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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Review: 'Me And My Whale' at The Vaults, 22nd June 2019

Sunday, June 23, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

We are currently living through the Holocene extinction event - the sixth and most dramatic mass extinction that has ever taken place on Earth. Previous mass extinctions, most famously the massive comet or asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous era, are thought of as quick cataclysmic events. Yet the extinction of the dinosaurs took place over a period of 10,000 years.

In the current extinction, humanity is the deadly asteroid smashing into the Earth - and we're doing a far more efficient job than some lousy space rock ever could. Overhunting, habitat destruction, disease, deforestation, global warming and pollution are decimating life on this planet at an ever-accelerating rate. One shocking piece of research claims that by 2050 there could be, by weight, more plastic than fish in the ocean.

All this brings us neatly to Xavier Velastin and Hannah Mook's Me And My Whale. This is an abstract, experimental piece of theatre that tells the story of a submarine captain falling in love with a lonely whale. While exploring the depths, she discovers the moving sound of his song and seeks to join him. 

On paper, that story sounds twee as hell, but the narrative quickly proves to be more a vehicle for a series of auditory and visual experiments. Staged in traverse, the performance space is bookended by two enormous sheets of gossamer-thin plastic sheeting. Between these lie a series of objects that are more art installation than set. Between them are three dangling bowls of liquid, an overhead projector with liquid on top beams rippling waves on to the walls and a big bowl in which Mook dips her face into and sings through the bubbles.

Velastin and Mook use the stage as a giant musical instrument, combining the pleasingly low-tech (the old style overhead projector gave me flashbacks to school assemblies) with what I'm assuming is live digital audio manipulation. I don't know precisely how they're producing this soundscape, but it appears that their interactions and movements through the set become translated into sound. This creates a unique hour-long piece of music that's different every time its performed.

This music is variously dreamy, meditative, funny and horrifying. The long stretches without dialogue give time to lose yourself in the soundscape, realising that the stage is a microcosm of the wider ocean: an ecosystem hemmed in with plastic and gradually chemically polluted as time goes on. This is complemented by long, low synthetic wails, which take on a morbid quality, as if we're hearing the dying gasps of the sea. We also get an idea of sonic pollution, with simulated and disorientating radar pings and drilling encroaching on a natural peace.

Horror aside, there's also a scene where a woman has passionate sex with a whale, so the show is never in danger of becoming truly miserablist. 

Me And My Whale isn't for everyone. You're going to have to come with this with a high tolerance for arty shit, combined with the ability trust that all this abstract noise and odd behaviour has a point. But I kinda loved it: it takes gumption to try and capture on stage the destruction of the oceans and the environmental calamity that mankind has wrought. Perhaps the only way to manage to communicate the sheer existential terror of what is happening right now is through arty shit.

Here's hoping Me And My Whale is performed more in future: we need more shows like this ready to push the boat (or submarine) out.

Further performances of Me And My Whale will be announced on their website.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Review: 'It Rains Diamonds On Jupiter' at the Drayton Arms Theatre, 22nd June 2019

Friday, June 21, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

It's true you know. About the diamonds anyway. Atmospheric data for Jupiter indicates that lightning storms in the Jovian atmosphere turn methane into soot. Said soot hardens into lumps of graphite which in turn become diamonds that endlessly rain into the liquid sea of the planet's hot core. 

What that has to do with the story of a woman dealing with her sex worker past beats me, but it's certainly a striking title. Written by Eleanor Ross and directed by Anastasia Bruce-Jones, It Rains Diamonds on Jupiter tells the story of Olivia (Rosanna Suppa). We meet Olivia as a 20-year-old student who has decided to make some extra money by working as what's billed as an 'escort', but is actually just plain old sex work. Her clients seem happy enough, her boss Bill (Jacob Melling) takes his cut and she gets paid.

