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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review: 'Excluded' at St Saviour's Church, 13th November 2019

Thursday, November 14, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Usually when a play makes you angry it's a bad thing. Not so with Excluded, which is performed by young people that the government doesn't give a shit about, who are demonised every single day in the media and who face an endless uphill battle against a class-stratified society designed to keep them at the bottom of the pile. 

Fortunately for them (and us in the audience), there are companies like Intermission Youth Theatre, who offer a ten-month programme for "vulnerable young people" to build confidence and teach performance skills.

Intermission must have done a good job, because the last thing I'd describe this cast as is vulnerable. Instead, they fizz with energy like an antacid dropped into a glass of water. Even before the show begins there's a face-off in the lobby of the church, with two characters having a rap battle in the midst of the crowd.

The meat of the show takes place upstairs. The conceit is: what if Shakespeare's most famous characters were teenagers about to take their GCSEs in a deprived local school. So you get Hamlet (Oliver Knight) rubbing shoulders with Caesar (Alexander 'X' Lobo Morena) and Lady Macbeth (Stevanie Matthews), while Romeo (Ricardo P Lloyd) and Juliet (Destiny Tola Onisile) canoodle in the back.

The overall effect (and I'm going to shamelessly steal this from cast member Jaspreet Bance) is like an Avengers: Endgame of Shakespeare. All your favourites are here, and the odd combinations of characters really pop on stage. Throughout the play, there's a loose central narrative of rivalries within the classroom, combined with side stories that get under the skin of particular characters. The whole thing is held together by Miss Portia (Rebecca Soper), who is wholly and sadly believable as a teacher losing faith in the education system she represents. 

The play is designed to give each actor a moment in the spotlight and damn do they each make the most of it. There isn't a weak link here, but I really enjoyed Oliver Knight's Hamlet (I would for sure watch him do the full play), Mark Akintimehin really nailed Shylock and Kashana Johnson's Iago was interestingly villainous without tipping over into caricature. 

But, as good as this all is, it can't help but make you mad as hell. The very existence of a company like Intermission is proof that the education system is simply not working. Why should talented young performers like this have to rely on charity and luck to realise their skills? This is something that can and should be done in schools and paid for out of taxation. But fat chance of that happening under the current shower of bastards. 

After the show concludes there's a very interesting Q&A with the cast. The most revealing question comes when a 12-year-old asks the cast if they have direct experience with knife crime. The responses come thick and fast: almost everybody either knows somebody who has been stabbed to death or committed murder themselves.

This is fucked. And don't buy the tabloid line that there is some inherent criminality or viciousness in these communities: these deaths are a direct result of government economic policy, with the effects of austerity neatly correlating with a rise in knife crime. So, y'know, next time someone tries defending the Tories just picture a bloody heap of dead kids who might otherwise be performing Shakespeare.

Ideally, I would have liked to be able to separate the politics from the performance and rate this dispassionately. This cast are not good because or in spite of their socioeconomic background, they're just good full stop. But when you leave the theatre after Excluded and almost immediately walk into the shadow of Harrods, where access to Father Christmas comes at £2000 a pop, you can't help but feel like something has gone very wrong in this country.

But hopefully not for much longer.

Excluded is at St Saviour's Church until 30 November 2019. Tickets here.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Review: 'Who They Were' at the Etcetera Theatre, 7th November 2019

Friday, November 8, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

As the mercury drops and the nights grow longer, theatre takes a turn for the supernatural. I've just come off the myriad delights of the London Horror Festival, which featured some excellent plays about things that go bump in the night. It seems that even with Halloween receding into the distance this atmosphere is sticking around. Tonight's encounter with the dark side is Luke Culloty's Who They Were.

The 'they' in this equation are Eros and Florence (Lucy Abraham and Adela Rajnović), two immortal vampires meeting each other for the first time in a hundred years. They were once in a passionate relationship, but like the blood in their vampiric veins, it has cooled to an icy stillness. In a relatable twist, even a hundred years after they've broken up Eros still has some Florence's stuff boxed up in the cupboard, and now she's round to pick it up.

The first thing you note when you enter the theatre is that everything is covered in plastic sheeting, American Psycho style. Given that this is a play about vampires, they're sipping on a mysterious crimson liquid and making a toast to 'Brie' (not referring to a cheese), things are primed for the blood to flow.

