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Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: 'Thirteen Cycles' at the Rosemary Branch, 15th November 2018

Friday, November 16, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

I'm in awe of good improvisational comedy. It's thrilling watching performers probe the possibilities of a new story, gradually filling out the details of rough character sketches and mutually teasing out themes. It's a highwire act that can easily go wrong (and boy have I seen it go wrong...) but when it works it's like you're right in the midst of the creative process - a magical feeling.

Katy Schutte and Chris Mead have this magic in spades. They're expert, seasoned improvisational performers - and Thirteen Cycles gives them ample space to show off their talents. The theme is science fiction, with the seed of the story being locations contributed by the audience. Though there's no audience participation beyond the opening minutes, the whole thing kicks off when someone yells out "spaceship repair". 

Very quickly we're in the middle of a grimy yet futuristic workshop as a grandfather and grandson mechanics bicker amongst each other as they fix up a classic spaceship. This gradually expands into a dystopia involving a throat-stabbing rebellion, a snooty elite showing off their organic pet cats and some rather grisly methods of execution.

Each show is unique, and they promise a variety of inspirations from Star Wars to Solaris. That said, the show I saw demonstrated the distances that Schutte & Mead were prepared to go. Though it's basically a comedy show there are serious scenes and a few genuinely emotional moments. The pair quickly devices extremely likeable characters and then cruelly dispose of them. As this happens you sense a kind of emotional G-Force - the more serious it gets the more it becomes difficult to change gears towards comedy.

The result is a story that's unfinished, that has a few frayed edges and a couple of narrative dead ends - but with real imagination and heart. Schutte and Mead even weave in recurring dramatic motifs and symbolism - which is like, next level improv.

Despite all this, there is one big element of the show that doesn't really work. Much is made in the promotional literature of the use of live projection mapping and score by Lemon Jelly's Fred Deakin. Projection mapping means, essentially, that an object on stage can have a texture overlaid on at any time. Theoretically, this should allow the show to visualise whatever situation the actors decide to create, with Deakin improvising along with the actors.

Well, either it didn't work properly on the night I went or it just doesn't work well at all, but what it amounted to was a couple of apparently random patterns projected on the wall that didn't seem to have any relation to the scene in question. Live projection mapping to improvised theatre is no doubt incredibly difficult, both technically and creatively and the show falls short of its stated ambitions by quite some way.

Plus - and I hate to say this as a long-time fan of Lemon Jelly - the live score soundtrack wasn't that great. There was a lot of low rumbling synths accompanying scenes but it felt like ambient noise more than an actual score. Maybe this was just a bad night for it. 

Thirteen Cycles is undeniably entertaining improvisational theatre - Schutte and Meade are almost annoyingly good at what they do. I laughed a hell of a lot. Still, it doesn't quite live up to its marketing. Go expecting laughs rather than technical wizardry.

Thirteen Cycles is at the Rosemary Branch until 29th November. Tickets here.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Review: 'Vessel' at Battersea Arts Centre, 8th November 2018

Friday, November 9, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

Picture this: I'm sat in the front row of a theatre with four women sat on chairs in front of me. The set is a gigantic piece of curved plastic with no horizon. To an ambient electronica soundtrack, the women simultaneously recite a poem at various speeds and tones, resulting in an overlapping chorus that sounded like "we are the shattering the shimmering this is the shimmering we are the shattered this is the shattering shimmering this is a shattering place..." and so on. This is Sue MacLaine's vessel - and it's hypnotic. 

I felt like I was coming up on psychedelics, especially as sitting in the front row seemed to encourage the performers to periodically lock eyes with me - a lazer gaze that was in danger of burning right through my skull. I kinda wobbled on my seat and felt a bit light-headed. t was cool - but what the hell does it mean?

Well, the show bills itself as being about the "radiance of survival", which sounds nice but doesn't exactly clarify things. Clearing things up a bit is that the performance is bookended with a description of the medieval practice of the Anchoress, in which a woman would be walled up inside a church where she would remain for the rest of her life. She'd be fed through holes in the wall, dispense spiritual and personal advice, contemplate the nature of God and, in a pretty metal twist, dig her own grave. Cool.

MacLaine stages the contemporary interpretation of this, with the four performers (Tess Agus, Angela Clerkin, Kailing Fu and Karlina Grace Paseda). They present a spectrum of modern femininity, are walled off from one another (by circles drawn on the stage) and deliver a litany for today. This adds up to a chaotic catalogue of modern life, an avalanche of nouns and verbs about finance, sex, politics, tech and a tonne of other stuff.

