Monday, February 20, 2017
Monday, February 20, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
This is Not Culturally Significant by David James
It's always nice being a theatre critic when family comes to visit from out of town. Turning up at the press desk to get your name ticked off a special list, having a couple of complimentary drinks and settling down to whatever it is you've signed up to write about that night - it's a good look. So, when I got invited to This is Not Culturally Significant on the same weekend my Dad was in town, I snapped up a couple of comp tickets.
I didn't do any research into what the show was - I just liked the title. It's a sentiment that's run through my head during countless half-baked conceptual snoozefests with an over-inflated sense of self-importance. Plus, hey, it's the Vault Festival. Not only is the venue dead cool but the shows are only about an hour long, even if something's rubbish it won't be rubbish for long.
In retrospect I maybe should have done a tiny bit of research: the confluence of all the above left me sat next to my Dad as we watched a butt-naked man with his legs spread, rhythmically manipulating his cock while girlishly squealing "oh my god my pussy is soooo wet!" Ah right. It's one of those shows.
Said cock-manipulator is Adam Scott-Rowley, founder of Out of Spite Theatre. The company's mission statement is to create "confrontational, unsettling and high-intensity theatre". Mission accomplished.
This is Not Culturally Significant introduces us to a dizzyingly fast-paced gallery of grotesques: Scott-Rowley shuffles between characters like a magician with a deck of cards, presenting us with an abused housewife, her ramrod-straight bastard of a husband, an American porn star, a sadistic Oxford don, a homeless junkie and several more besides. Each of these roles has their own particular body language and voice, and are cycled between at breakneck speed.
Very quickly the nudity justifies itself. I've seen many shows and performance art pieces with full frontal nudity before, and there's always a risk that it becomes the centre of the show. Here it allows Scott-Rowley to crank up his chameleonic abilities and vividly bringing each character to life. It also brings a subtle element of danger and unpredictability to the show - with his dick bouncing around nothing seems outside the realm of possibilities.
The nudity also levels the social playing field between the characters, blurring the distinctions between a snooty Professor and crack-addled homeless lady. The fast pace of the show blurs the lines between these personalities, exposing life as a tightly woven tapestry of furtive orgasm, fetishistic pleasure and sexual debasement. It's a somewhat nihilistic world that leaves an acid tang in the mouth - but it's also all too plausible.
Having now done a bit of research I've learned that this show's previous (well-received) run at the Edinburgh Festival was fully clothed. It's difficult to imagine - the full frontal nudity so central to the show that it wouldn't be half as good without it.
That said, Scott-Rowley quickly proves not only a talented physical contortionist but possessed of a puckish rubberface and an acrobatic voice. He's particularly great at flipping a switch and descending into diabolical malevolence, his eyes flickering with a psychotic Gerald Scarfe glint. There's also something undeniably Rowan Atkinson-ish to the wheedle in his voice and the demented narcissism with which his characters prevent themselves.
This is Not Culturally Significant is a serious breath of theatrical fresh air. The Vault Festival is riddled with sentimental and self-centred journeys of discovery through fatherhood, mental illness or whatever - but this whips through these dusty tunnels like a nuclear blast wave, making damn near everything else look staid and tame by comparison.
On top of that it's also funny as hell. I liked it. The audience liked it. My Dad loved it. It's finished at the Vaults now, but if (when?) it returns to the London stage make a bee-line for that ticket desk.
Friday, February 17, 2017
Friday, February 17, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
A Haunting by David James
The disembodied voice can be a hugely effective theatrical device. Booming from speakers and reverberating around the walls, it leaves you feeling disorientated and paranoid. We can't help but play detective, trying to deduce things about the voice's owner, assembling a mental picture of what we expect to see.
Nathan Lucky-Wood's A Haunting exploits this to the fullest. This is a contemporary drama (equal parts horror and pitch-black comedy) that shows that boundaries between our anonymous online lives and our flesh n' blood interactions aren't quite as set in stone as you might imagine.
The centre of the story is awkward teenager Mark (Roly Botha). He's a pretty typical 15 year old - perpetually illuminated by the pale light of a laptop screen, spending his nights blowing away terrorists in Counter-Strike, watching gross-out videos and gently exploring his sexuality. He casually wonders whether he might be gay, but doesn't seem particularly bothered one way or the other, just impatient to know for sure.
