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Saturday, October 19, 2019

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

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

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 17, 2019

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

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

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: 'CULT' at The Pleasance, 14th October 2019

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

It's easy to understand why people get sucked into cults. They provide a steady trickle of validation, long and short-term goals to aim for and the sense that you're part of something. In an atomised, individualistic world this can make all the difference: providing context and purpose. Of course, the downsides come when they empty your bank account, you're slurping down gruel in an isolated work camp and the leaders have started buying Nikes in bulk - but hey, no system is perfect.

ONEOHONE Theatre's CULT, performed as part of the London Horror Festival, captures this dichotomy. This is an interactive show where the audience becomes 'green' members of spiritual group Rise. With rankings themed around colours of the rainbow, we're lead through the session by three high-ranking indigo members. At first, things seem fairly typical, the leaders burble on about personal empowerment and positivity, quizzing audience members on their ambitions and problems they'd like to solve in their lives.

But all too soon you realise that 'Rise' has a twist in the tale (this is part of a horror festival after all). Genre aficionadoes will twig what Rise really is fairly early, but if you're not in the know, the revelations of what they are trying to accomplish should be quite the surprise. But, I'm not going to spoil the twist in my review, as I wouldn't have wanted to know it going in. 

What I will say is that ONEOHONE has clearly done their homework. The core of this cheery and cheesy iconography is clearly Scientology, but there's a ramshackle home-made quality to it that makes it slightly more endearing. Similarly, they successfully tap into the way that hierarchical systems within these groups tend to cause conflict, with none-too-subtle nudges towards emptying your pockets into their coffers.

Asia Osborne's direction also captures the hierarchical systems that cults use as control systems. Late in the show, various audience members are selected for promotion from green members to blue. Singling out people for special treatment has a neat psychological impact on the audience, with those chosen beginning to revel in their new status while the rest of us feel cheesed off, wondering what it was about us that made us unworthy.

The cast are also very strong. Eleanor Rushton does a hilariously awkward job of combining high-minded spiritual fulfilment with bureaucratic nudgings toward donations. But her subtly threats pale into comparison with true believers Louise Lee and Maryam Grace, who gently sheer the show towards the horror elements.

It's not all smooth sailing though. For example, there's an underdeveloped subplot about people trying to expose the cult's activities. This provides the meat for the final sequences of the show, but feels artificial in comparison to the vaguely naturalistic 'meeting' we're attending. Similarly, the ending is a slight anticlimax (though that may just be down to who was selected from the audience to appear on stage) though it's certainly a bold way of concluding a show.

A bigger problem is that CULT is an intimate show based around audience interaction and a sense of community, so staging it in the Main House in The Pleasance is a misstep. There are maybe 25-30 audience members in a theatre with a 230 seat capacity - and you really feel that empty space behind you. Plus, the stage is way too big for a show without any set to speak of and four cast members. CULT is an obvious fit for The Pleasance's Stagespace or Downstairs theatres, where closer proximity to the performers and other audience members in a smaller space would pay off dividends.

But, hey, I enjoyed myself, and CULT is a cleverly devised and thought through show. If you are wary of interacting with performers in front of an audience you can simply remove your green band to indicate you want to observe rather than participate. But I'd recommend you keep it on: there's a sense of danger running right through CULT and, just as in real life, you need to be careful you're not getting sucked in too deep.

CULT is at The Pleasance until 16th October 2019. Tickets here.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: 'Last Orders: The Haunting of the Old Red Lion' at the Old Red Lion, 10th October 2019

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

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The Old Red Lion in Islington is one of my favourite London pubs. It's friendly, has a good selection of beers, nice decor and has a cosy upstairs theatre at which I've seen many plays over the years. I also dig the history of the place: there's a mural in the pub explaining that it was founded in 1415 (though rebuilt in 1899) and that over the years many historical figures of note drank here. It was even featured in a 1736 Hogarth painting!

But a building doesn't get this old without some unpleasantness happening within its walls. Staff members report strange, unexplained noises, objects moving without explanation and there are even ghostly apparitions on the stairs. This is where The Knock Knock Club come in. 

The company recently teamed up with professional paranormal investigators to do a full supernatural audit of the building, spending a night in the building exploring each floor. Tonight they present their results in, Last Orders: The Haunting of the Old Red Lion.

