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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: 'I Capuleti E I Montecchi' at The Vaults, 21 March 2017

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I Capuleti E I Montecchi reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

"I think we know the plot already...." someone snidely (and loudly) asserted as the scene-setting surtitles appeared at the beginning of PopUp Opera's I Capuleti E I Montecchi. But do we? This is Vicenzo Bellini's take on Romeo and Juliet, and fans of Shakespeare (or even of Leonardo DiCaprio) might find themselves surprised at how this pans outs

For one thing (spoiler alert) this is a Romeo and Juliet where almost everyone survives to the final curtain, with a cast of characters pruned down to just Romeo (Flora McIntosh), Giulietta (Alice Privett), Capellio (Andrew Tipple), Tebaldo (Cliff Zammit-Stevens) and Lorenzo (Richard Immerglück), and that begins after the star-crossed lovers have dispensed with balcony-based sweet-talk and progressed into getting the hell out of Verona.

It's an opera that Shakespeare purists apparently often turn their nose up at, indignant at the liberties Bellini has taken. Yet I Capuleti E I Montecchi isn't directly related to Shakespeare's play - it's more of a second cousin. Bellini's piece actually takes inspiration from the Renaissance tale that Shakespeare adapted, sharing only a broad structural outline.

Watching Romeo and Juliet and not knowing what's going to happen is quite a startling experience. You wait for the familiar old plot beats, but then the opera zigs where you assume it's about to zag, tumbling into unfamiliar territory. Most interesting is the amplification of the hatred between the two warring families. Absent are vaguely noble sentiments of "two households, both alike in dignity" - instead the viciousness, barbarity and gangland elements are cranked right up.

It makes for a raw and brutal experience, a love story punctuated by torture and intense misery. Of course, this heightened emotion makes the perfect fodder for a kickass opera. I've seen several PopUp Opera shows over the last couple of years and have been consistently delighted by their light touch and egalitarian approach to an art form that can feel overly rigid. But this is the first time I've seen them do a tragedy and it was fascinating to see their terse style adapting to the tone.

The underground caverns of the Vault, here low-lit and stripped back, accentuate the claustrophobia of the piece. Many scenes are set in the cellar of the Capuleti home, making the bric-a-brac feel little like Tony Soprano's basement. The best bits are when the characters light themselves, as when Giulietta cradles a lamp like a baby, strikingly lighting herself from below.

This staging is underlined by a bevvy of brilliant performances. I'm no expert so can't really speak for their specific vocal qualities - but their singing communicates such specific emotions that the surtitles are rendered nearly redundant.  I specifically loved Flora McIntosh's robust Romeo with a chip on his shoulder. He stalks about the place with barely disguised contempt - his flights of passion and rage recognisably adolescent but less impactful for it. Alice Privett's Giulietta is a fine partner for him - her increasingly panicked performance the product of realising she's only a piece of meat for men to fight over.

It's a fine night out and more than lives up to the high standard the company has set for itself. Right now, PopUp Opera feels like the safest of safe bets when planning a night out, marrying technical and performative excellence to intriguingly bold takes on familiar material. You won't see another Romeo and Juliet like this anytime soon.

I Capuleti E I Montecchi is at the Vaults until 23 March, then touring. Details and tickets here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: 'Four Thieves Vinegar' at Baron's Court Theatre

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Four Thieves Vinegar reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

Christine Foster's Four Thieves Vinegar is a great marriage of location and subject. The basement under the Curtain's Up is about as cramped as pub theatre gets: squeezing in a couple of rows of vintage cinema seats into a dark little room where low beams creak from the movements of the pub above. 

This makes it the perfect place to recreate a claustrophobic cell in Newgate Prison. It's 1665 and London is gripped by plague. We're only five years after the Restoration of Charles II, with the joyful return of theatre, gambling, and revelry. Now it's as if God has gone all Sodom and Gomorrah, smiting London with foul pestilence. Parish bells toll with each death; the progress of the disease marked by their increasing tempo.

Sequestered in a gloomy subterranean cell, our characters are somewhat protected from the disease. They are; unhappy alchemist Matthias (Nick Howard-Brown), a debtor who's sure that he can develop a cure for the plague if he just had the right ingredients; Jennet (Kate Huntsman), a young Christian woman sentenced to death after being inadvertently involved in a burglary; Hannah (Pip Henderson) a cynical nurse awaiting trial for peddling quack cures; and Simon (Bruce Holt), their personable jailer.