Culloty has even come up with a neat twist on how Eros 'hunts'. Rather than stalk the streets like her vampire brethren she has set up a suicide hotline. If she cannot talk someone down off the ledge then she summons them to her apartment and consumes them. After all, if they were going to die anyway then what's the harm? 

That's where Joe (Ruby Herrington) comes in. She turns up expecting to be dinner, sitting down on the carpet and curiously enquiring about whether this is going to hurt or not. I've seen a whole bunch of vampire films, TV shows and media and this is a genuinely unique set-up.

But, frustratingly, Who They Were proves to be all fang and no bite. Joe decides she's not suicidal after all and just leaves, with the rest of the play seeing the two vampires coming to terms with their former relationship and find a new emotional equilibrium. 

Now, I'm not some zero attention  span thrill-seeker, but if you've already got the plastic sheeting down and the victim is willing then do us a favour and finish the job! After all, fake blood is both cheap and fun.

Similarly, the core relationship between Eros and Florence isn't given any special qualities due to their immortality. They say they haven't seen each other for a hundred years, but behave like any mortal couple who broke up a while back. Maybe that's the point, but there are ways of showing sympathetic vampires while still making them feel otherworldly - with Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive a great example.

It's not that I had a bad time watching Who They Were, but it feels like there were decisions taken during its production that have inadvertently drained the play of excitement, suspense and.. well, blood. If we're dealing with immortals I'd like to see passionate arguments borne of decades of history rather than tetchy sniping. If the characters lure suicidal people into their flats to eat them - then show us it! There's potential here, but it could be so much more.

Who They Were is at the Etcetera Theatre until 9th November. Tickets here.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review: 'The Uncanny' at the Freud Museum, 30th October 2019

Thursday, October 31, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Sigmund Freud's 1919 paper Das Unheimliche / The Uncanny seeks to define that stomach-churning feeling when you encounter something that's just not quite right. His prime examples are dolls and waxworks: objects that have a human form yet lack an animated spark. 

It's an argument that's found new relevance in the modern world with the concept of the 'uncanny valley'. I experienced this recently in Tokyo's Miraikan technology museum, where I encountered a disturbingly realistic 'gynoid'. It (she?) has realistic latex flesh over a metal endoskeleton, with every skin pore and eyelash precisely placed to create the illusion of life. But our brains are too well-trained, and staring into her glassy eyes made me feel like I was looking at an animated corpse. It gave me the willies.

Said willies are at the heart of the Freud Museum's new exhibition, The Uncanny: A Centenary. Within the famous psychoanalyst's former London home a group of artists and writers have created a number of new artworks that attempt to get under the skin of the uncanny. The goal is to pin down precisely what feeling 'uncanny' is, and how to differentiate it from simply being afraid.

Something Looming Large (Yet Not Quite Here)
Artists and writers Martha Todd, Lili Spain, Karolina Urbaniak & Martin Bladh and Elizabeth Dearnley* have thrown themselves at the question. My favourite piece was in the centre of the gallery: Lili Spain's Something Looming Large (Yet Not Quite Here). This was a waxy bust sat in the middle of what looked like chewed up bits of dried meat. The caption reads:
"He sat in a corner hunched over a tiny antique sewing machine, unaware that she had woken to find him feeding it with his spindly fingers. As she watched out of sigh, a stream of human hair, cat fur and wax spilled out of the machine forming an arch in the wall. It occurred to her that the machine was familiar. It had been a gift from her mother, which had sat proudly on her bedroom mantlepiece. "Save me", it whispered, "and I'll save you"."
Paging Doctor Fr.. oh wait, no need. There's something about the not-quite-fleshiness of the materials that captures the uncanny - a body horror queasiness of malleable, oozing human that resists any single form. It's awesome. And disgusting.

But the best thing about the exhibition is Elizabeth Dearnley's The Sandman: an audio trail that leads you around the Freud Museum as you hear the disturbing and sad story of a boy called Nathaniel. He grew up in this house, with every ornament, photograph and fitting pregnant with memories - not all of them happy ones.

I love audio pieces like this as they make you into a silent participant in the story. Rather than simply absorbing a narrative it's as if the character is whispering it directly to you. The Sandman makes you feel connected with both character and place, with the trail placing you in his shoes. 

Nathaniel's memories become your own, and ordinary actions like peering into a mirror take on an unnerving new feeling. Ordinarily, you wouldn't sense the uncanny quite so strongly when examining your own reflection, but the vivid writing and performance can't help but send a shiver up your spine.

