't call attention to its own artifice. I hesitate to say that All Our Children is enjoyable: I left feeling shaken and deeply uncomfortable. But then a play about the state-sponsored murder of disabled children shouldn't be enjoyable. Highly recommended.

All Our Children is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 3rd June. Tickets here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review: 'Divine Chaos of Starry Things' at the White Bear Theatre, 27th April 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Divine Chaos of Starry Things reviewed by David James

Rating: 1 Star

Paul Mason: award-winning journalist, best-selling author, and now the writer of a terrible play. This one hurt. Not because it's exceptionally, eye-wateringly, bad, but because I'm a big fan of Paul Mason's writing. I adored PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, an exceptionally well-written book that analyses contemporary economics with supreme clarity and confidence. I hold the guy in such high regard that when I was invited to see his foray into playwriting I leapt at the chance.

Divine Chaos of Starry Things is the story of the deportation of French anarchist Louise Michel. She was a key player in the Paris Commune, a socialist revolutionary government whose control of Paris (from 18 March to 28 May 1871), was bloodily ended by the arrival of the French Army. The captured Michel was unrepentant, daring her judges to sentence her to death, saying: "Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little slug of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance." Badass.

Instead she was deported, along with fellow Communards, to New Caledonia a remote Melanesian island 1000 miles off the coast of Australia under French colonial control. Mason's play chronicles her time on the island as she forms a relationship with the native Kanak people and refuses to let isolation dim her revolutionary spirit.

That's the skeleton of what's on stage, though if you went into this show completely blind you'd be oblivious to most of this information. Divine Chaos of Starry Things is supremely unconcerned with establishing a narrative foundation, assuming the audience is already familiar with Louise Michel and the events of the Paris Commune. Perhaps sadly, this an assumption too far. After a brief opening scene we're unceremoniously taken to New Caledonia, where the particulars of the regime our characters have to suffer under or even their living arrangements are never clearly defined. 

A mitigating caveat, the opening of the play was supposed to have scene-setting projections telling us when and where the action takes place, but technical troubles meant these didn't appear. I'm not sure what these would have said, but it's reasonable to assume they would at least have helped establish the scene. But hey, you can only write about the play you've seen.

This lack of clarity quickly undermines the characters' political zeal. It's difficult to get fired up by Michel's revolutionary ambitions if you're not really sure what system she's battling against. This isn't helped by the lack of an on stage antagonist: the cast of characters limited to four women ex-Communards and two Kanak warriors. These characters amble through scenes with the propulsive energy of a rubber duck, breaking the rule of show don't tell by describing interesting sounding events that we don't get to actually see.

Worse, Louise Michel's dialogue is declamatory and overly didactic, with little insight into her as a person rather than a cold vehicle for revolutionary rhetoric. She's frequently put in the unsympathetic position of hectoring her fellow prisoners on showing insufficient revolutionary zeal by even considering accepting pardons. It's obvious that Mason holds Louise Michel in high esteem, but his dramatic interpretation lacks basic charisma. If this was your first exposure to Michel, you'd wonder what the fuss was about.

Performances follow a similar trend, with the personalities of the characters indistinct and the dialogue stilted. It's telling that by far the best performances are delivered by Jerome Ngoadi and David Rawlins as the Kanak warriors. Once you get over their liberal-baiting costumes they're a striking on stage presence, often balefully observing from the edges of the action. It's telling that the sharpest emotion I experienced all night came courtesy of them shooting silent accusatory stares into the audience during the interval.

That brief moment of excitement aside, this is an indigestible play populated by uninteresting characters who don't do much of anything and whose conflicts take place off-stage. As the first half hour trundled by I got to experience that horrible feeling of anticipation (awesome, a play by one of my favourite journalists!) evaporating away, with the hope that things might improve shrinking by the minute.

Mason is attempting to use Michel's inspirational actions as an example to contemporary audiences that we don't need to silently put up with the shit ladled onto us, and that even in the most desperate of circumstances liberational revolutionary action is achievable. That he's absolutely right doesn't change the fact that Divine Chaos of Starry Things inspires first disappointment and then eventually just boredom.

Divine Chaos of Starry Things is at the White Bear Theatre until 20th May. Tickets here.

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