The meat of the story takes place a few years later, with Olivia now established as a journalist. Despite her efforts to maintain a low profile she ends up working on television news. Bill spots her, and suddenly her past threatens to ruin the present. Can her career, relationships and sense of self survive the intense stigma that society places on sex workers?

It's a good question, and Ross (and everyone involved with this production) has clearly spent a long time thinking and arguing about it. Throughout the play we see various perspectives on sex work: ranging from a self-professed feminist accusing Liv of betraying women by confirming men's misogynistic fantasies, through to sex work being a way for women to achieve financial independence. There's also a strong sense of class consciousness in the piece, with the script at pains to contrast Olivia's financial needs in comparison with her privileged colleagues (who can afford to take unpaid internships and so on).

What our heroine Olivia thinks is somewhat murkier. Her battle isn't about whether what she did was right, but dealing with intense fear and paranoia of how everyone will perceive her if they knew the truth about her past. While there is a growing movement to destigmatise sex work (impressively staged in the Bunker Theatre's recent Fuck You Pay Me), activists face a long uphill climb. Even in our theoretically liberated times, former and active sex workers are widely considered desperate, immoral and innately unclean, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon.

Suppa does a great job of filtering all this through Olivia: an honest, personable character who gradually unravels as she struggles to reconcile her present with her past. There are a lot of perceptively written and performed passages in which she teeters on the edge of a panic attack, her terror at being exposed visceral and touching. 

Though Suppa knocks it out of the park, the play is studded with smaller performances worthy of note. Duncan Hess' older client is an obvious highlight, rambling on and clearly nervous at what's expected of him. Jacob Melling's Bill is also interestingly complex, putting up an aggressive front to conceal an obvious shame burning at his core.

But for all these positives, It Rains Diamonds On Jupiter really feels like it needs a few more drafts. While I have no idea as to the play's production, it feels as if it arose from some intense group discussions about what sex work means, with the eventual narrative stretching to accommodate many points of view. This results in a loss of focus that muddies what's trying to be communicated.

It means that, particularly in the back half, there are narrative strands that simply don't go anywhere. Theoretically, the drama is powered by Olivia being blackmailed by Bill, though this quietly fizzles out as he apparently just decides to... stop? Similarly, there are extraneous (though still well written) scenes in which Olivia encounters a fellow sex worker, a bizarre non-sequitur involving a man whose wife is in labour and an ending that doesn't resolve anything. All of the above scenes tell us something about Liv, though Suppa's performance is good enough that she could be trusted to tell us them through her acting skill alone rather than didactic writing.

This might be why a play billed in advance as 1 hr 15 mins long actually comes closer to 1hr 45mins. A pair of sharpened editing scissors and a 'kill your darlings' approach would work wonders here - if some of the more meandering elements were snipped away this would be a powerful and memorable hour of theatre. 

The moment-to-moment writing is great, I have nothing but nice things to say about Suppa's central performance and the playwright clearly has her priorities in the right places. It's so close to being great, but some storytelling discipline would go a long, long way here.

It Rains Diamonds on Jupiter is at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 22nd June. Tickets here.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Review: 'To Drone In The Rain' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 12th June 2019

Thursday, June 13, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

To Drone In The Rain reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

She's there for me last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Throughout the day she's got my back, and ensures there's never a dull moment. She knows all my deepest secrets and darkest desires, has infinite patience to deal with the dull minutia of day-to-day life and knows the answer to every question. She even comes to the bathroom with me, where I can idly play Sonic the Hedgehog on her glistening glass face.

You've probably worked out by now that I don't have some creepy mechanical slave-woman tending to my every need: I'm talking about my phone. Much has been made of our increasing reliance to technology, and now Michael Ellis' To Drone In The Rain takes it to the creepy logical conclusion.

Set in a near future "where phones, laptops and all other technological services have become obsolete", we meet Tom (Michael Benbaruk). He's socially anxious to the point where the notion of human interaction makes him vomit into a bucket and appears to have some kind of psychosomatic condition that confines him to a wheelchair. He spends his days inside a Kubrickian monochrome studio apartment, delivering bespoke adventures to anonymous clients via a webcam.