Dearnley also successfully fights an uphill battle with these surroundings. Despite the Freud Museum being full of objectively creepy things like ancient relics, old masks and photos of children now long dead of old age, it's an open, warm and homely environment. 

So it's to her credit that she zeroes in on ways to make you uncomfortable within it: asking you to examine the cruel curled lip of an Egyptian mask or stare on at a gallery of former lovers while picturing a battlefield corpse with pecked out eyes.

I won't spoil the particulars, but the finale is an 'immersive' room that fully draws you into the story, bringing Nathaniel's buried past rushing back up to the surface. It's bathed in the cool glow of ultraviolet light, giving white furnishings a supernatural quality. 

There are also a series of two-way mirrors designed to transform the observers face into a blank mask and a Matryoshka doll style miniature-room-within-a-room diorama. It's creepy stuff, especially if you're lucky enough to spend time in here on your own.

The Freud Museum is worth a visit any time of year but this particular exhibition really knocks it out of the park. Full credit to all the artists involved. 

The Uncanny: A Centenary runs until 9th February 2020. Information here.

*(Full disclosure: I know Elizabeth Dearnley personally, but am being objective!)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Review: 'Edred, the Vampyre' at The Old Red Lion, 29th October 2019

Wednesday, October 30, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

There are skulls on sale in the supermarkets, bats hanging from the lamp-posts and jack o' lanterns perched on every doorstep. 'Tis the season for spookiness and I am loving it. Things have been especially fun this year at the London Horror Festival, which has served up frightful delights of all varieties, with Edred, the Vampyre capping things off.

Written by David Pinner, the play tells the story of the titular Edred (Martin Prest), a thousand-year-old vampyre (I feel the spelling is important). Over the course of his long immortality, he's ridden with Genghis Khan, walked the plague-ridden streets of London, fought at the Battle of Hastings and shagged Shakespeare. Now he is in something of a rut, apparently spending his time hanging out at an isolated church in a London suburb.

But tonight he'll have a little more fun than usual. Two teenagers, Jacques and Elizabeth (James Hoyles and Zari Lewis) have heard the rumours of a supernatural presence and decided to investigate. Now they are both in the vampyre's lair, though it seems Edred is happy to hold off his thirst for blood in favour of toying with the pair.

Vampyres (and indeed, vampires) come in a dizzying variety of forms these days, running the gamut from glittering heartthrobs to bestial monstrosities and everything in between. But Edred is a consciously traditional type of vampyre and plays it old school. He's dressed in a black cape, high-collared dress shirt, waistcoat and cravat - looking like h he got his outfit from a fancy dress shop.

Despite looking like the vampire emoji (🧛‍♂️)  come to un-life, he doesn't entirely live up the myth. His fangs are retractable, he quite likes the taste of garlic, doesn't mind sunlight and can quite happily reside in a church without being repulsed by divinity. And if you slam a stake through his heart you'll just annoy him - a very bad idea.

All of which makes him an entertaining presence to spend an hour with. The weary immortal describing his long journey to the present is a well-worn groove for this genre, but there's some neat historical trivia here and Prest performs it well. I particularly liked that Edred turned out to the 'Highgate Vampire' of the early 70s, which has long been one of my favourite London supernatural happenings.

But while Edred - the star attraction - works beautifully, the overarching plot involving Jacques and Elizabeth is a bit wobbly. It turns out that the pair are drawn to Edred for a reason, the nightmares that haunt them aren't random, and there are dark revelations in store. Said revelations are a bit confusingly explained, jumping into some metaphysical afterlife philosophising that I didn't grasp.

Plus, while Elizabeth is a fun character, Jacques is very one-dimensional. Practically every line he delivers contains the words "fuck", "shit" or "crap" - and while I don't have a problem with swearing this quickly becomes repetitive. James Hoyles doesn't have a great deal to work with, but his character is stuck in a single emotional gear for long swathes of the play and the character begins to grate.

I don't want to be overly negative though: if you're in the Halloween mood this is the ideal play. Edred is a well-sketched out and compelling horror creation and I could have spent much longer listening to his loquacious autobiography. I also have a lot of respect for the show not trying to reinvent the wheel: Pinner proves that the traditional gothic vampyre still has bite.

Edred, the Vampyre is at the Old Red Lion until 2nd November. Tickets here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Review: 'Mother Must Die?!' at The Pleasance, 22nd October 2019

Wednesday, October 23, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Theatre is populated by playwrights and directors eager to deliver their big statement on the world's woes. Some hit the mark; many fall short. Against that backdrop it's nice to see shows like Fantastic Garlands' Mother Must Die?!, a silly horror farce whose ambition is to entertain for 45 minutes and then skedaddle. It succeeds.