It's an almost unbearable avalanche of information, neatly simulating 'worry-fatigue'. There is so much shit going on in the world right now that it's difficult to keep track: you expend your energies campaigning for the NHS just as you worry at the USA's rapid slide to white nationalism while climate change keeps you up at night. Then you watch a TV show about plastic pollution in the oceans - which you'd forgotten about as it had been swallowed up the constant doom-laden cavalcade of bad news. And shit! I should really do more about fixed odds betting terminals...

It's too much for one person to handle - you would go nuts if you tried. vessel suggests an alternative, or as writer/director Sue MacLaine puts it:  “I would argue that choosing to withdraw and being in silence is a political act. Trying to serve from an internalised place is as valuable as external shouting."

A 'withdrawal' from the depressing realities of life is pretty seductive. After all, what can one person do in the face of a burning, miserable hellworld? Why not just, y'know, pretend that it isn't happening and take some me-time?

But it is awfully convenient to say that doing nothing is a political act and that internalised protest is "as valuable" as doing literally anything to kick back against a culture gone rotten. It leaves the thrust of the show as an off-putting cry for more solipsism in the midst of a planet being ruined by those exact impulses. To put it bluntly: if you conclude that your political action is withdrawal and silence then you are a coward. 

Thing is, vessel obviously doesn't agree with that because it's a piece of theatre being loudly performed in public - the opposite of withdrawal and silence. It results in a weirdly conceived show that's a bit like a dog endlessly chasing its own tail. 

Perhaps the best indication of its confused priorities is the way the show romanticises the situation of an Anchoress. vessel envisages them as venerated symbols of femininity in a community, their cell functioning as a symbolic womb from which a true understanding of reality can spring from within their isolation. The reality was a medieval peasant with mental problems bricked into a wall - not the best model with which to approach the modern world!

vessel is a fine piece of writing, an aesthetic marvel and a great performance - but it's a call to inactivity. And that's the last thing we need right now.

vessel is at the Battersea Arts Centre until 24 November. Tickets here.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Review: 'Billy Bishop Goes To War' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 1st November 2018

Saturday, November 3, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 1 Star

There are no heroes in war, but John Gray's 1978 musical Billy Bishop Goes To War puts a lot of effort into trying to disprove that. Based on the life of Canadian fighter pilot William Bishop (played by Charles Aitken & Oliver Beamish), this is a two-man musical that takes us from his days as "the worst student" in an Officer's Academy, through the Great War and into his old age.

Let's put my cards on the table from the start. I have a deep and abiding dislike of anything that glorifies war, which includes what British hawks have transformed Armistice Day into. Harry Patch, the longest-surviving combat soldier of World War I famously said: "War is organised murder and nothing else”. He died aged 111 in 2009, and now that he's not around to argue back, politicians have seized upon Remembrance Sunday as an opportunity for militaristic nationalist sentiment.

All of which makes this cheery, upbeat tale of a man who murdered 72 people curdle in the mouth. Now, I don't think the producers and creative team behind the show set out to intentionally make a pro-war piece of theatre. After all, the artistic director of the Jermyn Street Theatre, Tom Littler says in the programme: 
"When I was asked to do it I said no. I'm as liberal and anti-war as any other theatre director. [But] when I put it on stage I was staggered by how wrong I had been. If you've arrived with anything like my prejudices, I hope you'll be similarly converted."
I wasn't. 

The show is basically an uncritical Boy's Own story about a man who began killing people, realised he was good at it and thoroughly enjoyed it. This transformation doesn't go without comment, with Bishop explaining in letters home to his sweetheart that he's surprised by how "bloodthirsty" he's become, excitedly explaining the thrill of hitting someone's fuel line and incinerating them in mid-air, and at one point waxing orgasmic about the prospect of machine-gunning sleeping men in their beds.

There is a moment of self-reflection when he destroys a plane and watches the pilots free-falling to their deaths, but given that he's soon eager to jump back into the fight and continue increasing his kill-streak the sight obviously didn't make that big of an impact on him.

Perhaps - perhaps - I'd have more sympathy for Bishop if he'd been conscripted into service, but he signed up of his own volition, has many opportunities to leave the war and simply doesn't seem to give much of a shit about the reasons for what he's doing. The play concludes with a rousing propaganda speech by the now elderly Bishop as he attempts to recruit future soldiers - which may as well be a paid advertisement for the modern military.

What is there to take away from Billy Bishop Goes To War? That military service is the ticket to admiration and fame? That killing people at the behest of the upper-class is actually kinda cool? That, from a certain perspective, the industrial-scale slaughter of human beings can actually be kinda fun and fulfilling? It just seems a bit tasteless to put on such an ooh-rah piece of pro-Great War propaganda in the week running up the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.