Giving him an education is a reedy, nasal and manipulative voice. This stranger (Jake Curran) grooms Mark, peppering him with compliments designed to isolate him from his peers ("you're so much more mature than those kids" etc). The two even engage in some bizarre Skype audio roleplay, in which Mark asks the stranger if they could pretend they're naughty lesbian schoolgirls undressing one another.
Notably absent is Mark's mother Anna (Izabella Urbanowicz), an advertising executive whose parenting style seems to consist of parking her son in front of the internet and spending her evenings socialising with friends. It's not that she's a bad person (or even a bad mother) but, perhaps fatefully, for the moment she has decided to prioritise herself.
What follows is a tense and scary narrative with flashes of mordant humour. We learn more about the mysterious stranger, more about the storied past of Marks' Mum and a lot of long-buried drama bubbles to the surface.
It makes for a damn fine play - eschewing complex stagecraft in favour confident writing and performances. Lucky-Wood is particularly excellent at subtly shifting the balance of power in a conversation, particularly in the scenes in which both Mark and the online stranger gently jockey for dominance in the conversation. It's fascinating how Mark refuses to become a victim in all this - like any teenager he's after a degree of autonomy - and if it involves doing sexual favours for creepy weirdoes at least it's his decision to do so.
There's also a brilliant cranking up of tension right up until the final minutes, the play gradually doling out revelations that kept me on the edge of my seat (though given the butt-numbing wooden benches in the Vault this isn't too difficult). It's a little sad how refreshing it was for me to see genuinely smart writing that doesn't resort to gimmickry or pretension - just a skilful and efficient storytelling.
It's helped by a strong cast. I always enjoy Jake Curran in whatever he's in - I always like a actor that sweats a bit, plus few people convey wirily twisted intelligence better than he does. Much of the show turns on his vocal performance, which is carefully pitched between ominous and friendly, wheedling away with skin-crawling obsequiousness. Also excellent is Izabella Urbanowicz, who gives whatever she's in some serious welly. Anna isn't the most demented role I've seen Urbanowicz play, but she approaches her with an effectively steely resolve. Roly Botha, who I've not seen before, also impresses - summing up much of his performance with an evocative curl of his lip.
It's probably the best thing I've seen at Vault Festival thus far and an easy recommendation. Go check it out!
A Haunting is at Vault Festival until 19 February. Tickets here.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
Thursday, February 16, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
In space no-one can hear you scream. But, perhaps, they can hear you sing. This is the conceit behind Hannah Elsy Productions' latest, Summer Nights in Space. Hopes were high - I very much enjoyed the company's diabolically bizarre The Quentin Dentin Show, and a brief n' breezy musical set in outer space sounds promising.
And so we meet John Spartan (Matthew Jacobs Morgan), drifting aimlessly through space on a lengthy, dull mission accompanied only by a bored-sounding computer. Spartan had spent his childhood gazing up at the stars, dreaming of a life spent exploring the cosmos and subsequently enrolling in space school. Now that he's achieved his goals he's growing disillusioned, worried that his lengthy isolation is causing the first symptoms of dreaded 'space madness'.
Fortunately a couple of things are on the way to spice up the void. First comes a distress signal, then an alien (Candice Palladino) visitation and finally the return of Spartan's space-rival 'Lethal Space Bizzle' (Benjamin Victor), who throws Spartan's world upside down.
I've always been a fan of the blue collar, working stiff space adventure. This loose genre runs the gamut from Alien all the way to Red Dwarf, stopping off along the way at Dark Star, Silent Running and Moon. I love how it gently subverts the classical Star Trek vision of space as ordered and clean in favour of getting a bit greasy, (probably) accurately predicting interstellar travel as more equivalent to manning an oil rig than running a gleaming research station.
But sadly, for all its promise, Summer Nights in Space never comes together. Part of this is down to a series of unfortunate technical mishaps. The start was delayed to iron out some glitches with the rear projection, but even with this it never quite worked properly. Video was confined to a small off-centre square with a Macbook taskbar at the top of the screen.