Olivia Thompson and Libby Rodcliffe are Jocasta and Jupiter, twins living a miserable and sheltered existence in a Grey Gardens style dilapidated mansion. We meet them as they're following an oddly precise set of instructions on how to set up the room for their elderly mother's birthday. Neither is particularly happy about the situation: previous birthdays have somehow left Jocasta with one eye and Jupiter without the use of her right arm. 

But this year things are going to be different. This year... Mother Must Die?!

Jocasta and Jupiter are determined to bump her off, end their seclusion and join the real world. And really, how hard can it be to shuffle an old and frail woman off the mortal coil? You might be surprised.

Written in collaboration by the company, this is a fast-moving and pleasantly grotesque way to spend the best part of an hour. I loved how enjoyably off-kilter everything feels. Both women are locked into a very odd arrested development, with Jupiter dressing up as a Brownie to try and join in with a troupe and Jocasta engaged in an unrequited love affair with a terrible poet. They dress like children who've broken into their mother's wardrobe while casually discuss murder and various dark goings-on in the recent family history. 

Thompson and Rodcliffe play this as a classic double-act, with Jocasta as the straight man and Jupiter as her comic foil. Both women are in perfect sync on stage and elevate the already funny script beyond what's on the page. 

The show also provides a nice sense of place. The decaying mansion is mostly left to the imagination, but there's a lot of subtle exposition as to how it looks. For example, it appears to be gradually collapsing into the sea as the cliff beneath crumbles - with the women peering nervously over the cliff edge during the show.

Plus, while I don't want to spoil anything, there's a neat twist at the end.

I wish I could see more plays like Mother Must Die?! Brevity is a quality all-too-rarely found in theatre, and this story gets in, achieves its goal and gets out while the audience is still laughing. Admirable stuff.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Review: 'Anthology' at The Pleasance, 18th October 2019

Saturday, October 19, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

Spend too long thinking about memory and you'll go crazy. Your past experiences are the foundation of 'you' - all the places you've been, the choices you made and the interactions you had. 

But while we have only the faintest idea of how memory works on a neurological level - we know for certain that it's unreliable. You can quite easily be coached into creating false memories and the mind is eager to edit out unpleasantness it would rather not have to deal with. Then there are the many medical conditions that can dramatically affect your memories. Hell, falling off your bike and bonking your head in just the right way can irrevocably change who you are.

Suddenly the foundation on which 'you' stand feels unstable...

This is the existential horror fuelling Hermetic Arts' Anthology, an hour-long show comprising three short stories, written and directed by Chris Lincé and performed by Carrie Thompson (who, for the sake of full disclosure, I know quite well). I had high hopes for the show, having adored their previous shows Unburied and April.

First up is 'Special Sounds', in which we see a typist trapped in a time loop by a sinister tape machine. Next is Wholesale, a Philip K. Dick inspired marketing spiel in which a Silicon Valley wunderkind demonstrates sinister memory-editing technology. Finally, there's The Empty Clock, about a relationship apparently built entirely around forming precious memories with a sinister twist in the tail.

All three explore our interactions with and perceptions of memory. There's the unsettling inertia that comes from watching your life drip away, day by day, in menial drudgery. It's the kind of fear that sees you begin a job as 'the new kid' with big ideas. You blink and look up to find a hollow-eyed, grey-haired reflection in your computer monitor and realise that this is it for you. 

It digs deep into the disturbing feeling that comes from piecing through your most treasured memories and realising that reality may differ from your recollections. Was your childhood really a long golden afternoon or was there something awful bristling just under the skin? How much have you been prodded and cajoled into remembering things a certain way: was that your life or the Disney adaptation of it? 

Finally, it touches on the way we intentionally curate our experiences for the future, like a squirrel carefully collecting acorns for the winter. Why do we obsessively catalogue our happiness in photographs and videos: is it to give us something to jog our memories or an attempt to prove to ourselves that we're achieving the happiness we goddamn deserve?

All this is communicated through concise and vivid writing that's honestly a little nauseating in how casually good it is. Lincé has an iron grip on pacing and tone, gradually dialling up the tension in each story as we understand what's really happening. This is best demonstrated in Wholesale, where you generally figure out what's about to happen a few seconds before it does. This is rewarding storytelling: respecting the audience's intelligence, invisibly delivering exposition and easily holding everyone's attention. You can hear a pin drop at some of the tenser moments.