Telling the story of the plague from a limited viewpoint is a stroke of genius: allowing ample space to for expository dialogue about what's going on in the rest of London and debates on plague treatments and causes without ever seeming forced. Christine Foster has clearly done her research here, her characters talk of real plague cures, ranging from pressing chickens to their sores, smoking tobacco, consuming dried frog skins to the titular 'four thieves vinegar', a mythical concoction supposedly developed by thieves to allow them immunity while they rob the dead.

It makes Four Thieves Vinegar an effective history lesson, painting an evocative picture of what London was like when visited by an apocalyptic epidemic. As the play proceeds the world outside gradually stops as the citizens of London either flee or die. Foster writes lyrically of grass growing in the streets, abandoned houses and an ominous, pervasive silence. There's an interesting undertone of the entirety of London as a prison: one character suggests simply leaving the city for the less plague-ridden countryside (which seems like a logical plan) only to be told that countryfolk violently prevent anyone leaving the city walls for fear of spreading the infection.

But while Four Thieves Vinegar is a great way to learn about London's last great plague, it falls a little short when it comes to individual narratives. This is primarily down to a needlessly tangled knot of interpersonal relations that bogs the play down as we try to unpick them. Late revelations about secrets the characters have been concealing fall a little flat: when the historical backdrop is so compellingly drawn, it's difficult to care too much about their individual problems.

Pip Henderson's Hannah comes off best out of this - the actor having a fantastic 'period face'. This tricky-to-pin down physical quality makes an actor look like they could have plausibly walked out of the past, and this, combined with her easy delivery of Foster's impeccably researched 17th-century street slang, makes her a magnetic stage presence. The same can also be said of Bruce Kitchener's jailer, who produces a hell of a lot of pathos without actually spending much time on stage.

Howard-Brown and Huntsman are somewhat less convincing. It's nothing catastrophic, but simply that a half-crazed amateur alchemist/magician feels like an odd fit in an otherwise naturalistic drama. I don't doubt that men like him existed, but he's such an outlier that to focus so much of the play around his work detracts from the way Foster focuses on regular citizen's reactions to the plague. Huntsman, by contrast, just feels a bit waif-by-numbers, stuck in the same gear of whiny confusion through pretty much the entire play.

I love London history and Four Thieves Vinegar is very much up my street, but doesn't quite manage to marry the history lesson to the personal drama. It gets pretty damn close, but this is such an interesting moment in London history that it almost drowns out Foster's characters. Still, as far as learning and understanding the impact of the plague on ordinary citizens, it's great stuff.

Four Thieves Vinegar is at Baron's Court Theatre until 26 March.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: Endless Poetry / Poesia Sin Fin (2016) directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Monday, March 13, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Every new Alejandro Jodorowsky film feels like a gift. Despite making two of the greatest countercultural films of all time in El Topo and The Holy Mountain, his directorial career appeared to suffer an untimely death after the 1989 release of Santa Sangre (we will ignore the 1990 director-for-hire work on The Rainbow Thief). 23 years passed, during which his most famous works were locked in legal disputes and went unseen.

It was only the long-delayed and highly praised 2007 re-release of El Topo/The Holy Mountain that made him return to the medium. After a handful of abortive projects, 2013 saw the release of The Dance of Reality, chronicling Jodorowsky's early years in Tocopilla, Chile. Endless Poetry continues the story, showing the director's emergence from adolescence to young adulthood, along with his formative artistic experiences.

Though Jodorowsky is now 88 years old, Endless Poetry shows an artist continuing to evolve. It's a film brimming over with creativity: every rigorous shot pregnant with symbolism, humanity and an abundance of imagination. It's also a neatly touching family affair: Adan Jodorowsky, his youngest son, plays his father as a young man, and Brontis Jodorowsky plays Alejandro's tyrannical father. 

Key to understanding The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry (and to some extent all of Jodorowsky's work ) is to understand cinema not as a simulation of reality, but as a translation of the director's psychology. This is literalised in the opening moments when we return to the neighbourhood Jodorowsky grew up, now a dowdy, boarded up no man's land. With the click of a finger period photographs are placed over the buildings and a steam train chugs down the street, showing us how he sees the world.

