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Friday, January 11, 2019

Review: 'Anomaly' at the Old Red Lion, 10th January 2019

Friday, January 11, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

I imagine that having a celebrity in your family is as much a curse as a blessing. Sure, there's someone with a bit of clout to bail you out if things get really bad and probably a couple of neat parties you get to attend, but at the same time your identity is forever in someone else's shadow and your family name is in their hands. 

This is the territory covered by Liv Warden's Anomaly. Taking cues from the #MeToo revelations (and particularly the case of Harvey Weinstein), the play covers the problems of high-profile Preston family. Weinsteinian film producer and entertainment mogul Phillip Preston created 'Preston International' in the 1980s, which has risen to Oscar-winning dominance. Along the way, he fathered three daughters: business heir Piper (Natasha Cowley); A-list actor Penny (Katherine Samuelson); and the reclusive Polly (Alice Handoll) (who begins the show in rehab).

Their lives are thrown into chaos after their father is been arrested for violently attacking their mother, following which a surge of revelations about his predatory treatment of women explode into the media. The three women are torn between loyalty to their family and their own individual reputations - not to mention the growing suspicion that to some degree they were complicit in his actions.

I've always had a fascination for how people deal with their loved ones being suddenly revealed as monsters. How must it feel to be, say, the family of Kevin Spacey? For decades he's been the golden boy and his family and close friends would have basked in his shared glory. When that limelight curdles, what on earth do you do?

Anomaly makes an attempt to answer this. Various reactions include a call for family unity and a warning on making judgments before the facts are clear, a violent separation from the family via publicly disowning them and a PR led hedging of bets - trying miserably to take no position at all. On top of that Piper and Penny have careers of their own to consider and must quickly decide how this is going to affect them - if they cut and run and their father survives this it's going to make for some awkward family get-togethers.

Anomaly is at its best when picking at this knotty situation. Unfortunately, there's a whole bunch of structural flaws that prevent it being half the play it could be. First and foremost there's the very strange decision to geographically separate the characters from one another and have them interact solely by phone. It means the drama stays cold-blooded and that we never see the conflicts between the characters boil over into catharsis. It also affects the performances, denying the actors the chance to feed off each other's emotions and results in what feels like a series of stitched together monologues rather than dialogues.

Along the same lines, it's a little confusing as to what's going on with the voice-over dialogue from various media presences - who seem to have supernatural powers of insight as to what's going on. I'm all for a bit of surreal blurring of reality, but in a play that's already far from straightforward them being perpetually undefined. Plus, the play's treatment of media is just a bit off, with lines that refer to the characters being together on "international radio" sounding weirdly archaic.

Then there's the theoretically simple plot becoming bogged down with needless twists. As it transpires, Philip Preston isn't just a predatory misogynist, he's an increasing number of other awful things as well. Throwing out melodramatic revelations towards the end of the play just felt like empty drama and added nothing to the core ideas about the ripples created by a #MeToo scandal.

Anomaly is striding across some incredibly fertile dramatic land, but somewhere along the line a number of bad decisions were made about how the piece should be structured and the finished product simply doesn't engage.

Anomaly is at the Old Red Lion until 2nd February. Tickets here.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Review: 'Really Want To Hurt Me' at the Soho Theatre, 13th December 2018

Friday, December 14, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Really Want To Hurt Me walks a well-worn path. The "write what you know" maxim, in combination with young queer men and women escaping their shitty towns for cosmopolitan London, inevitably results in a lot of theatre about just that. These are performances about growing up LGTBQ in bigoted towns that can't ever understand; being tortured emotionally and physically by lunk-headed brutes; the paranoia that comes with knowing you're different; and finding an escape through art.

The above is writer/director Ben SantaMaria's Really Want To Hurt Me in a nutshell. Performed by Ryan Price, the show is a semi-autobiographical monologue about what it's like to grow up gay in 1980s Devon. It doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs.

Told in a confessional, semi-jokey style, we follow our hero from his early schooldays, where a teacher takes him aside and tells him to stop playing with the girls and kick a football - or people might think he's 'strange'. As he progresses through adolescence this feeling of alienation from his peers grows and grows: his classmates bully him, his overbearing father is openly disappointed in him, and his only solace is new wave pop music. It's a foregone conclusion that the moment he hears The Smiths he is smitten.

