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Thursday, February 21, 2019

Review: 'April' at VAULT Festival, 20th February 2019

Thursday, February 21, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Unburied reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

Carrie Marx kicks ass. Over the years I've seen her both perform in and devise a whole bunch of great theatre, from Death Ship 666 way back in 2013, the epic Cosmic Trigger and last year's incredibly cool and spooky Unburied. She has a fantastic stage presence, has a rare understanding of horror and is super into arcane countercultural philosophy. 

Reviewing April is a tricky proposition as there is a big change of mood at one point. I can't not write about it, but if you want to go in blind (which I very much recommend) just be assured that it's amazing and read the rest of the review later.

Anyway, for the most part April behaves like a comedy show, poking fun at egocentric self-help gurus and teeth-grindingly annoying positive thinking vloggers. But these laughs are the velvet sheath around a particularly jagged and nasty blade. Marx is an expert in horror, but despite laughing more during this show than I do at most comedies, April is easily the scariest show I've seen since uh, Unburied.

April would be great even if it was just what it bills itself as. Marx somehow both satirises and makes a decent case for the power of 'positive thinking', smartly weaving fuzzy mainstream self-help techniques with punk occultism. This is carried forward in her demeanour and aesthetic: the blindingly white dress, jet-black wig and beatific smile making her look half Goop aficionado and half cult leader.

Part of the show consists of the audience writing down their problems and putting them into a box, with random ones being drawn out and 'solved' by April. Somewhat predictably mine was one of the ones picked (I dunno why I keep ending up on the stage of shows I'm reviewing but hey-o), so I ended up standing opposite her gazing into her bottomless eyes. I felt like a deer staring down an 18-wheeler as she interrogated me, a process which ending with her angrily ordering me out of the room (fortunately I was allowed back in).

Then there's the jaw-dropping video sequence in which she talks about God's position on unbelievers. This is a five-minute monologue performed (as far as I could tell) without blinking in which April tells an increasingly nightmarish and surreal story about how God deals with non-believers. It contains some truly bonkers/horrible imagery that later invaded my dreams and made for a restless night's sleep.

Marx gradually transitions from poking fun at dippy YouTube personalities into a genuinely scary cult leader - which leads the show down a darkly funny path. Along the way she succinctly and accurately sets out the principles of chaos magick, which she paints as a postmodern ritualistic tool that allows individuals to bend the universe to their will. The highlight of her lesson is the initially ridiculous observation that Noel Edmonds is one of the most important mystical thinkers of the modern age and that Mr Blobby is a demon conjured by him that outgrew his master. This gets some of the biggest laughs of the show... but she's right.

But then comes the gut punch. What April is actually about is (spoilers) the subarachnoid brain haemorrhage that Marx suffered soon after I saw her in Unburied last year. This has seriously damaged her short term memory, which would be intensely frustrating for anyone, let alone a professional performer. Worse, her neurologists say there are no signs of recovery and they cannot predict whether things will ever improve for her. Seeing her talk about this as Carrie Marx rather than 'April' is absolutely devastating (to the point of the woman sat next to me beginning to weep).

The revelation throws the rest of the show into context. The 'positive thinking' that April preaches is what well-meaning people have encouraged her to do - but I know full well that you cannot simply positively think your way out of horribleness. Chaos magick is perhaps more useful, its framework of personalised ritual and symbology at least a way to zero in on what you want to achieve and how to do it. But the sense is that these are waves crashing against a granite cliff - the philosophically subjective unable to overcome the physiologically objective. And that, beyond what Marx has achieved before, is true horror.

April is one hell of a piece of theatre. That Marx devised and performs this while suffering from neurological damage is impressive in a way that word doesn't quite cover. Huge kudos must also go to her Hermetic Arts partner Chris Lincé, who directed and was responsible for the excellent video design. 

Right now this is my pick of the festival, and I don't see it being knocked off that perch anytime soon. I will treasure my amethyst for a long while yet and I can't wait to see what Hermetic Arts does next. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Carrie Marx kicks ass.

April is at VAULT Festival until 24th February. Tickets here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review: 'Timpson: The Musical' at the King's Head Theatre, 19th February 2019

Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

"A musical about Timpson? The shoe-repairer / key-cutter / sign-maker / trophy-engraver?" I confirmed for Timpson: The Musical immediately - I had to find out what the hell this show was about. My first guess was that it was about the founding of the titular company, but a quick glance through their Wikipedia page didn't exactly suggest high drama (it was founded in 1865 by shoemaker William Timpson and his brother-in-law, apparently without incident).