This heightened style gives us access to the emotional truth of his memories. His shopkeeper father humiliating a thief becomes him stripping her naked in front of a baying crow, while a miniature Hitler barks orders at them. His kind mother communicates only via opera. Unpleasant relatives become Hogarthian caricatures, culminating in the young Alejandro hacking at his family tree in a crazed frenzy.

The style is best exemplified by how Jodorowsky treats his first romantic encounters. Advised by fellow artists to visit a bar to find a muse, he heads to Cafe Iris. The place is a lifeless grey mausoleum, populated by droopy headed old men served beer by ancient waiters - it looks like something out of Gilliam's Brazil. Then, bursting into the room with a swell of primary coloured exuberance, comes Stella.

Stella is a condensed ideal of Freudian desire - most strikingly because she's played by Pamela Flores who also plays Jodorowsky's Mum. She's also a chaotic feminine mystery, simultaneously sexually liberated (repeatedly tearing her blouse open as a prelude to violence) and virginal (explaining that they're to have a non-penetrative relationship). She's a hurricane of every feminine ideal - looking like the Venus of Willendorf at a rave - and works as a magnetic centre of the film. Her presence piques in an impossibly erotic scene where the two caress each other - and she reveals she has a string of skull tattoos along her spine.

Other than some loose connection between sex and death, I have absolutely no idea what the skull tattoos signify - but, crucially, not understanding something doesn't diminish its potency. This stuff is the foundation of Jodorowsky's self-developed psychomagic therapy, in which is that the unconscious mind treats symbolism as fact, leading to the conclusion that behaving in an abstract, symbolic manner can solve psychological conflicts. 

Thus the film becomes a sort of a self-induced therapy for the director - working from his own theory that one must ritually enact ones own unconscious desires in order to unclog your inhibitions and shed your unwanted mental baggage. Or, in Jodorowsky's own words (from his Manual of Psychomagic):
Punching a cushion produces relief from anger toward an abuser. But to achieve good results, the person who punches the cushion must, in a way, free herself from any morality imposed by the family, society, and culture. If the consultant does this, she can, without far of punishment, accept her (always amoral) inner urges. For example, if someone wants to eliminate his little sister, because she attracts the mother’s attention, and pins a photograph of the little one onto a melon and busts the fruit apart with a hammer, his unconscious assumes the crime is done. This way, the consultant feels liberated." 
Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry are this process writ large - the attempt of an old man to purge the last of his demons. It makes the occasional appearance of the director in the film incredibly moving - offering advice, comfort and perspective to his younger self. This reaches a zenith in the extraordinary final scenes, in which Jodorowsky and his sons come together in a collective exorcism of their petty fascist father/grandfather - finding an honest way for him to be a positive presence in their minds

Ordinarily, I'd be sceptical of a director creating a film purely as therapy - but when the end result is as compelling as Endless Poetry it's difficult to argue. As we watch the aged Jodorowsky playing puppeteer with his past via his sons, we sense the through-line of history - people, locations and culture colliding into a prickly, chaotic and often indecipherable ball of conflicting symbols. 

There aren't any other directors like Jodorowsky. There aren't very many people like Jodorowsky. I desperately hope he gets to make the final part of this trilogy. After his lengthy and knotty career, this autobiographical trilogy may well be what he's remembered for.

Endless Poetry is on DVD/Blu-ray/streaming now.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: 'The Monkey' at Theatre503, 8th March 2017

Thursday, March 9, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Monkey reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

The boundary between comedy and horror is so thin you'd have trouble sliding a Rizla through it. Yet it's in precisely this gap that John Stanley's The Monkey sits: a play that on paper sounds like a nightmare, yet in execution is one of the sharpest black comedies I've seen in ages. 

The co-winner of the Synergy Theatre Project's national prison scriptwriting competition (which aims to "harness the energy, instincts and life experiences of ex-prisoners"), The Monkey comes at you with a blizzard of London slang, a taut energy and a fat-free narrative.

We open on the ground floor of a block of Bermondsey flats. A giant middle finger spraypainted on the broken down lift doors tells us all we need to know. This is the home of Dal (Daniel Kendrick), Becks (Danielle Flett) and Thick-Al (George Whitehead). Dal and Becks are petty criminals trying their best to stay one step ahead of a smack habit, their current dealer the stingy Thick-Al (George Whitehead), who very much lives up to his nickname.