He's taken care of by Drone Girl 9.1.13 (Nell Hardy), who is a combination of best friend, nurse, secretary, therapist and mother. We understand that this state of affairs is the norm, human beings retreating to isolation in favour of letting their android assistants interact with the world on their behalf. This extends as far as sending your Drone out to flirt with other Drones in the hope of finding love - presumably the understanding is that if two Drones get along then their owners will too.

Within this setup 9.1.13 realises that despite being programmed to care for Tom, her round-the-clock care is gradually infantilising him. He's increasingly childlike and demanding, relying on her for the simplest tasks and refusing to take responsibility for his actions. Plus there's the hunky and rebellious Drone Boy (Lino Facioli), who is offering 9.1.13 freedom from Tom and a new life where she calls the shots.
By far the most compelling part of the play is watching Tom slowly descend into helplessness as 9.1.13 struggles to work out what to do. We sense that Tom's social anxiety is a product of the insular society he lives in: he's perfectly capable of imagining detailed flights of fancy outside his apartment but utterly incapable of living them himself. And the more he's indulged by 9.1.13 the further he slides into helplessness. Michael Benbaruk plays this downward spiral very nicely, gradually minimising Tom's positive points and accentuating his flaws. This eventually leaves him as a pathetic caricature of a man - a mewling, diaper-shitting, alcoholic monster.

But the real heart of the play is Nell Hardy's 9.1.13. I've long been a fan of the laser-focused physical and psychological intensity Hardy brings to her roles and she doesn't disappoint here. The smartest decision the play makes is avoiding making this android character a sci-fi stereotype. The traditional way to write this type of character would be to focus on her grappling with strange human emotions and acting stiffly and awkwardly, like Data from Star Trek.

But, perhaps with the Tyrell Corporation slogan "More Human Than Human" in mind, 9.1.13 is totally emotionally literate and fully capable of philosophically comprehending her place in the world. Hardy plays this very nicely, threading the needle of her character realising her devotion might be poisonous. That's not to say that this character is indistinguishable from a human: Hardy moves with precision and power, striking stylised poses that reminded me of catwalk models. 

But 9.1.13 being by far the interesting character in the play is the root of my problem with it. Beyond the science fiction trappings, you can understand this is the story of a man and a woman. As such, it's more than a bit regressive to see a story about a loser guy dragging down a woman concluding with the woman sacrificing herself for his benefit. By this point in the story our sympathy for Tom has evaporated - so seeing him shuffle off into the sunset wearing a cowboy hat leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

I guess the fact that I cared about these characters fates means that something is working here: though I suspect it's the strength of the performances rather than some woolly writing. To Drone In The Rain is a smart bit of science fiction and has a neat hook, but could use a bit of editing and tweaking to accentuate its positive qualities.

To Drone In The Rain is at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 15th June. Tickets here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Review: 'Kill Climate Deniers' at the Pleasance, 11th June 2019

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Kill Climate Deniers reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

A good title can go a long way - and Kill Climate Deniers is an absolute banger. Never underestimate the power of a pithy slogan, especially not one that's practically custom designed to rile up the asshole parade. 

Written by David Finnigan, Kill Climate Deniers is many things. At the core is a story about environmental protesters invading Australia's Parliament House during a Fleetwood Mac concert and holding the audience hostage. Wielding fluorescent orange AK-47s and pistols, their leader Catch (Bec Hill) threatens to execute everyone unless they stop climate change "tonight". 

The only thing standing in her way is plucky environment minister Gwen Malkin (Felicity Ward) and her press advisor Georgina (Kelly Paterniti), who have managed to take out one of the protesters and are now armed and fighting back.