Then the video was out of sync with the audio. Then a live camera bit didn't work. Then the voiceover audio cut out. Then the sound levels (particularly the treble) went way out of whack, causing genuine pain whenever anyone said anything loudly. On top of all that, the entire show was underscored by an annoying buzzy hum from a loose connection somewhere. Did the tech crew flatten a black cat on their way here?
But, even were everything to have gone swimmingly, the show simply isn't funny or entertaining enough. None of this is the fault of Jacobs Morgan, who seems to be taking it upon himself single-handedly save the show through sheer energy and force of will, but even his titanic efforts can't get around that there's just not that much going on here. Even the usually reliable Benjamin Victor comes unstuck in an excruciatingly annoying part that aims for Die Antwoord but lands squarely in Ali G territory (fortunately he's much better as the voice of the computer).
Creator Henry Carpenter talks in the programme about how "thirteen months ago, the 'show' consisted of three songs about space, which I performed myself wearing a bicycle helmet." I can't help but think this show might have been more entertaining if it'd stayed stripped down, leaving the audience's imagination to fill in the blanks rather than treacherous tech.
I saw The Quentin Dentin Show twice. Once in an embryonic form and once with the rough edges sanded away to leave a sleek, polished and completely entertaining night out. I can only hope the same happens with Summer Nights in Space - all the parts are present and correct, but this rocketship never achieves lift-off.
Summer Nights in Space is at Vault Festival until 19 February. Tickets here.
Summer Nights in Space is at Vault Festival until 19 February. Tickets here.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Tuesday, February 14, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
Max Gill's adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde has a pretty unlucky press night. Schnitzler's play (intensely controversial in its day) depicts a series of interlinked sexual encounters: two characters fuck and one of them carries onto the next scene where they fuck someone else and so on and so forth. It's a loop that closes in the final scene, hence the title 'the round'.
This production realises that as an onstage wheel of fortune. With the four performers' pictures taped to it, chance decides who will appear in the next scene. As far as I'm concerned it's a sound concept, the programme making hay with the idea that we're all are trapped on the same wheel: existing within the same society and slave to the same desires. (Not to mention baking a refreshingly inclusive gender blindness into the show).
It's also a neat way to build dramatic tension and excitement. We wonder what the wheel will throw up next, and, as it ticks to a stop, you sense the anticipation building. Injecting an element of randomness into theatre is risky but comes with a potentially big payoff. After all, life is not a proscribed series of events, so why not try to capture its chaos on stage?
Sadly, at least on press night, this doesn't quite go according to plan - the wheel stubbornly refusing to pick one of the four actors, Leemore Marrett Jr. By the mid-way point it's clear that something is up, the cast reducing the number of choices on the wheel to just two. Still it doesn't pick him.
Perhaps sensing that the wheel might be mechanically faulty, they move his picture to the other side of the disc. Still it doesn't pick him. By the end of the night they've spun the wheel with just two choices on it ten times and capricious fate obstinately refuses to choose him. Eventually it feels as if the production gives up on the wheel of fortune conceit, stops spinning it altogether and sticks Marrett Jr in for a couple of quick scenes right at the end.
It's terrible luck (the chance of this happening is 0.098%), and a credit to the production that they manage to do the whole show with one less actor than they were anticipating. Still, even were he to have been picked, I've got a number of bones to pick with the show.
Prime among them is the show's iffy tone, oscillating between scenes that nudge at the edges of Carry On style sex comedy to brutally honest emotional engagement. It's simply jarring, to have broad slapstick stuff shoulder to shoulder with a man being diagnosed with terminal cancer, feeling as if the show is constantly doing U-turns, something not helped by variable performances that often fail to delineate the changing characters.
Amanda Wilkin is the best of the bunch by some degree, conjuring up a wounded desperation as a bus driver who ran over someone and is now frantically trying to feel anything other than numbness. There's something reassuringly solid in how she conveys her characters' sexuality, making it funny without trivialising it.
Alex Vlahos doesn't quite manage the same feat, donning spandex booty shorts and behaving like a manic fetish pixie dream twink. His characters largely approach sex as something cartoonish. His best moments come when he dials it down a notch, gracefully and touchingly dealing with being given a cancer death sentence.