Life is complicated by the arrival of Dal and Becks' old friend Tel (Morgan Watkins). With his fitted suit, slicked back hair and shiny shoes he makes a stark contrast to the trackie wearing duo. Tel is doing good at the moment: relatively flush with cash after a bit of burglary and flogging knock-off Juicy Couture. As the three meet, we immediately sense the disconnect between them - namely that Tel appears to be stuck on fast forward while Dal and Becks are in slow motion.

Tel rattles out his verbose dialogue with self-conscious staginess, arching his back and turning his head as if posing for an imaginary photographer. His mind is going in about 12 places at once, careering between imagined slights, business ventures, a drug habit, the distant past, his libido and, ominously, £500 (the titular 'monkey') owed to him by Thick-Al.

This debt smashes the two characters together, leading to a climactic torture sequence explicitly inspired by Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Is it funny to watch a slightly dim man being bound to a chair and mutilated with a switchblade? Are there many yucks in seeing a mentally ill sociopath go completely off his rocker and into a strangle-frenzy? How many laughs can you reasonably get out of a man pleading for his life in front of a vicious lunatic? 

As it turns out, quite a lot. I'm not sure quite how Stanley has pulled this off, but Thick-Al is so unpleasantly stupid, shortsighted and venal that his misery and torture feels thoroughly justified. A decent wodge of this is down to George Whitehead's great performance as a gormless drug dealer, who tries to wriggle out of his situation with the grace, intelligence and ferocity of an earthworm. 

But it's Morgan Watkin's Tel that properly catches the attention. He's a wolf amidst sheep - his frustration with his slow-minded friends making him weirdly relatable. There's a twinge of the classic London gangster to him: his cultural and sartorial pretensions derived from teddyboys (and specifically the Krays). On top of that, he's so intrinsically a Londoner that he may as well be formed out Thames mud and breathed life into by a pearly king. It's tempting to slot him in alongside Guy Ritchie's creations, but there's something powerfully authentic about the character - someone you'd hate to meet in real life but whose presence electrifies the stage.

The Monkey's 95 minutes simply fly by: a vicious little bastard of a play that knows precisely what it wants and achieves it with scary efficiency. There are a couple of rough edges in the staging and the inter-scene heroin-themed music is too on-the-nose, but they're very small flies in very high-quality ointment. Recommended.

The Monkey is at Theatre503 until 18 March. Tickets here.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review: Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths', 4th March 2017

Monday, March 6, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths' reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

It's been about 70 years since audiences first thrilled to the 'theatre of the absurd', so how does it hold up in this rather absurd era? Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths' bills itself as being assembled from "fragments of Eugene Ionesco's works", but primarily seems like an adaptation of his 1950 play The Bald Soprano, inviting its audience to sip wine around a cruciform dinner table as we observe bizarre social interactions between host and guest.

Created by Marianne Badrichani and the Company and taking place in the sumptuously high-ceilinged Latvian House, we begin outside on the street. A primly dressed butler (Jorge Laguardia) distributes menus, then proceeds to lead us up the winding stairs to the banquet room.

We sit and chat for a while, eventually interrupted by the arrival of Mr and Mrs Smith (Sean Rees and Lucy Russell). They're an archetypical English couple who feel like they've fallen out of a 1960s sitcom. Mr Smith is a Daily Mail reading, cravat-wearing ex-Navy type with an unearned air of superiority and a face that's quick to redden. She has a stick up her arse, wiry and tense body language and darting eyes, as if she suspects judgmental neighbours have planted spycams in the room to observe them.

And so our hosts, gamely struggling through a dinner party that feels as if the hors d'oeuvres are laced with liquid ketamine. By the time guests Mr and Mrs Martin (David Mildon and Edith Vernes) arrive, we're trapped in a thicket of looped nonsense conversations, ouroboros repetitions, questions becoming answers mid-way through, and the sense that everything is prim and proper and perfectly absurd.

It's all pretty 'Ionesco-y', something helped by the playwright himself turning up to be interviewed. He gives us a potted life history and a summary of his theatre of the absurd: which recognises that, for all our social graces, we're each isolated in a meaningless, chaos. Every creaked out crap dinner party anecdote, just a desperate attempt to keep the existential wolf at the door. There's only one escape  - to embrace absurdity, laugh into the void and accept the human condition and all its peculiarities.