But wait, there's more. Interspersed with the main narrative (which the show never takes particularly seriously) is a kind of live director's commentary in which Nathan Coenen plays playwright David Finnigan (here named 'Finig') discussing the controversial history of the play. Beyond that, there are David Foster Wallace-style footnotes as the play expounds in surprising depth about the particulars of late 80s dance music and the rise of rave culture.

So hey, at least Kill Climate Deniers isn't boring. The narrative merrily skips between tones: going from doleful sincerity as Finig predicts a depressing, slow and miserable apocalypse to a ludicrous slow-motion Spaced style mimed gunfight set to The Prodigy's Hyperspeed G-Force (Part 2) 

Then there's the verve awith which it's staged. Director Nic Connaughton and designer Prinx Lydia have managed a lot with very little - the set generally just consisting of three small CRT televisions. All that's amplified by impressively stylish costume design, with the protestors costumes having a rugged patched leather n' heavy eyeshadow Mad Max chic to them. Plus the impeccably curated soundtrack kicks ass.

But having tossed all these disparate ingredients into the mixer, does the finished product gel? Not really, but maybe that's the point. It quickly transpires that, despite the title, Kill Climate Deniers doesn't have much to say about climate change. Instead, it turns out to be far more interested in itself: a meta-commentary that results in a hall of mirrors effect where we're watching a play pondering its own existence and critiquing itself.

The most charitable interpretation is that Finnigan is interrogating the audience (and by extension himself) for allowing ourselves to get wrapped up in fantastical artifice and navel-gazing as we blithely ignore our very real impending doom. The least charitable is that the play doesn't actually have that much to say beyond a catchy title, and is attempting to camouflage that under layers of metafictional chicanery.

But again, at least it's not boring. The cast is uniformly brill (I particularly enjoyed Bec Hill's domineering stage presence), the play looks great from start to finish and it is genuinely funny. I just wish it was a little less self-obsessed.

Kill Climate Deniers is at the Pleasance until 28 June. Tickets here.

Photos by Ali Wright

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: 'User Not Found' at The CoffeeWorks Project, 21st May 2019

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

User Not Found reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

If I had realised in advance what User Not Found was about I probably wouldn't have gone. The show, written by Chris Goode and performed by Terry O'Donovan, ponders what how we should handle the digital footprint of a dead loved one - something I have recent and painful experience of. But here we are and I guess I'm going to have to take the bull by the horns.

Both set in and staged in a modern cafe, we meet Terry sipping his peppermint tea and observing the world around him. He ascribes identities to the other patrons, idly fantasising about their miniature dramas. Early on, we learn that Terry's ex-boyfriend Luka has died, an event which propels the next 90 minutes of drama. But there's a wrinkle, prior to his death Luka named Terry as his 'digital executor'. This means that a company called Fidelis is now asking him to sort through years of social media posts to decide what to keep and what to delete.

It's a very relevant topic, amplified in effectiveness by Daphna Attias' excellent direction and her team of audio/video artists and technicians. The audience shares tables in the cafe and hears the production through a set of wireless headphones. These play the live audio of O'Donovan's performance but also mix in various other multimedia elements (music, sound effects and so on). 

In addition, everyone is given a smartphone at the beginning of the show. This displays what Terry is seeing on his phone, as well as showing us abstract video sequences that the monologue refers to. On top of that, each table has a networked lamp and under-lighting allowing the technicians to dramatically light the space. 

For User Not Found to work, all of these systems have to work in concert with one another. If one fails they may as well all have failed. Given that a decent rule of thumb in theatre is not to overcomplicate things, it's a minor miracle that this play functions so smoothly and is a testament to the blood, sweat and tears (and money) poured into it by everyone at production company Dante or Die.

The result is worth the effort. Having a smartphone in your hands and watching it navigate itself through social media feeds is a disconcerting experience, and shows us the world through its character's eyes in a way that other shows can't conceive. A less ambitious company might have simply projected this onto the rear of a stage, but cradling an individual device in your hands builds a connection to the contents that's viscerally real.