Compounding all this is Charles Aitken's portrayal of the young Billy Bishop. Aitken quickly proves himself a deeply talented performer with charisma to spare. He's a pleasure to watch, effortlessly swashbuckling, rogueish and handsome - there's something of Rik Mayall's Lord Flashheart in the way he struts about the stage in his fancy leather coat. But, perversely, Aitken being so good only makes the show's pro-war lean that much more pronounced. 

And so, intentionally or not, Billy Bishop Goes To War ends up feeling monstrous: a toe-tappin' and smile-inducin' good times romp about a man who just looooved to kill people. 

I should say that the Jermyn Street Theatre is also staging Michael Mear's This Evil Thing over the Remembrance period, which is about the misery and injustice inflicted upon conscientious objectors during the Great War. Everything I've heard about that production makes it sound fantastic, and perhaps that's so anti-war that Billy Bishop was chosen as a counterbalance. I wish I'd seen that and not this.

Billy Bishop Goes To War is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 24 November. Tickets here.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review: 'Brexit' at the King's Head Theatre, 31st October 2018

Friday, November 2, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

A bell rings in a North London pub and someone yells "ten minutes until Brexit!" A collective shudder passes through the well-to-do metropolitan crowd at the idea as we dutifully file into the theatre. I'm shuddering as well - I hate Brexit. It's not just that we're the laughing stock of the world, not just the ridiculous flag-waving nationalism, not just that we're about to commit economic seppuku - but because it is so fucking boring.

I work in politics and law, but Brexit has gobbled up so much the news for so long that even I am beginning to tune it out as white noise. The endless internecine spats in the Tories, the half-assed rebellions of the Labour right, the mewling of the right-wing press and #FBPE types on Twitter. If Britain is destined to end up in a Mad Max style hellscape I wish it'd happen already just so we can get it over with.

But that's not the future that Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky's Brexit imagines. Set a few years in the future, we find Britain still negotiating with the EU and trapped in an extended transition period. New Prime Minister Adam Masters (Timothy Bentinck) is the latest to place his neck on the chopping block -  his only ambition to outlast the short 1922-23 premiership of Andrew Bonar Law, who bowed out in under a year (due to throat cancer).

His plan to 'beat Brexit' is zugzwang - a chess term for a situation in which making any move puts you at a disadvantage. Therefore, he chooses to do nothing at all, playing the hardcore leavers against the remainers. The leavers are represented by Simon Cavendish (Thom Tuck): a deeply unpleasant amalgam of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove, while the remainers' champion is Diana Purdy (Pippa Evans), who seems vaguely Amber Rudd-ish (with a pinch of Vicky Ford). 

With equal but opposing forces locked in stalemate, his strategy pretty much consists of the classic "hide under some coats and hope that somehow everything will work out". Naturally, this doesn't go to plan - and the play spirals towards farce as the Prime Minister desperately avoids committing to a course of action.

It's a cynical piece of theatre - but then these are cynical times. Perhaps the most believable aspect of it is the lead character's sheer terror of ideology. Towards the end of the play, he bemoans his situation, saying that he's got "a right-wing press that despises my every action - even though I tried hard not to take any. And a left-wing press that despises me for my beliefes - even though I tried very hard not to have any!Later, a betrayal by his friend and advisor Paul Connell (Adam Astill) prompts the accusation - "you betrayed our friendship for ideology!"

Like, no shit, dude. If Brexit gets anything right, it's the failure of centrist politicians to understand their own ideology. Brexit's PM paints himself as the epitome of non-ideological moderation, treating 'remainer' and 'leaver' as equally valid abstractions that must be placated rather than understood (notably he merely glances through their lengthy policy proposals). 

The conclusion is a reminder that doing nothing can be far worse than being decisive, that convincing yourself that market and social liberalism combined with a soft nationalism isn't ideological but 'common sense' is ridiculous.  I mean, say what you like about the tenets of far-right leavers, but at least it's an ethos. It's a smart conclusion to a perceptive piece of drama. But, sadly, there are a couple of flies in the ointment. 

The dowdy set design of a couple of chairs and a scuffed, cheap desk against a plain black backdrop does little to convey the wood-panelled gentlemen's club atmosphere of No. 10 and the Houses of Parliament (and I doubt whether any contemporary PM would wear a three-piece suit on a day-to-day basis). 

Plus, for a comedy, Brexit just doesn't have that many laughs. There's a couple of cringey panel-show style political jabs that pass over the audience without so conjuring so much as a titter, and while the play does eventually conjure up a couple of genuinely funny moments they are few and far between.