Here, the 'dinner party' setting aims to shake us out of complacency, using absurdity as the scalpel to show the real core of the bourgeois soul. The company goes about this not just by the surreal dialogue, but by blindfolding us and whispering in our ear and tickling our shoulders, and serving a 'main course' of sentence linguini to consume. 

For the most part this works fine. Even when it's not particularly interesting the show is weird enough to hold your attention. The cast, particularly, Sean Rees and Lucy Russell, lean into their roles beautifully, evoking a kind of Englishness that generally only exists in the heads of Conservative MPs.

Thing is, by 2017 the characters feel a little dated. When the play was first staged in 1950 these were plump, prime targets for satire. Now it feels a bit like watching a 1970s sitcom with unusually surreal dialogue - or perhaps a Monty Python sketch. Maybe these retro-sensibilities are unavoidable. but it blunts the show's edge a tad especially when contemporary society has so many worthy targets to aim at.

What's left is a show whose peculiarities and passion I appreciate, but the actual experience of sitting there watching it left me a little cold. Perhaps it's that in the age of Trump, it feels as if we're actually living the theatre of the absurd, leaving experiencing it through theatre a redundancy. Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths has sparkling moments, but taken as a whole it's a meal that doesn't quite satisfy.

Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths is at Latvian House until 1st April. Tickets here.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: 'The Episode' at Vault Festival, 1st March 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Episode reviewed by David James

Rating: 2 Stars

The rule of 'show don't tell' isn't inviolable, but it's definitely a decent mantra to live by. Tom Brennan's The Episode is pretty much all tell and no show - a play that essentially consists of characters describing gripping events that we never get to see and fascinating characters who we never get to meet.

Set in the aftermath of a reality show gone wrong, we meet three characters who recount their backstage experiences. The show is essentially America's Next Top Model with the copyright sanded off, hosted by Anna Wintour clone Kate (Nesba Crenshaw), assisted by model liaison Jay (Lolade Rufai) and camerawoman DW (Isobella Hubbard). The three women toss the storytelling baton between them, gradually teasing out what exactly went wrong in the titular 'episode'.

Without giving too much away, it turns out to be a cautionary fable on expectations of perfection. We hear how the contestants are placed in precarious situations and constantly judged to impossibly high standards. It leads to a pressure cooker of emotions, exacerbated by a low-calorie diet of celery and raw carrot. Things soon zero in on one of the contestants, possessed of some intangible magnetism that each of the three women are drawn to. Maybe they really have found America's next top model?

Traverse staging not only gives the loose impression of a catwalk on which the characters walk, but also allows us to judge the people sat opposite us. There's several lengthy monologues from the Wintour character about the nature of beauty and fashion, during which she encourages us to examine how she looks at her and how we look at each other. 

Crenshaw's Kate feels like the totemic centre of the show, and when she's rigidly sat on a throne in dark sunglasses and with a severe bob, she looks appropriately regal. It's a performance with real gravitas, making a deeply convincing and intelligent argument that the fashion industry is philosophically and commercially important. She manages to make us think that finding the next Kate Moss is a genuinely important task - that intangible x-factor stirring in a subtle touch of the divine to the show.

DW and Jay are somewhat more grounded, ending up more as exposition machines than compelling characters in their own rights. Both have nicely observed moments, with DW's journey from hard-bitten war photography to getting wrapped up in reality TV ephemera particularly nicely drawn (I also liked the touch of her being late to set because she was busy charging batteries).

This is all interesting and decently performed stuff, but the further we get into the play there's a nagging feeling that simply hearing about all this interesting stuff isn't quite cutting it. Would it really have been too difficult to stage this 'in the moment' and have us experience the drama first hand? Plays that place in the aftermath of a huge event can work - Stuart Slade's brilliant BU21 is about the aftermath of a commercial airliner crashing into west London, but that at least has the excuse that you can't realistically stage a planecrash in fringe theatre. But, I think, it is eminently possible to stage a reality TV show.

On top of that, the grisly event at the core of the drama isn't quite grisly enough to stand out. Nicholas Winding Refn's film The Neon Demon occupies the same territory to The Episode, each being about a particular model's indefinable radiance and each ending in violence. But The Neon Demon cranks things up to an unforgettable avalanche of graphic eye-ball puking, corpse fucking and cannibalistic mayhem. The Episode, by comparison, ends up with a brief, tasteful description.