Maybe a touch too real for me - but I guess this makes me a particularly well-placed critic to judge this show. I thought the way it dealt with picking through the digital detritus of a dead partner was painfully accurate. Figuring out what to do with a person's online presence after they've died isn't something that previous generations have had to deal with, but as the years tick by the amount of data generated by an individual over the course of their lives will grow exponentially. So what's the right thing to do? Do you consider what their wishes might have been, decide on the naked truth or simply mould the person who their friends and family wanted them to be?

Perhaps sometime soon there'll be an accepted way to approach this conundrum, but right now we're groping in the dark. This curation of a person's life is not easy: pruning away the stuff that should remain private and promoting elements in order to create an idealised reality that (after a hundred small choices) can suddenly seem quite artificial. This process is an emotional minefield that the show captures perfectly.

It also understands the less-considered online aspects of a person: with the show showing data on fitness, banking and other apps that aren't necessarily broadcast to the world. Data like this can be a kind of ticking timebomb - just the other day I turned on an old Xbox to find a personalised 3D avatar of my dead partner smiling and waving back at me. Fun times...

I left the show feeling really goddamned miserable, but I guess that's testament to how well it reflected my own experiences back at me. Intelligent and emotionally resonant theatre like this is the kind of stuff that makes seeing all the less-great stuff worthwhile. Huge credit to Terry O'Donovan for cramming so much into his personable yet scarred performance, and everyone at Dante or Die should be proud of themselves for what they've accomplished here. 

User Not Found is at The CoffeeWorks Project until June 2nd. Tickets here.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Review: 'Witt 'n Camp' at the Soho Theatre, 16th May 2019

Friday, May 17, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars
Quarter past ten at night turns out to be a very good slot for a Soho comedy/cabaret show. The tourists have scuttled back to their hotels, the clubs are yet to kick into gear, and there's enough time to grab a decent dinner and a few laugh-loosening drinks in. All of which works in Witt 'n Camp's favour. 

Witt 'n Camp are Charlie Howitt and Holly Campbell, who are the full entertainment package: singing, dancing, telling jokes and performing like old school vaudevillians. They serve up a finely tuned hour of entertainment, consisting of songs that are comedy sketches, comedy sketches that are songs and a lot that resists easy categorisation.

The initial impression you get is "what the fuck is going on"? The show opens with the pair in burly policeman costumes stalking around the stage and fighting one another, then mildly antagonising the audience (sit in the front row at your peril). Things only get stranger from there: the pair morphing into sexually unfulfilled Irish chickens, strangely louche hippies and bitchy opera divas.

But though the scope is wide, their talents are consistently (and occasionally jaw-droppingly) impressive. Their opera divas sing with beautiful precision and skill, managing to convert Nicki Minaj's machine-gun pop masterpiece Super Bass into an opera number. These moments and the other numbers in the same vein are some seriously eye-catching work, perfectly showcasing their vocal and creative talents.

Beyond that, things get head-scratchingly odd. There's a multi-part saga about bored and murderous cannibalistic chickens that's set to lilting folk strings, featuring the laconic pair squatting down to squeeze out eggs. One smashes and, staring at the gooey albumen dripping between her fingers, the chicken says "I don't know how I feel about this". Maybe it's the late hour and maybe it's a mildly soused audience, but you just kinda go with it.

At times Witt 'n Camp reminded me of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie's Flight of the Conchords. Like them, they display an almost infuriatingly natural grasp of melody and lyricism, combined with a refreshing absence of cynicism and a willingness to get silly without any ironic winking at the audience. As such they're extremely easy to like, which makes for an hour that goes down very smoothly.

That said, if there were a bit more connective tissue between the various segments the show could really lift off. It seems a bit ungrateful to complain about 'merely' receiving an entertaining show, but Witt 'n Camp come across as if they're searching for a thesis to bring together these disparate ideas and characters. Then again, perhaps the scrappy and rough around the edges style is what makes the audience instinctively like the pair so much.