What Gigglemug Theatre's show actually is is a very silly parody of Romeo + Juliet. So we have two households (the Keypulets and the Montashoes), who are both alike in dignity (as in neither of them have much of it), in fair Victorian London, where we lay our scene. The families have been feuding ever since a confrontation at the 'Invention Convention' many years ago, when Master Keypulet's (James Richardson) idea of "tiny saws" only managed an honourable mention.

But wouldn't you know it - love begins to blossom between the children of these warring households. Keeleigh (Sabrina Messer) and Monty (Maddie Gray) feel an instant connection to one another, with his key apparently destined to fit snugly into her lock. What follows is a loose-limbed and adorably scrappy love story that never takes itself remotely seriously.

Putting on an intentionally unpolished production is risky business. For one, you're reliant on the charisma and comedic skills of your actors - nothing kills a show stone-dead more than the sense that those on stage are having a great time while the audience isn't. For another, it's very easy for a show to cross the thin line between "adorably scrappy" and just plain bad.

Timpson: The Musical is never in danger of that happening. The uniformly talented cast are all insanely likeable (I particularly liked Rachael Chomer's Lady Montashoe), with some of the best moments of the night coming when they can't help but break character and feebly suppress their giggles at what the rest of the cast is up to. They're aided by an onslaught of reliably funny one-liners and running gags that don't outstay their welcome, all aided by a brief n' breezy 65-minute running time.

And then there are the songs. This show won't be winning any prizes for lyrical complexity or virtuoso vocals, but they're peppered with grin-inducing rhymes and delivered with so much personality that the occasional flat note is immediately forgiven. My favourites were the very entertaining Gotta Get Up When They Knock You Down and the even-more-hilarious-in-hindsight It's A Tingle.

If I really wanted to I could probably pick some holes in this show, but I don't. Gigglemug Theatre set out to create a very, very silly musical with its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek and they have objectively succeeded. In reviewing any comedy I apply the five laughs test: if it doesn't make me laugh out loud at least five times it's failed. Timpson: The Musical had me throatily guffawing from minute one - I may have even slapped my knee. 

What more recommendation do you need?

Timpson: The Musical is at the King's Head Theatre until 27 February. Tickets here.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review: 'The Half Moon Shania' at Vault Festival, 6th February 2019

Thursday, February 7, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Shampoo are one of the most underrated bands of the 1990s. Best known for their 1994 hit Trouble, the band (Jacqui and Carrie) began as a Manic Street Preachers fan club and made up for a lack of musical ability with buckets of attitude. Sceptical? Check out their absolutely incredible video for second single Bouffant Headbutt and get back to me. So why am I talking about a largely forgotten 1990s pop-punk duo?

Well, because the G-Stringz reminded me of them as soon as I walked into the theatre (and especially when they began teasing me for sitting in the front row). The G-Stringz are Kerry (writer Cara Baldwin), Lola (Freya Parks) and Jill (Catherine Davies), the spiky teenage punks of Burnt Lemon Theatre's The Half Moon Shania.

The year is 1999 and we are in The Half Moon pub attending the make or break gig for the band.  The G-Stringz are sixth form pupils with dreams of stardom, dreams which might be realised if the talent scout from Diamond Records that's in attendance likes the show. They open with a slightly rickety punk cover of Man, I Feel Like A Woman, with their practised snarls and guitar moves papering over any bum notes.

As the gig proceeds, the songs are interspersed with vignettes through which we see how the three met, their thoughts on musical success and, for one of them, the decision on whether to accept a place in university or not. Their problems might be small and domestic, but the writing captures the way small things often seem like life and death when you're in adolescence.

I was pretty certain I was going to enjoy The Half Moon Shania from the moment I stepped into the room. I've been a huge fan of female-fronted punk for as long as I can remember: nursing a burning admiration not just for 90s pop-punk pioneers like Shampoo but for classic punk and riot grrl bands like X-Ray Spex, The Slits, Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Why do I like them so much? Well, they're hugely important culturally and politically but mainly it's because women who don't give a single fuck screaming into a microphone to killer riffs are awesome.