SantaMaria quickly proves a dab hand at vivid imagery. There's a particularly fantastic scene that comes just after the protagonist has heard Meat is Murder and is instantly converted to vegetarianism. At the family dinner table he's presented with a plate of meat and with Morrissey's lyrics about "the unholy stench of murder" ringing in his ears, promptly vomits all over it. What follows is described with an almost lascivious grossness - a plate overflowing with vomit, a father sweeping the tablecloth away, a full gravy boat flying through the air - feeling like a snapshot of Mike Leighish domestic misery.

But it's in the play's exploration of culturally induced self-loathing that it's most interesting - our hero not even wanting to say the word "gay", let alone admit that he might be it. From a modern perspective, it's easy to forget the sheer lack of information available to a teenager worried that he's gay. He has no-one to talk to (he comes out to his 'girlfriend', who promptly vows to convert him), nothing to read except Freud and the mid-1980s media is caught up in the HIV/AIDS panic. When the only references you have for being gay are abuse, hatred and mockery, it's no wonder that Boy George, Annie Lennox and Morrissey loom so large in the mind.

This is good stuff, but while I appreciated Really Want To Hurt Me, I never got emotionally involved. I think this is because there's this thin patina of jokey irony ladled over the whole thing which erodes the sincerity that a story like this needs. The writing tends to undercut moments of emotion with jokes or witty asides to the audience, which results in a tonal flatness. Even though this is a confessional piece that touches on suicide, the show never properly grapples with the misery throbbing away at the core of this story.

Plus, harsh as it is to say about someone's semi-autobiographical experience, the play could really use a few more things happening in it. The plot trundles along without any shocks or surprises as just a parade of small-scale domestic miseries, and every other person mentioned is sketched very thinly. This means we focus on our hero - but though I feel bad for his pain - there's nothing dramatically unique about it.

It's a nicely written, well-performed bit of writing. But Really Want To Hurt Me is far from essential.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review: 'Burke and Hare' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 11th December 2018

Wednesday, December 12, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Burke and Hare have slipped neatly into the British popular consciousness as a byword for graverobbers. However, they weren't sneaking around in graveyards in the thick 19th-century fog with spades and burlap sacks over their shoulders - they were cold-blooded murderers who discovered that fresh corpses were worth a lot of money and decided that if there was a demand, they would supply.

On paper it's a grim tale, though substantially enlivened by Tom Wentworth's horror/comedy adaptation. Set primarily in the grubby bowels of Mrs Hare's boarding house, the show is populated by a quietly desperate cast of characters, all played by Katy Daghorn, Alex Parry and Hayden Wood. They are almost all indebted or impoverished, their clothes ragged, nursing worrying coughs with their only salvation coming at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey.

When one of the tenants of the boarding house dies of influenza, Burke, Hare and Mrs Hare decide to flog the body to the anatomists on Surgeon's Square, who are hungry for corpses due to constrictive laws about dissection. They pay a princely sum, which gives the trio a grisly incentive to keep a close eye on the more sickly residents of the boarding house... and if they were to 'help' some of the worse off along, that'd almost be like doing them a favour, right?

Though Burke and Hare is a comedy, it also deftly sketches the economic incentives for the crimes and acts a neat Freakonomics style indictment of the free market (the shadow of Edinburgh's own Adam Smith looms large over the play). Burke and Hare (and Mrs Hare) aren't driven to murder because of some innate bloodlust, but by market forces that they feel almost duty-bound to serve. You can almost see the cogs turning in their head as they figure that someone must profit from this scarcity and it may as well be them - as their profits begin to grow they resort to ever more gruesome and murderous tactics to stay in business. 

While all this is whirring away in the background, the foreground is a nicely-paced and energetically performed tale in which the fourth wall is never far from breaking. Taking advantage of the framing device that we're watching a company retell the story, we get neat moments like the three cast members all being on stage at once and realising they have nobody left in the cast to play the corpse - an audience member is dutifully (and hilariously) recruited from the front row).

Though each of the three performers plays many roles, the play doesn't want for strong characterisation. The titular pair are nicely sketched, with Wood's Burke threading a particularly nice line between goofy and sinister. Parry also excels, particularly in an exhausting-looking scene where he's called on to play an entire family at once, with the cast tossing in new family members to torment him further. But the most curiously chameleonic is Daghorn, who somehow manages to look like a completely different person depending on which hat she's wearing - her dippily romantic Fergus is a highlight of the night.