Brexit nails the philosophical morass of its subject, rightly portraying the process as some nebulous concept that means different things to everyone: a Gordian knot that can never be satisfyingly sliced apart. As a piece of drama? It's a bit too loose, languid and mildly diverting - throw in a bit more bite and passion and you'd be onto something.

Brexit is at the King's Head Theatre until 17 October. Tickets here.

Production shots by Steve Ullathorne

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review: 'The Tiend' at the Old Red Lion Theatre 10-30th October 2018

Wednesday, October 31, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

'Immersive' theatre has become a marketing buzzword that's slapped on the side of any show with the tiniest bit audience interaction in the hope of drawing in the punters. But ONEOHONE Theatre's The Tiend is truly immersive in a way I've not experienced before. Billed as an 'interactive theatrical journey', The Tiend is a three-week long interactive horror narrative told via your smartphone, social media and the internet. 

When the show begins, characters begin contacting you by WhatsApp, adding you on Twitter or speaking on the telephone as they spin an enigmatic, interconnected tale whose path depends on your choices and responses. On top of that, there's a face-to-face meeting late in the show in which you meet one of the characters you've been chatting to and prove how much you've learned.

As soon as I heard about this I snapped up a spot. I'm always on the lookout for new ideas in theatre and a show that takes place online in various forms of media sounded right up my street. It sounded to me like a more theatrical and personal 'alternate reality game', which Wikipedia defines as: "an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players' ideas or actions".

And so, come October the 10th I started receiving messages on Whatsapp. "You.. You intrigue me. Are you worthy?" or a garbled and cryptic "yOu ifoUNd you But so did the otHer one." Then I found a very strange Twitter account in which someone was growing increasingly paranoid about their five-year-old son, which led to a very strange website of a possibly psychic life coach...

The highlight of the experience was the face to face meeting. For me, this consisted of a job interview for a shadowy organisation devoted to nefarious ends. I love improvising and the woman interviewing me was insanely fun to bounce ideas off and see how she'd react to things. Interacting in this way with a fictional character is something you can only achieve in immersive theatre, and though this is a brief chat it was fun, exciting and interesting.

In fact, I learned more about what was actually going on in The Tiend in that ten minutes than I had in the previous two weeks. The show requires its audience to put in a lot more legwork than I'd first assumed, with riddles to be solved and interpersonal connections to be teased out. Perhaps this is more on me than the show, but I (and the friends I enlisted to help me out) had absolutely no idea how to solve the various puzzles the game threw my way, and even when I outright asked the characters help I didn't get much back.

For example, after a week or so of being just plain confused, I tried to engage one of the characters in conversation. What I got back as an answer was, "I am not sure whether you are worthy of my interest, or my partnership, or my hate.  Or my indifference. I am still not sure which of those burdens best suits you." to which I frustratedly replied: "cut it with the cryptic crap and tell me what's going on". I didn't receive a response.

Amongst the cast of characters you message with, I just wanted someone to have a normal conversation with who didn't speak in enigmatic spirals. The closest I got was a chat on Twitter with a woman having trouble with her child, but she felt like a character in a video game endlessly repeating variations on the same few lines.

The guide to the show claims: "It is possible to take part in The Teind without any interaction.  If you don’t want to talk back to the characters, you don’t have to – the story will still unfold in its own time, and you will still be invited to the final meeting". I don't think this is true, if you didn't interact with it at all the experience would consist of a handful of head-scratching context-free text messages and a pretty bizarre one-to-one meeting.

I found The Tiend a neat experiment, but not one which ever really interested, gripped or scared me. More than most theatre, this show lives and dies on the strength of its audience, so perhaps I'm the weak link in the chain here. Either way, at least as far as I'm concerned, I appreciated the concept far more than the execution. 

Apparently, ONEOHONE has plans to stage something like this again - I'd love to see how it develops after they've smoothed out a couple of the rough edges.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Review: 'Pickle Jar' at the Soho Theatre, 25th October 2018

Saturday, October 27, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Pickle Jar takes is full of strange similes, so I'm going to describe it as a creamy and relaxing korma with a ghost chilli lurking at the bottom. Or maybe a room full of playful kittens frolicking around a cobra. Ooh, or a bag of pick n' mix with one cyanide capsule thrown in. You get the idea

Written and performed by Maddie Rice, who garnered a whole bunch of praise for playing Phoebe Waller Bridge's role in the Fleabag tour, this is a one-woman play about a young English literature teacher at a girl's school near Guildford. Known only as 'Miss', she's awkward, funny, cute and cares a great deal about her pupils.