But The Half Moon Shania isn't just surface level cool. The trio's onstage punk rock bluster is gradually revealed as an attempt to conceal their own vulnerability and lack of agency. After all, despite their aggressively independent image, they are hoping this gig will impress a talent scout (who they assume is a man). It introduces an awkward but interesting dissonance to the show, the band playing under an implicit male gaze and offering up their feminist rebellion for commodification by powerful men.

Late in the show, the danger of unaccountable men in positions of power and the vulnerability of the characters becomes explicit - and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the subtext rapidly becoming text in the final moments. Here the show heads into some pretty serious territory and then doesn't have the time to explore the consequences - ending on a frustrating and ambiguous note. But then maybe that's the point.

While I'm being a teeny bit critical, I also think the staging leaves a little bit to be desired. While the thrust staging allows the actors to transition from performing a gig on stage to 'real-life' on the ground, it also divides the audience into blocks and prevents any communal excitement building. Perhaps it was just the audience I was with, but I've been to a lot of punk gigs and I would have killed for a bit of the sweaty chaos you find there. The show is only 50 minutes long - why not have the audience stand as if this was actually a gig?

But realistically there was no way I wasn't going to enjoy The Half Moon Shania. It hits so many of my cultural touchstones that I was won even before I took my seat. The three actors are great and the show has an appropriately ragged DIY edge to it that captures the thrill and freedom of punk. Recommended.

The Half Moon Shania is at VAULT Festival until 10 Feb. Tickets and times here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Review: 'The Cult Of K*NZO' at Camden People's Theatre, 5th February 2019

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

When Paula Varjack explains that she was waiting at 4am on a November morning outside Westfield Shopping Centre to be one of the first to get into H&M, I felt a combination of pity and confusion. I neither care about nor understand fashion; it's as relevant to my life as what's happening on the surface of Mars. But I am ready to learn.

The backbone of The Cult of K*NZO is high-end fashion label KENZO's 2016 collaboration with high street retailer H&M. This was the latest in a series of this type of collaboration, with previous launches descending into chaos as shoppers swarmed through the shop and fought each other for whatever clothes remained. 

These memories are why Varjack was there so easy - even though that day was also the day of her book launch when she should really be getting some rest. The show uses the KENZO/H&M launch as a fulcrum to delve into the power of brand names. It quickly becomes apparent that the "cult" in the title isn't there for laughs, the show treats Prada, Dior, Chanel and Gucci as if they're ancient Gods that must be paid homage to.

The most crushingly depressing part of the show comes in a series of confessional moments when Varjack explains how intimidated she feels even looking in the window of a Dior shop in London. Later she dresses up (the outfit is of course very carefully chosen), in the hopes of passing herself off as a "rich bitch" that might just be able to afford something here. Once inside, she apes another shopper, fantasising about being like her.

Behaviour like this is part of why the world is such a shit place for so many. One of the best bits of bamboozling ever conducted by the wealthy and ruling class is convincing us that, if we just tried hard enough, we can be like them. But odds are ridiculously stacked against us. We are not future Dior customers. We are far, far more likely to end up sleeping on a cardboard box as Dior customers step over us.

Idolising these customers, the labels and their products contributes to the worship of wealth, which leads people to consider themselves 'temporarily embarrassed millionaires' who will vote in the droves for political parties that will lower tax rates on the wealthiest and cut away society's safety net. Sure, Dior et al are merely symptoms of the disease, but their existence is a reminder of the gross societal inequality that must soon be excised.

This process is quite neatly encapsulated in the way Varjack summarises her experience with KENZO/H&M. She can't afford a genuine KENZO dress, but the cross-promotion with a high street retailer means that she can get a taste of what it is like to be wealthy. And, for a brief moment, she does. For what it's worth the dress at the core of the show is beautiful and looks great on her.

Once we've admired it, there follows a fantastic coda in which she returns to H&M on Black Friday to discover that not only has the KENZO/H&M range not sold out, but that they're now actually discounting it. To a background of an expanding collage of Instagrammers all wearing the same 'unique' dress, we understand that she has been lied to. Sure, the dress is pretty, but its value as a commodity isn't just in its design: it's in its exclusivity, the way it summarises you as an individual and the way you shivered to get hold of it. The marketing team knew all this, went out looking for suckers and found you.

I really, really enjoyed The Cult of K*NZO. It does a great job of showing how people feel an indefinable void in their lives and how capitalism has taught them that the best way to squash that feeling is by consumption. The brands tease an unattainable paradise that's as much a fiction as anything L. Ron Hubbard could cook up. It makes a very convincing argument of fashion being a secular religion with its own gods, priests and rituals, and full of intensely symbolic totems whose worth is entirely divorced from the raw materials they're composed of.