My only minor criticism is that I'd have liked to have seen a more graphic representation of the bodies piling up. Due to the constraints of the cast, these are generally portrayed as small sacks, perhaps with a hat on top to signify who it is. It gives the play a slight feeling of bloodlessness where a more grand guignol tack might have cranked up the horror and cemented the grisly aspects of their trade. 

Still, Burke and Hare is a fine antidote for anyone that craves something with a darker edge amidst the Christmas cheer. It's stylish, entertaining, well-performed and conceived with obvious intelligence. 

Burke and Hare is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 21 December. Tickets here.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Review: 'Aisha' at the Old Red Lion, 6th December 2018

Friday, December 7, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Don't go to Aisha if you want a chilled out night at the theatre. This is 75 minutes of pain, misery and rage, condensed through the small yet powerful form of Alex Jarratt. She plays the titular Aisha, a 17-year-old girl who has been purchased from her parents by her uncle, married against her will, imprisoned, enslaved and raped almost every day for three years.

And, without wanting to give too much away, you shouldn't hold out hopes of this being some kind of emancipatory feel-good drama of someone triumphing over adversity. There is a battle at the heart of Aisha, but it's the equivalent of a person screaming into a hurricane. 

Written by "AJ", the show has an impressively streamlined purity and sense of focus to it: it's a one-woman monologue; Aisha is on stage pretty much the entire time and; while other characters do feature in it, they're left to the audience's imagination. 

Zeroing our focus onto Aisha rather than distracting us with other performers is a smart decision - if, for example, her rapist husband was actually played on stage then it would diminish the monster that we visualise in our heads. It also makes the painful and traumatising rape scenes in the play that much more powerful, her absent husband standing for oppressive patriarchy as a whole rather than as an individual we can collectively hate.

Another clever choice is Jarrett's interacts with the audience, a technique that sets us on edge and cranks up the tension. The most excruciatingly awkward moment was when she singled out some middle-aged guy in the audience as her father and repeatedly implored him to come on stage and dance with her. Understandably he remained rooted to his seat (which I think was the point - though if I was chosen I probably would have gotten on stage...). Other examples are Aisha handing props to audience members in the front row to look at or, in my case, being asked to hold her dress as she washes herself.

It's a simple and straightforward dramatic technique that reminds us that this story isn't some hypothetical fantasy, but rather something that invisibly happens all around and that (at least on some level) we're all implicated in Aisha and other child brides' plight. After all, what do you do if you see a girl with suspicious bruises standing in front of you at the supermarket till? Would you step in and ask her if she's okay or look the other way?

And then there's Alex Jarrett's performance. I'm not one for lists of superlatives, so I'll just say she's fearless and brilliant. There's a palpable intelligence to the way she interrogates the audience, half mourning the loss of her potential, half eager to show off that even after all she's suffered she's still herself. And yet, you sense a deadening of feeling within her, a gradual dimming in her eyes as she realises that even if she were to escape through a tantalisingly unlocked door, 'normal life' is now a fantasy.

So yeah. This isn't drama for the lighthearted but it's drama that deserves an audience. You might feel bad for looking away when you see something uncomfortable in real life, so sooth your conscience by at least confronting it through art. Kudos to everyone involved, they've knocked this out of the park.

Aisha is at the Old Red Lion under Saturday 8th December. Tickets here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review: 'Jailbirds' at the Etcetera Theatre, 4th December 2018

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

I've got a real soft spot for science fiction theatre. It takes a certain amount of gumption to realise a believable technologically advanced world on stage, even one that's broadly adjacent to our own. Split Note Theatre's Jailbirds manages this - and it does it with a few pieces of white tape and faith in the audience's imagination.

The setting is a subterranean women's prison in a dystopic future. The most feared and notorious inmate is Heath Dane (Molly Jones). Her crimes are never precisely defined, but she's a violent serial killer with a sadistic streak a mile long with genius level intellect. 

As we start the play, she has a new neighbour: the prim and apparently sheltered Moira (Stella Richt). Moira is quickly revealed to be the observer in a scientific study of Dane by Bheur (Kirsty Marie Terry) and Officer Oml (Evangelina Burton) - a psychological tool designed to get the perceptive yet egotistical killer to reveal her secrets. Overseeing this is a long-suffering prison guard (Fred Woodley Evans).

It's an interesting set-up but partially hamstrung by the fact that (at least as far as I could see) there didn't seem to be any pressing need to find out what was going on in the killer's mind. Quizzing an imprisoned serial killer immediately brings Silence of the Lambs to mind. The tension in that story comes from knowing that Buffalo Bill's victim is doomed unless Clarice Starling can convince Hannibal Lector to help. By comparison, the objectives of what the 'study' eventually proves to be in Jailbirds felt more like curiosity than an urgent need.