Lauren Samuels fares worst, saddled with the teeth-grittingly unfunny role of a perpetually grinning generically Russian/Eastern European cleaner with a thick comedy accent. To put it bluntly, watching vaguely xenophobic stereotypes forcing people to eat goulash just isn't my idea of a good time.
On top of all that, La Ronde quickly proves to be a surprisingly prudish play. It plays sex for laughs, politely dimming the lights and skipping over the actual fucking. It ends up feeling peculiarly and painfully British, as if it's unable to portray sex or even discuss it without resorting to obfuscation or giggling. Compare this to recent productions like Unfaithful, 5 Guys Chilling or Fucking Men (itself an adaptation of La Ronde) - each of which showed relatively graphic sexual encounters while still telling a complex and intelligent story.
By comparison La Ronde is all sizzle and no steak. And sadly, even the sizzle isn't particularly compelling.
La Ronde is at The Bunker until 11 March. Tickets here.
Thursday, February 9, 2017
Thursday, February 9, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
You've got to know what you're getting into with The Quorum's The Swarm. It's a shows that prides itself on "stretching the boundaries", casually describing itself thusly: "the piece explores the fluctuating magnetism between the individual and collective, which will be expressed physically, spatially and musically".
The show achieves that lofty aim through bees (who possess "an unconscious wisdom" according to the programme) - dramatising the migration of the titular swarm from their old hive to a new one. Said bees are played by a ten woman choir, each of whom portrays an individual bee with names like 'Eeb No Yoo Hee' or 'Yoh Zoh Ovoo' (probably the equivalent of 'Jane' and 'Sarah' in bee language). Using a combination of tightly bound choral polyphonies, synth melodies and precise group choreography, the ten performers gradually guide the audience along the bee journey.
At least that's the theory. The Swarm is a pretty damn abstracted piece of theatre - to the point where if you went into it completely blind there's a chance you might not realise it's about bees at all. Even knowing the broad narrative leaves you a bit bewildered, devoting a decent splodge of concentration to trying to map what the performers are currently doing onto what I remember about bees from a documentary I watched a couple of years ago.
After twenty minutes I was straight up baffled. It was then I remembered the programme handed to me on the way in. Popped into my hand without comment I'd assumed it was merely a cast and crew list and folded it into my pocket. On retrieving it, I realised it was The Swarm's Rosetta Stone.
Not only does it explain exactly what's going on, but it's full of useful bee-facts like "before setting off to their new home, the bees must raise their body temperature to around 35°C" and "the bees form a cloud in the air of 8m long, 8m wide and 3m tall with bees about 27cm apart". Armed with a bit of context I began to appreciate the show a lot more, as well as picking up on the various political undercurrents.
To put it bluntly, if you're doing a show in 2017 about migrating organisms seeking a new home in an unfriendly world it's going to be about the ongoing refugee crisis whether you intend it or not. Mass migration is the hot button issue of the moment, the entire shape of Western politics warping towards right-wing nationalism in response (everything from Brexit to Trump can be diagnosed as a symptom of it). Thus, the title, 'The Swarm' applies not only to bees but also to refugees (refu-bees?), possibly a direct reference to David Cameron's dehumanising language when he described "a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean".
As far as metaphors go it's a decent one, though a bit squirm-inducing if you begin unpacking it. On the plus side, the bees in The Swarm are presented as a model of collective decision-making, each working for the benefit of their society rather than their own individual enrichment. Perhaps life would be improved if we emulated bees a little more and... I dunno, selfishly minded spiders a little less.
On the downside there's no getting away from the fact that The Swarm, in a roundabout way and with the best of intentions, is equating refugees with insects - dehumanising them in precisely the same way as David Cameron or Katie Hopkins' "Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches." Now I'm not saying this show has an atom of sympathy with Cameron and Hopkins et al - rather that the refugees as swarming insects metaphor is simply not a great look in any circumstances.