The Knock Knock Club are true believer Reece Connolly, sceptic Christopher Keegan and undecided Caroline Buckley. After a quick poll of who in the audience believes in ghosts (at the London Horror Festival it seems silly to say no) we're off. 

The show is part storytelling, part lecture. So, we open with Connolly delivering a spooky story by candlelight about a terrifying incident that took place in the very room we're sitting in. Brrr. All three performers can spin a fantastic yarn, and the ones we hear tonight are suitably creepy. 

With a set composed simply of a hanging pub sign and frantic red scrawls (blood, knife and so on) on the walls, the show relies on darkness to provide the atmosphere. This works beautifully, especially later in the show when they cover up the green glowing fire escape sign in the corner. I love shows that plunge the audience into pitch darkness, and aside from some brief and dramatic flashes of light, it cranks up the volume of the tales they're telling.

Sadly the paranormal investigation side of the show is less engaging. I'm a sucker for local historical tidbits; so while I knew that Lenin and Stalin once drank at this pub, I didn't know there was a legend about Lenin attempting to hide in the dumb waiter to avoid police. But the thing is, the way the show is structured, I've got no idea if this is true or not.

Last Orders has a real problem here. Obviously as part of the London Horror Festival and a show being put on in the run-up to Halloween it's got to be spooky. If the show's conclusion was that there's actually nothing strange going on in this building at all and that ghosts aren't real, it'd be a big let down. So there's a theatrical incentive to bend the truth or, to put it less kindly, make shit up.

There are parts in the show when they tell you a story about something that happened in this pub, only to admit straight afterwards that it actually didn't happen like that. Full credit to them for honesty, but it means that you're constantly second-guessing whether what you're hearing is actual history, actual recordings from their night in the building or just something to spice up the show. 

I can understand why Last Orders is structured like this: it wants to both inform and entertain. But this is ultimately a piece of horror theatre and I wish they'd just leaned firmly towards the latter. 

Throughout the show we hear tales of mysterious noises from within the building and objects moving on their own - why not simulate this on stage at unexpected times to freak us out a bit? Hell, why not go all Ghostwatch on us and have the show turn into a genuine paranormal event that the audience is caught up in? I dunno, have someone get possessed on stage during the Ouiji board sequence or something.

As it is, Last Orders is too dry to be scary and too loose with the facts to be informative. The Knock Knock Club are all engaging and charismatic stage presences, but even they cannot disguise that the paranormal content of the show is very thin. And if you're going to exaggerate some parts, why not exaggerate all of it? 

Last Orders: The Haunting of the Old Red Lion runs until 26th October. Tickets here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Review: 'The Milkman Cometh' at The Pleasance, 8th October 2019

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

I've never liked milk. Even before I was aware of the ethical and environmental implications, milk freaked me out. I still remember being handed a miniature bottle of the stuff every day in primary school, it always smelt more rancid than the stuff you'd get in supermarkets and to get to it you had to carve through a thick plug of cream-like substance (possibly cream) with a straw. It was disgusting.

This dislike and suspicion of milk has extended into adulthood. I like my coffee black and if I have cereal it's sitting in delicious coconut milk. Even the scientific description of the milk sounds disgusting: "an emulsion of butterfat globules within a water-based fluid that contains dissolved carbohydrates and protein aggregates." Blegh.

So, when I was invited to kick off the London Horror Festival with DeadPlant Theatre's bizarre-sounding post-apocalyptic dairy comedy The Milkman Cometh, I jumped at the chance. Even if nothing else will horrify me, milk definitely will. Plus, the show had a live score by a band called 'Fuck Slurry', and if I've learned one thing over the years it's that bands with 'Fuck' in their name are almost always worth seeing.

Written by Alice Bounce, Maxwell Tyler and Owen Jenkins, the show takes place in a dairy-free future. With climate change heating up, the world's government blamed it on cows' farts - and decided to incinerate them en masse. This resulted in a gigantic conflagration that turned the world (and especially the UK) all Mad Max. Enter a Liz (Lydia Hourihan) a mysterious woman warrior. Her bike Deirdre has run out of gas in the vicinity of the mysterious village of Cud.

This proves to be just about the worst place she could have broken down. Despite cows being extinct, Cud has a steady supply of milk. It's provided by a mysterious milkman the town worships - but where can be getting this milk? Our woman warrior is about to discover the horrible truth...