Another aspect that doesn't work is the Brechtian appearance of director Luke Culloty on stage. He exists outside the text, pausing a scene, rearranging the characters within it and setting them on their way. I love a bit of fourth wall breaking as much as the next person, but its use here doesn't add anything. Distancing techniques like this force the audience to consider the artifice of what they're watching, but I'm at a loss as to how doing this in Jailbirds adds to the play's message (which itself is rather fuzzy).

Fortunately, the play is buoyed up by two effective performances from Molly Jones and Stella Richt. Richt initially seems a bit flat and affectless, but as events proceed you begin to understand that this is a deliberate decision. As the play winds towards a conclusion the dramatic focus begins to shift from Heath to Moira, and Richt delivers a couple of powerful speeches that work brilliantly.

But, as in the text, all eyes are on Molly Jones for the majority of the play. Most of the time she's operating in a different league to the rest of the cast, simultaneously scheming, physically intimidating and weirdly vulnerable. Jones manages to underly her outwardly sadistic dangerous exterior with some weird vulnerability. The character is missing an eye (neatly conveyed with an opaque contact lens), and you sense that she knows her powers are gradually diminishing the longer she languishes in her cell. 

So it's a mixed bag. Split Note Theatre clearly have the talent - and they also clearly have an admirable sense of narrative ambition. I suspect a couple of rewrites, a hard think on what message they want to convey and how the story could be tweaked to do that would pay off gangbusters.

Jailbirds is at the Etcetera Theatre until 8 December. Tickets here.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Review: 'Cuckoo' at the Soho Theatre, 21st November 2018

Thursday, November 22, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Escaping a hometown is no mean feat. Like a spaceship trying to escape a planet's gravitational pull you have to build momentum, gradually building up speed in order to break free of its orbit until - in one blissful moment - you're freed from all the petty dramas, bad memories and old beefs - able to leave the past behind and set a course for tomorrow.

Some never make it. You see them on infrequent visits home: sat in the same pubs, in the same barstools, drinking the same pints. Each year a little balder, a little fatter, gradually morphing into their parents. They will die in this place, and their children will repeat the cycle. This is the life trap, and Lisa Carroll's Cuckoo captures it well.

Set in the Dublin suburb of Crumlin, the play follows teenagers Iona (Caitriona Ennis) and Pingu (Elise Heaven), two square pegs in round holes trying their best to escape to a new life in London. Ostracised by their peers for their nonconformity, they're bullied, bored and have visions of a glitzy life in London, where their woes will melt away in a tide of celebrity encounters, over-sized Top Shops and fancy nightclubs.

But their escape won't that easy. Pockets (Colin Campbell) and Trix (Peter Newington) are two young men happy to be big fish in a small pond. They see Iona and Pingu's departure as an implicit criticism, this upsetting of the status quo exposing their small-scale ambitions. And so they plan to tear the pair apart and keep them here.

Cuckoo is intelligently staged, written and performed - with Caitriona Evans' Iona a genuinely impressive achievement in acting. Carroll's script seems to have a memorable line on every page and it's written with a punchy, aggressive energy that cuts through flowery bullshit.

And yet... for all it's qualities I simply didn't enjoy watching it. This is a long play - running close to two hours without an interval and I found the experience of watching it incredibly depressing. There is very little light at the end of this tunnel, and after so long of watching yelling, unhappy people drag each other through the mud I was glad for it to end. 

One thing I found particularly sad was how Carroll defines her characters' limited dreams. For one, her wildest ambition is to be a background dancer in someone else's music video, for another one of the prime attractions of London is that there's a big Top Shop. These are two examples of many, but Carroll never misses a chance to impress upon us how pathetic and insular her characters are and this relentless misery quickly ground me down.

Naturally, all this leads to a bleak, downer ending in which most of the characters vaguely comprehend that their futures are a barren, joyless wasteland and that they can never truly escape themselves. After that, I blearily stumbled out into the cold November night feeling thoroughly miserable.

This might be exactly what Carroll was after - and if so this is a success. There's a hell of a lot to admire about Cuckoo, but the actual experience of watching it is, quite frankly, an ordeal.

Cuckoo is at the Soho Theatre until 8 December. Tickets here.

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.

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