Over the course of an hour, Rice conjures a detailed picture of life in the school, meeting her fellow teachers and some of the pupils she teaches. It's honest, straightforward writing that combines with Rice's charisma to conjure up a properly three-dimensional world around her. Though the set is an abstract grey piece of linoleum with some weeds poking through it's very easy to picture a dowdy tea-stained staff room, the woozily loud interior of a shitty club and a packed classroom full of kids.

Within this, her characters spring to life. 'Miss' is a self-deprecating but passionate woman who uses her innate awkwardness to empathise with the problems of her teenage pupils. Though her past mostly goes unsaid, her actions within the play and the odd off-hand comment make it easy to imagine her own schooldays. Plus, every supporting character is brought to life in a heightened, caricatured way - with the highlights being the dippy and annoying school counsellor and her fellow teacher/housemate/best friend.

The first thing you realise when watching is just how talented a comedian Rice is. She reminds me a bit of Rachel Bloom in the excellent TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, making us laugh at her while also feeling desperately sorry for her. Rice is so funny that she passes my tried n' tested 'every comedy must make me laugh out loud three times or it sucks' test in about 60 seconds. Perhaps the best litmus test of how much the audience was enjoying it is that one woman got a bad case of the giggles and throughout one of the more serious moments you could hear her feebly suppressing her chuckles in the back row.

The fact that it's so funny makes the sudden tonal shifts to seriousness that much more jarring. Rice sadistically teases the audience with a couple of fakeouts early on in the show, before eventually descending to some pretty dark depths. No good critic would spoil what actually happens in the show, but it's pretty damn moving.

Pickle Jar is a great example of what can be achieved without too much theatrical frippery. This is one woman on stage delivering what an extended monologue, but manages to encompass more reality and humanity than nearly every razzle-dazzle show you'll see on Shaftesbury Avenue. I definitely recommend checking it out.

Pickle Jar is at the Soho Theatre until 10 November. Tickets here.

Review: 'Welcome...?' at the Bridewell Theatre, 28th October 2018

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

It's rarely a good omen when you're watching a scene about the writers struggling to come up with ideas for the play you're currently at. This comes pretty early on in Welcome...?, which feels as if it's on stage because it can be rather than because it needs to be. 

Written by Lily Lowe-Myers, who performs alongside Robyn Cooper, the play consists of two intertwining strands. One is about thinly fictionalised versions of the actors as they struggle to devise a piece of drama they can perform while heavily pregnant. Bereft of inspiration, they turn to an online short story generator which turns out a garbled piece of writing that they perform. 

This is eventually moulded into the other narrative, a story set in the near future about a woman offering to be a surrogate for the cloned resurrection of a Neanderthal. This story comprises the meat of the show, with Cooper playing an 'ordinary' woman who wants to achieve something unique. This strand of the play raises ethical questions about bringing a child into the world who will be the property of a biotech company, whose development will be carefully managed and who may be unable to ever lead a normal life.

The Neanderthal pregnancy strand of the story is genuinely interesting and feels broadly plausible. The mother-to-be's paranoia about the future of her child and her relationship with it are well-drawn, as is Lowe-Myers' scientist who seems to be gradually warming to her test subject.

Things come to a head in a disastrous press conference in which its revealed that the experiment has gone public, leading to protests, demands for the pregnancy to be terminated and accusations that the mother is morally deficient for agreeing to this. It's really good, smart stuff and then... the play completely gives up on it.

Lowe-Myers and Cooper announce they're doing the scene over and the play proceeds to neatly sweep every interesting question they'd raised under the rug and ignore them. I get that this is a 50-minute long piece of lunch theatre, but if they'd ditched the metafictional waffling maybe they would have had the time to grapple with some of these ethical questions.

Worse, what then proceeds to happen is a meditation on how bringing a baby into the world is like staging a piece of theatre. Both baby and play will be judged by the public, with the inference that the two can be equated. The comparison doesn't work: a child is a bundle of untapped potential that can achieve anything - so shouldn't be judged. Conversely, a finished piece of drama that you're selling tickets to the public to is something that very much can be critiqued. There is a broad equivalence, but it just doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

It feels like the genesis of Welcome...? was that Lowe-Myers and Cooper wanted to perform while pregnant rather than that they had anything in particular to say. 

What's more frustrating is that the Neanderthal plot is so promising and then is left unresolved. I'd love to see this reworked into something better, as Cooper's portrayal of a mother at the cutting edge of science is compelling as hell - I want to see how it ends.

Welcome is at the The Bridewell Theatre until November 2nd. Tickets here.

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