Said horrible truth isn't particularly difficult to figure out, but various revelations are impressively twisted and disgusting. The whole show is satisfyingly gross actually: with the way it takes a deep dive into the concept of milk as a bodily fluid successfully turning my stomach more than once. The precise twists and turns of the narrative (which I won't spoil) mean DeadPlant Theatre easily lives up to their sick and surreal reputation.

They're also a finely honed comedy machine. The five-strong cast (Dominic Allen, James Keningale, Alice Bounce and Owen Jenkins) bounce off one another with the rhythm of people who know each other's timings perfectly. They have a collective talent for the intensely grotesque, with the team neatly capturing a The League of Gentlemen-style camp-but-still-terrifying freakshow of stooped backs, squinty eyes and hungry leers. Next to the villagers, Liz makes for a striking heroine, her body language alone making her appear alien when she's in their midset.

And yeah, Fuck Slurry were awesome. I think most plays would be improved by having a beardy metal band at the rear of the stage. Purposefully silly and surreal comedy like this often comes across as affected, but the metal soundtrack provides much-needed grit and texture. It adds to the post-apocalyptic griminess of the piece and sounds great to boot.

The Milkman Cometh also has brevity on its side. It's just an hour long and is all killer no filler. The plot trots along at a quick pace, Katherine Timms' direction is precise and clear, there isn't a redundant minute and every single character is deftly sketched out. I had a whale of a time, with a big smile plastered over my face for most of the show and pursed lips at some of the more genuinely gross-out moments. 

I just hope that was water I was sprayed with as the lights went out at the end...

The Milkman Cometh is at The Pleasance until 10th October 2019. Tickets here.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Review: 'We Anchor In Hope' at The Bunker, 3rd October 2019

Friday, October 4, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The traditional pub is an endangered species. The price of alcoholic drinks are rising, meaning many prefer to take advantage of supermarket deals and drink at home. Beer Duty in the UK is one of the highest in Europe, with campaigners Long Live the Local explaining that one in every three pounds spent in a pub goes to HMRC. All that, in combination with rising rents, the prime location of many pubs and lack of building space in London mean it's no real surprise that many are torn down to make way for luxury flats.

Anna Jordan's We Anchor In Hope takes place during the final night of The Anchor, a Pimlico pub. Attending the wake are landlord Kenny (Valentine Hanson), bar staff Pearl and Bilbo (Alex Jarrett and Daniel Kendrick) and regulars Shaun and Frank (Alan Turkington and David Killick).

The wild party for the pub's closure came last night, with the pub flickering to life one last time to bedraggled party streamer festooning the floor, dirty glasses on the tables and dry taps (the one remaining beer on tap is.. ew.. Fosters). Over the course of a long boozy night, secrets are revealed and lies are exposed. It's the end of a chapter in these characters' lives, and who knows what's coming next?

Despite an energetic Madness-soundtracked opening, We Anchor In Hope starts slow. Everyone is hungover, things are wrapping up and the majority of the conversations are wistful small talk between old friends. I will admit, at least in the early stages of the play it felt directionless and banal.

But this establishment of normalcy proves crucial, providing a solid foundation for some seriously impressive characterisation. All too soon you're drawn into these people's lives, feeling their pain, fear and sense of dislocation in time. You couldn't slip a Rizla between the cast when it came to picking the best, but these are all performers on top of their game.

Throughout the play, there's a melancholy sense of time passing, with near-constant musings on past romantic regrets, the transitory nature of youth and a growing awareness of your mortality. The programme explains that Jordan wrote the play two months after her mother died - and it certainly feels like the product of someone in mourning.

We Anchor In Hope isn't a downer play. It comes from a sad place, but most of the dialogue and interactions are upbeat and the story is told through a half-jokey friendly back-and-forth established over years of shared history. These are characters who know (or feel like they know) one another - able to throw out an injoke or an insult and know how it'll be received. The flipside, of course, is that they all know each other's emotional weak points.

And so, by the second act, once everyone is locked in, properly plastered and the firewater has come out, the drama rapidly accelerates. By this point you feel a kinship with these people, making it immensely powerful and moving when they begin to turn against one another. I noted that the woman sat next to me actually had to cover her eyes during one particularly intense sequence - that's got to be a sign that a play is doing something very right.

All that takes place in an absolutely wonderful set. The Bunker has become a pub, recreated down to the smallest detail. You can even go up to the bar before the play and during the interval and buy a pint. I wouldn't be surprised if the fittings on stage come from an actual pub - if not then Zoë Hurwitz has done an unbelievably good job of giving them the scuffs and scrapes that bar furniture develops over years of use.