Howitt and Campbell are working from a solid bedrock of talent - whatever they turn their hands to will be, at bare minimum, barrels of fun. 

Witt 'n Camp is at the Soho Theatre until 18 May. Tickets here.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: 'Little Death Club' at Underbelly Festival, 15th May 2019

Thursday, May 16, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars
Sometimes all you need is fire, sex and alcohol. Bernie Dieter's Little Death Club provides all three in the form of a slick, stylish, satirical and salaciously wonderful 'kabarett' that delights with polished dangerousness.

The core of the show, is Dieter herself, looking every inch the distillation of Weimar style, as if she's wandered off the set of a particularly stylish silent movie. She behaves on stage as if she was born on one, sinuously prowling around on spike-studded heels in a feathered black bodysuit. It's equal parts sexy and scary, and if (to be honest, it's probably when) she turns her gaze to you it's like being frozen in the headlights of an oncoming 18-wheeler.

Though there's a warning on the door about fire being used in the show, the real danger comes as Dieter casts her gaze around the audience and finds unsuspecting men to single out and charm. Ordinarily, I'd say if you're shy and awkward stay away from the front row, but here even hiding in the back rows isn't necessarily a defence (as the guy who ended up with her crotch being ground in his face discovered).

For me, the thrill at being prey to a predatory performer is exciting, fun and has provided some of my favourite experiences in theatre over the years. So when I was inevitably singled out for during a song punctuated by yells of "EAT MY PUSSY!" I enjoyed the hell out of that adrenaline rush. 

But though this is very much Dieter's show, she's also the Professor X to a wonderfully weird collection of misfits. These include wonderfully gloomy mime Josh Glanc, who bemoans the lack of reality inherent to his art, wishing that one day the box he could escape from would be a real one. We enjoy Myra DuBois: "The Songbird of South Yorkshire", a classic drag queen who I don't think it's possible to not find funny.

Then there's an extraordinary fire show from Kitty Bang Bang. This begins promisingly, with two assistants quietly appearing near the front of the stage with blankets, presumably to put her out if she ignites. I've seen a whole bunch of fire performances before, but what she does here beyond my understanding. I know the basic rules of how these acts work - that heat and flame travel upward and so on. But fire is hot - there is no trick that makes fire not hot. So I have absolutely no idea how she manages to stand with flames flickering from her lips without burning herself. Maybe she really is a mutant?

Similarly mesmeric is Beau Sargent's contortion and acrobatics act. Sargeant has one of the most beautiful bodies I've seen on stage, his fat-free musculature making him appear as a streamlined art deco sculpture. There's a simmering sexual androgyny in the way he writhes and twists, eventually spinning high above us in precise whirls from a hoop. It's breathtaking stuff.

But my fave thing in the night was Fancy Chance's dream-like hair suspension act. I've seen a bunch of these before and while they're impressive, seeing someone simply gracefully enduring pain just isn't enough. But Fancy Chance provides that something else with an outright beautiful routine based around a flowing dress with wings. Here she swoops, glides and soars above the audience, the breeze created by her wings gently buffetting our faces. This is all soundtracked to a bass-heavy song that slaps extremely hard. It also has an incredible final flourish that I will not spoil here. When I look back on this show, I feel it'll be her act that lodges firmly in the mind.

Towards the end of the show we get a moment of insight and perspective. Dieter reminds us that the original Weimar cabaret (and indeed, the Weimar Republic itself) was squashed by the rise of fascists. She talks of the increasingly scary world beyond the confines of this tent - hinting that history may be repeating itself. 

But if the world really is ending, I can't think of any party I'd rather be at than this one. Little Death Club is one hell of an hour's entertainment - worth the price of admission many times over. 

Little Death Club is at Udderbelly Festival until 23 June.

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