Maybe it's just best to consciously ignore this unfortunate train of thought and appreciate The Swarm as a pleasant and artsy production that's firmly about bees and nothing else. Taken on those terms it's a diverting enough way to spend an hour - a bit like sitting through an extended Björk music video. Entertaining enough if you've got the stomach for performance art/conceptual theatre but shorn of the glaringly obvious refugee metaphor it's all conceptual surface, no juicy political meat.
The Swarm certainly occupies a unique spot in the Vault Festival lineup, if you're getting sick of self-deprecating confessional solo shows this would be a decent palette cleanser. If you do end up going be sure to read the programme before it starts and try your best to overlook the somewhat unfortunate metaphorical implications
The Swarm is at Vault Festival until 12th February. Tickets here.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Wednesday, February 8, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
Frankenstein is a thoughtful, philosophical piece about everything from unrestrained ambition, the limits of scientific inquiry, the responsibilities of parenthood and the relationship between a creator God and mankind. It's also about a crazy scientist who makes a near-invincible murderous monster man out of corpses.
What I'm saying is that there's a lot going on in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Now approaching its 200th anniversary, it's been lodged firmly in the public subconscious ever since its publication - the go-to comparison people reach for when they decide that science has overstepped the mark, or to simply describe the creation of something unnatural.
Blackeyed Theatre's Frankenstein goes back to the source material, faithfully telling the tale as Shelley wrote it. This means no bonkers Dr Frankenstein yelling "IT'S ALIIIIVE!", no Igor and no climactic crowd of pitchfork n' torch wielding villagers. Instead, we get the long build-up to Victor's (Ben Warwick) experiments,: including a spin-through of his childhood, his relationship with adoptive sister Elizabeth (Lara Cowin) and friend Henry (Max Gallagher), and the beginnings of his university education.
It'ss a story that takes a while to kick into gear, only properly coming to life at the same time as Victor's hideous creation. But when it does, boy howdy it's great. Much is made of Victor's instinctive revulsion for his creation, echoed by the way pretty much everyone who comes into contact with the monster begins beating him up him and yelling abuse. This makes Blackeyed Theatre's decision to portray the monster using puppetry a stroke of sheer brilliance.
Using the Japanese 'bunraku' style of puppetry, the Monster is a over-sized man-thing with thick ropey muscles, an Easter Island features and large, staring eyes. It's manipulated by whichever actors aren't currently in the scene and voiced by Louis Labovitch (the other actors pitch in at times of great emotion, giving its voice a weird choral echo). The combined effect is mesmerising, neatly inhabiting the uncanny valley and making Victor's reflexive disgust understandable.
Despite his creepy appearance and unfortunate strangling habit, this monster is not entirely unsympathetic. Labovitch's wheezing, stilted delivery gives him a put-upon dignity, emphasising his victimhood and self-pity. There's something touchingly sweet in the way he peers around a tree, silently observing a happy family or reacts to taste for the first time. He does sometimes sound a bit like an undead Morrissey, moping about how it's unfair that everyone else is allowed happiness except him. But hey - if you were a hideous monster creature tossed naked into an unfriendly world you'd probably have a chip on your shoulder too.
The monster is the obvious highlight, but he's buoyed by Victoria Spearing's evocative and malleable stage design. The sole piece of set is a chaotically nailed together knot of wood and fabric, which easily morphs between a polar ship trapped in the ice, the lightning blasted stump of a tree or Victor's scientific apparatus. Also making an impact is Ron McAllister's percussion heavy live score, punctuating the action with ominous bass beats or crescendoes of clattering cymbals.
When all cylinders are firing Frankenstein is gripping stuff, sweeping the audience up in the magic of watching something that shouldn't be alive walking, breathing and talking, all enveloped in a heady fug of neo-Victorian stagecraft. It only comes slightly unstuck in earlier scenes, in which you find yourself silently urging Victor to put away his books and whip out the bonesaw and sewing kit.
Regardless, this production is a visual marvel and successfully grapples with the meat of Shelley's story. The undoubted star, as tends to be the case with productions of Frankenstein, is the monster himself. Blackeyed Productions have created a thing that's neither living nor dead, but something else - something guaranteed to send a chill up the spine of even the hardiest theatregoer.
Frankenstein is at Greenwich Theatre until 11 February, then on tour. Tickets and details here.