I'm not demanding buckets of blood, but this is the cherry on an overly detached play that desperately needs an injection of excitement. Part of this is down to the retrospective storytelling mode, part is that we never get to meet the real main character, part of it is down to an inbuilt laconicism that makes the pace molasses slow.

The Episode isn't exactly bad, it just feels someone describing a much more interesting play. 

The Episode is at Vault Festival until 5th March

Friday, February 24, 2017

Review: 'The Fate We Bring Ourselves' at the Crouch End Arthouse, 24th February 2017

Friday, February 24, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Fate We Bring Ourselves reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

If there's one golden rule in mythology, it's that you never screw around with the gods. Not only are they immortals who can do whatever the hell they like, but they've got seriously sadistic imaginations. Even worse, the lives of us mortals are dust in the wind compared to their magnificence. 

I've been a fan of Greek mythology ever since someone gave me an illustrated book as a child. There's something attractive about the combination of bizarre ancient moral standards, realising what various things are alluding to and the simple pleasures of the soap opera shenanigans that go on in Mount Olympus. But there's a hell of a lot of Greek myths they don't put in children's books: the gory, the sexual or the just plain bonkers.

Enter Ben Haggarty. He's in the upper echelons of performance storytelling: weaving together precise oratory, a striking physical presence and an uncanny knack for improvisation. One of the more magnetic (and slightly intimidating) performers I've seen in a while, the moment Haggarty opens his mouth he has the audience in the palm of his hand. Then, slowly, he closes that palm into a fist, squeezing us, cranking up the tension, etching vivid pictures into our imagination.

Tonight's quartet of stories is particularly vivid. The theme is choice, more specifically the danger of making the wrong choices. We begin with a parable of an ancient blind family. A husband, wife and their mothers live a happy, mutually supportive existence in a community. Their calm is broken by the reverberations of distant war; a lack of men causing the harvests to fail. With the spectre of famine raising its head, the villagers cast out "those without a future".

And so the blind family are left to fend for themselves in the wilderness. It's going to be a story with a bleak ending, until the husband trips over a mysterious bag on the ground. Reaching around inside he finds slick, spherical objects and, for reasons known only to him, pops one in his empty eyesocket. It miraculously grants him sight. He pops another next to it, then sorts out his wife and begins to dish them out to their mothers. But here's the rub:  there's eight eyesockets and only seven eyeballs. The man must make a careful choice - whose mother will remain a cyclops?

Now, we're unlikely to ever have to make this exact choice, but life offers plenty of tricky decisions. Sometimes you feel like you're standing at a fork in the road, one way leading towards a happy life of sunshine and roses, the other towards misery and destruction. And you have no way of telling which is which. The three myths that follow are examples of people making the wrong call. 

First is the myth of Actaeon and Artemis, in which a hunter happens across the goddess and her nymphs bathing nude in a pool. He decides to silently observe, becoming the first mortal ever to see the goddess' naked beauty. That achievement is scant consolation to Actaeon though, who is turned into a stag by an angry Artemis and subsequently devoured by his own hunting hounds. Next up is the myth of Erysichthon of Thessaly, a King who makes the fateful decides to chop down a grove of trees sacred to Demeter and is cursed with insatiable hunger. Last comes the tangled tale of the (double) birth of Dionysus, which involves killer clowns, Zeus incubating a foetus in his ballsack and a poor young woman being completely vaporised by Zeus' atomic strength ejaculation.

Lessons learned? Think before you act and don't fuck with the gods (and if you see Hera coming down the street be sure to cross the road). Though fantastically delivered, the connective tissue of 'choice' sometimes feels a bit flimsy, but in face of such great storytelling this feels like quibbling.

My favourite bits come when we begin to approach the horrifying or the cruel. The delivery slows down, giving us ample opportunity to anticipate what's to come next. Here, Haggarty is like a boxer shifting his weight backward before unleashing a knockout blow. When he delivers the imagery whacks into you with considerable impact - every syllable of the goriest passages conjuring up hideous mental pictures. 

Ben Haggarty is a monumentally effective storyteller: the kind of man who'd be as at home on a Crouch End stage as around a medieval bonfire or a Roman forum. The Crick Crack Club continues to remind me of the power of unadorned storytelling - of letting yourself be lost in a forest of words, giving yourself up to the sheer primeval power of the human imagination. 

For more of the Crick Crack Club, see their website.

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