It's a cracker of a show and I've already been sending people on their way to see it. Whether you're clueless about fashion or absolutely committed to it, Varjack will give you a hell of a lot to think about.

The Cult of K*NZO is at Camden People's Theatre until 9th February, then on tour. Details and tickets here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Review: 'Cuzco' at Theatre503, 28th January 2019

Tuesday, January 29, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Colonialism leaves an ugly scar. Peru was once home to the powerful Inca Empire, but the 16th century saw the arrival of Spanish conquistadors who invaded, murdered their way through the indigenous peoples and began extracting as much of value from the country as they could. Present-Day Peru is still affected by this crime - in language, architecture, politics and culture.

Victor Sánchez Rodriguez' play Cuzco (translated by William Gregory) tries to map out what colonialism means for contemporary Peru. His vehicle for this is two Spanish tourists, "She" (Dilek Rose) and "He" (Gareth Kieran Jones). They're on a pretty typical Peruvian backpacking holiday, hoping to explore the Ince Trail, eat some nice food, drink some beers and visit Machu Picchu.

What actually happens is their already wobbly relationship falls apart - its faultlines widening under the pressure of being in an alien culture and their postcolonial guilt. She holes up in series of identikit hotel rooms and battles altitude sickness while walking the streets alone. He makes friends with a swinging couple and slowly socially excludes her. They bicker, and gets worse the further they travel.

Though the action stays confined to hotel rooms, the dialogue effectively paints a picture of the world outside, particularly in the experiences of "Her". She is received by regular Peruvians as just another tourist - having a baby llama shoved into her hands for a photo op, being coerced into paying for a relaxing massage, or given a hard sell on bottles of water. She had assumed that Spain and Peru's shared language and various bits of culture would make her feel at home - but quickly realises that these surface similarities make the profound differences much more pronounced.

When the play is dealing with their impressions of Peru it's at its best, but sadly the relationship drama doesn't hold up quite as well. Perhaps something has been lost in translation, but their arguments are often clunkily written, with the actors doing their best with dialogue that probably works well in Spanish but less so in English. In particular, there's a mini-monologue by "He" late in the play in which he seeks to prove he too has an artistic soul. I'll give the play the benefit of the doubt that it's a creative choice to have him deliver a word salad of tortured similes, but either way, it looks a pain to perform.

Also, while I respect the play's willingness to engage with the long-term consequences of colonialism (a topic still generally swept under the rug in the UK), Cuzco still ends up being the story of a wealthy foreigner on a voyage of self-discovery through someone else's poverty. There are no Peruvian characters on stage, which makes them feel at best an abstraction and at worst a prop by which the female protagonist comes to terms with herself. 

It leaves Cuzco as an interesting play with several interesting moments and an intelligent sense of the weight of history, but one that gradually loses itself in melodrama. My brain was engaged, but I never genuinely cared about either of these characters. Eventually, their shared plight becomes tedious and by the time we get to the somewhat confusing ending I was checked out.

Cuzco is at Theatre503 until 16 February. Tickets here.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Review: 'No Show' at the Soho Theatre, 24th January 2019

Friday, January 25, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Life as a professional circus performer doesn't sound much fun. 

Learning the skills is intense, painful and (I'm guessing) expensive. Relying on your body for your livelihood means that you must constantly train and watch your diet. An injury can permanently scupper your career. The pay is variable and generally not great. Then there's the simple fact that the nature of what you're doing comes with a baked in age limit - and there are always younger, fitter, bendier, injury-free people entering the industry. On top of that, as we learn with No Show, the circus industry treats women really shittily.

So why do people do it? Is that gasp you get from an audience as you spiral gracefully through the air worth all the misery? Creator/director Ellie Dubois and performers Francesca Hyde, Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Camille Toyer and Alice Gilmartin set out to deconstruct the traditional circus show, showing us the psychological and physical pressures behind the sequins and vaseline smiles.

In a way, the audience gets to have their cake and eat it. Not only do we get to see physical feats of strength, balance, flexibility and endurance, but we also learn about what's going on in the performer's mind as they do so.