Frankenstein is at Greenwich Theatre until 11 February, then on tour. Tickets and details here.
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Saturday, February 4, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments
Mark 6:22 - "When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests". From such humble beginnings sprung Oscar Wilde's once notorious Salome. Banned from the London stage until 30 years after its publication, Wilde delivers a potent cocktail of pressure cooker sexuality, stomach-churning decadence and tightly wound symbolism.
The setting is the court of King Herod Antipas (Konstantinos Kavakiotis), son of King Herod the Great (of 'Massacre of the Innocents' fame). Herod senior probably wasn't the greatest provider of paternal love, what with the baby-killing n' all, so perhaps understandably Antipas has never had children of his own. He has, however, married his dead brother's wife Herodias (Helen Bang), who has a daughter from her former marriage, Princess Salome (Denise Moreno).
Salome has fallen in love with hairy-headed John the Baptist (Matthew Wade), but John, known here as Iokanaan, doesn't reciprocate. Enraged, Salome manipulates her powerful stepfather into granting her anything she desires in return for a dance. He obliges, and Salome more than delivers on the promise of the dance, but proceeds to shock her father by demanding Iokanaan's head served up to her on a platter as a reward.
Wilde, attracted to the tale of Salome's tale by the Oriental eroticism of Gustave Moreau's painting of her, found Salome's tale pregnant with dramatic possibilities. He took the bones of the story, originally intended as a straightforward fable about the dangers of female sexuality, and reshaped them into a complex poetic inquiry about lust and power. Here, Salome is primarily considered an object of desire, by both her horny stepdad and his lieutenants. She accepts her and internalises this objectification, reflecting this lust outwards at Iohanaan. When he doesn't respond she has him objectified for her pleasure.
Anastasia Revi's production is set during the 1930s, her international cast making the precise location tricky to pin down. But there's a distinctly fascist tone to proceedings, most obviously in the stench of patriarchy that suffuses the production, but including the coke-fuelled rantings, feverish consumption of luxury and nihilistic loosening of inhibitions among those with power. Herod and Herodias behave as if this might be their last dinner before khaki-clad rebels bust the door down and summarily execute the lot of them.
The cranked up tone and bucketloads of symbolism reminded me of the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (particularly The Holy Mountain and The Dance of Reality): art that gets under the skin of fascism. This Salome doesn't show us the jackbooted oppression of fascism, but the psychological consequences of keeping so much suppressed - Salome's demand for a mutilated head to pleasure herself with a logical consequence of a lifetime spent immersed in warped fash sexuality.
The recently refurbished Hoxton Hall makes a fine setting for all this. The majority of the show is staged around a large crimson dining table, dotted with bowls of fruit, sickly sweet wine and mounds of coke. The table thrusts into the audience, making us feel less like observers and more like silent onlookers at Herod's big bash. Up on stage there's a gigantic moon on the rear curtain, together with a wrought iron swing for Salome to tantalisingly dangle on. It allows the performers a great deal of mobility, which in turn stuffs Salome with electric energy.
Much of this is through the impressively intense performance of Kavakiotis as Herod. He delivers a deeply operatic (and soon deeply sweaty) performance, gesticulating wildly and charging about the stage with lust in his eyes. Helen Bang (who I admired the hell out of in Edward Bond's Dea) is a perfect foil for Herod, abandoning her dignity and sanity in favour of hedonism. You sense that somewhere deep within is a sane woman trying to get out, but being crushed under the weight of her overbearing husband.
But it's Denise Moreno's Princess Salome that dominates, simultaneously vulnerable and deadly. Dressed as Swan Lake's Odette she has razorblade features, the physicality of a jaguar and eyes that seem to bore right through you. Her climactic 'dance of the seven veils' is erotic, beautiful and terrifying, more than living up to the high billing given in the text. I see a hell of a lot of plays and quickly forget most of them, but Salome's dance is firmly lodged in the old grey matter
This is a fine production of a piece of drama that positively bristles with symbolic meaning. Revi's interpretation is wide enough to allow for a multitude of interpretations while still maintaining an admirable focus. I suspect Wilde would approve.
Salome is at Hoxton Hall until 11 February. Tickets and details here.