I'm a sucker for a detailed naturalistic set (fringe theatre understandably tends towards minimalism) and this delivers in spades. Even the tang of the pub carpet seems to have been recreated. My only small regret is that there's limited space to actually set at the pub tables: I would have loved to have seen the traditional theatre seating removed completely and pub tables and chairs put in for everyone, but I suppose there are practical considerations at play.

So yeah, We Anchor In Hope is a model piece of theatre. It looks great, is performed beautifully and is incredibly intelligent without even a smidge of pretension. My kinda show.

We Anchor In Hope is at The Bunker until 19th October. Tickets here.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review: 'Red Palace' at the Vaults, 2nd October 2019

Thursday, October 3, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The chips are stacked in Red Palace's favour. An immersive fairytale inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death? Taking place in the subterranean vaults underneath Waterloo station? And it comes with dinner? If I were trying to sell the show to myself I'd just end the review right here.

But I won't, because I'd like to encourage you to go to Red Palace. It's really quite something. Staged by Shotgun Carousel, you attend a masquerade ball at the invitation of a sinister and egotistical Prince's. You soon learn that there is a dark prophecy scheduled to come true that very night. With that in mind, you explore the tunnels and caverns of The Vaults, encountering twisted versions of classic fairytales in surreal environments (this is the best I've ever seen The Vaults look).

There's also the option of a £50 VIP ticket that includes a pre-show dinner. Considering a regular ticket is £25, a further £25 for a three-course dinner is a pretty good deal. I'm no restaurant critic, but the food was delicious and the portions were generous. The menu caters for vegetarians and vegans, and you get a little pre-show interaction with some of the cast.

That leads directly to the show itself. After a short atmospheric introduction to the evening, you're left to explore. What you find are a series of 15-20 minute vignettes: you might sit down at a table with Baba Yaga and have your palm read, see a lascivious mermaid make filthy double-entendres or explore the deep, dark woods with Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. I think I saw most of what was on offer, but the show insists that "curiosity is rewarded", so I'm sure I missed some stuff. 

A warning though: each performance featured direct interaction with the audience. This can range from some mild teasing to being called up on stage and asked what to perform "your party trick". In one room you're invited to play truth or dare, the dare was being asked to breakdance in front of the whole audience - I was intensely relieved I hadn't volunteered.

This means that Red Palace, with its encouragement for the audience to remain glamorous, witty and fancy-free maybe isn't the best show for the shy. At any time you can be accosted by a predatory performer begging you to tell them a secret, or giving you a flirty grilling about your job. Theoretically, the masks should help, but by the mid-way point, many had removed theirs (I'd removed mine because it didn't play well with my glasses).

The performers for each role rotates on each performance. From my perspective, this feels a shame because each was so good on the night I attended that I can't imagine anyone else in the role. Highlights were Emily Essery's Red (whose piercing gaze is intensely intimidating), Steffi Walker's hilariously horny mermaid and Alice Morgan-Richards' fun n' bubbly Snow. 

Red Palace isn't particularly shy about revealing its feminist qualities (I mean, there's a big hint in the title). The cast is composed of female-identifying and queer performers, the narrative revolves around revenge for wronged women and each individual performance highlights some aspect of femininity. 

This feeds into the impressively detailed set design and the venue itself. I'm paging Dr Freud, but the yonic qualities of the Vaults' damp, dark underground spaces feel intentionally amplified to fever-pitch. Shotgun Carousel have created a triumphantly feminine world in this place - and it's no surprise when the show concludes with Beyoncé's Run The World (Girls).

My one real criticism is that the finale is a bit of an anticlimax. Essentially you're told what's going to happen... and then it happens. The night has been building up whether the prophecy is going to be fulfilled, but then it's all wrapped up in a couple of minutes and the narrative just sort of comes to an end. It's nowhere near enough to spoil the show, but after so much anticipation it's a shame to end things on a flat note.

Red Palace is set to run until early January, so I'm sure by then the show will have evolved a bit and the few rough edges will be smoothed out. Until then I suspect that word of mouth is going to make this a top attraction for those with adventurous theatrical tastes. 

Red Palace is at The Vaults until 12th January. Tickets and info here.

Photos by Nic Kane Photography.

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