Anthology would be good if it were simply a script, but Thompson's delivery elevates it to true excellence. One mark of confident horror is not being afraid to throw a few jokes into the mix, and Thompson makes being funny, entertaining and personable look effortless. Her mime skills during the first story create a complete character simply through body language and facial expressions. Then there's the ability to turn on a dime, moving from chirpy sales pitch to deep creepiness like flicking on and off a light switch.

On top of all that, Anthology is also a deeply impressive bit of stagecraft. Obvious care and attention has been paid to each individual soundscape, as well as a carefully choreographed lighting design that's executed with pinpoint accuracy. On paper Anthology might sound like a simple show: one performer telling three short stories. In practice, it's polished to the point that its simplicity feels weaponised. You cannot look away and there is nowhere to hide

Beyond all that, there's the simple fact that Anthology is genuinely scary. Despite having reviewed a bunch of stuff at the London Horror Festival over the years, most 'horror' plays present their scary elements with a nod and a wink. That's probably because scaring an audience is hard and sincerely trying and failing makes you look silly. But Anthology's full-throated existential horror gives you the chills in a way someone jumping out and yelling 'boo' never could.

Anthology promise "an evening to remember". It is. 

Anthology is next at the Brighton Horrorfest on 26th October. Tickets here.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Review: 'Mission Creep' at the White Bear Theatre, 16th October 2019

Thursday, October 17, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Bee Scott's Mission Creep feels as if was germinated from a thought experiment to discover under what circumstances an asexual person would have sex. The answer is that the world would have to literally be ending and penetrative sex would be the only possible way to escape the planet. 

Here's the precise situation the play sets up. Nuclear war has begun and, one by one, cities are being destroyed. So far Britain remains relatively secure, though much of society has broken down, with many abandoning their responsibilities in favour of hedonism. Faced with humanity becoming extinct, the British Government has made a deal with an alien race to send a couple into space. On an alien planet they will breed under the watchful eyes of the aliens, thus ensuring that while Earth might be destroyed the human race will at least continue.

Liam and Tess (Charlie Maguire and Emilia Stawicki) are flatmates, best friends and they want off this lousy planet. Thing is, Charlie is bisexual and has a boyfriend and Emilia is asexual - but they think they can pull the wool over eyes of their assessor Mary (Carmella Brown) and secure the spot on the rocket out of here. After all, once the world is destroyed who will care? And it's not like the aliens actually know what human sex looks like.

It's a high concept plot for an hour-long play with a set consisting of just two chairs and a couple of cardboard boxes. And yet Mission Creep manages to squeeze an awful lot into its short run-time. First and foremost this is a comedy (a funny one!) about a ludicrous situation in which two people must pretend to be something they're not. The contortions as to how the couple can wriggle out of actually having sex with one another are great, as is the farcical way events quickly spiral out of control. 

There's also a serious undercurrent. The characters are caricatures, but their reactions to the world ending aren't played for laughs. We see them receive texts on which cities have been destroyed, asking the others if they knew anyone there. Scott displays a deft and economical hand with exposition, giving us just enough information about the state of the world to let us fill in the blanks. 

Perhaps the more out-there stuff breaks the naturalism - but the play speeds along at such a brisk pace that it's easy enough to paper over anything that doesn't really make sense. And anyway, the characters react to it in such a matter-of-fact way that you buy into it too.

It's an entertaining hour, and it's nice to see an asexual character in a play that's not specifically about asexuality. It would be too didactic to make this situation just a direct exploration of how asexual people deal with relationships and pressure to conform to accepted models of desire and sexuality, but Mission Creep manages this without feeling like it's getting preachy. Best of all, Tess' asexuality is merely a facet of her character rather than the entirety of it.

There are a couple of rough edges though, specifically in the ending of the play. It's obvious that a micro-budgeted play like this can't actually go through with depicting the science-fiction events discussed, but the chosen ending feels too abrupt. It feels as if the story is about to head into a final act just as the curtain comes down on these characters. On top of that there's the occasional dud line and repetitive story element, and perhaps the play leans a little too hard on characters receiving text messages to drive the story forward.

But I can forgive a lot when it comes to a modest play with big ambitions. Mission Creep is concise, interesting and funny - qualities that many much more extravagant plays often lack.

Mission Creep is at the White Bear Theatre Pub until 19th October. Tickets here.

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