Early on we get a statement of intent from the show in the form of a Cyr wheel routine from Camille Toyer. I've seen a bunch of these over the years and familiarity with this act has made me a little blase. Much of that was swept away here, as Kate McWilliam gives a running commentary on the potential injuries that can be caused: with the performer risking crushed fingers and toes, broken bones or a fractured skull. Explicitly outlining the physical dangers is a blunt way of cranking up the tension - but it works.

No Show really hits its stride when it gets into the way women are treated within the industry. McWilliam delivers a short speech outlining her career, explaining that while she prefers to do tumbling and gymnastics there is a constant pressure for women to do 'dainty and feminine' routines that emphasise their fragility.

Then you have Alice Gilmartin's repeated efforts to introduce herself to the audience - she generally only gets a few words in before the microphone is snatched from her hands and she's forced into a handstand on the canes. The other women provide a running commentary as she does so: criticising her poise, lack of engagement with the audience, make comments like "she's got her legs open as usual" and generally demean her. You realise that while it's all rictus grins on stage, there's an awful lot of misery going on in rehearsals.

As a show conceived and performed by women, No Show is something of an anomaly in the circus world. Generally, acrobatics and circus shows are mixed sex affairs, with beefy men launching skinny women high into the air. I'd unthinkingly accepted this as just the way things were, but Dubois and the performers gave me a lot to think about. 

It strikes me that (in much the same way as other corners of the entertainment industry) your professional career is at the mercy of powerful men with carte blanche to decide the nature of your routine. If that means you're being sent out in a skimpy Barbie-doll costume to grin and twirl before a leering audience, then that's the nature of the game honey, and you'd best get used to it if you know what's good for you.

Learning all this makes the most satisfying moment of the performance one of the most low key: the performers sit on the ground next to one another and silently eat a jam doughnut. It's a funny, dignified and weirdly moving protest, grabbing back a smidge of autonomy in an industry designed to stamp that out. 

No Show doesn't provide jaw-dropping stunts you can't see anywhere else, but it has a political dimension that no other circus show even attempts to provide. Check it out.

No Show is at the Soho Theatre until 9th February. Tickets here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: 'Original Death Rabbit' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 22nd January 2018

Wednesday, January 23, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

"The Internet Makes You Stupid" is the slogan of 1990s era humour site Back when they coined it, the idea was ridiculous. After all, the early online evangelists explained that the world wide web; would make the entirety of human knowledge accessible to everyone. This democratisation would inevitably cause society to move beyond petty ideologies and onward to a utopia of well-informed 'netizens' with a solid grasp on reality.

What the internet actually turned out to be was a fucked up mental bondage machine designed to reinforce prejudices, calcify bizarre beliefs and imprison us within echo chambers that distort the real world while mysterious algorithms try and figure out what we want to buy next. 

Rose Heiney's Original Death Rabbit gets under the skin of our dystopia, condensing the various online eras through a monologue delivered by an unnamed protagonist (played by Kimberley Nixon - who for the sake of disclosure I know personally). 

In the pre-social media 2000s, this character became a meme after inadvertently crashing a funeral while wearing a fuzzy pink bunny onesie. She explains how her photograph launched a tasteless fad of 'death rabbiting', culminating in her being doorstepped by reporters and exposed to merciless online critics who quickly deemed her an "ugly cunt". But by the time Twitter launches, her notoriety mutates into minor online celebrity and sends her spiralling down into social media addiction, anonymous trolling and a desperate need for validation.

Original Death Rabbit covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes: making time for lengthy discussion of Richard Curtis movies; whether it's possible to separate Philip Larkin's sexism and racism from his poetry; the nature of class and racial privilege; exploiting friends and family's lives for creative work; and, building up to a crescendo towards the end, the difficulties of talking about mental health.

As is repeatedly acknowledged in the play, "Mental health is a really difficult issue". It is, and Heiney treats it with empathy overlaid with a deft wit. We hear how the protagonist's father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his 50s, and we see in the behaviour of Nixon's character how it may be hereditary. One of my favourite things in the play is the chicken/egg conundrum between mental health and the internet: does being extremely online exacerbate (or cause) mental health problems, or do mental health problems cause people to retreat to a virtual existence?

There aren't easy answers to questions like these and Original Death Rabbit rightly doesn't attempt to provide them. What it does do is get under the skin of online life: exploring the layers of pseudonyms and characters people interact as, the endorphin rush of having a bona fide celebrity reply to you, the way that real life gently morphs into a series of potential Instagram opportunities and the rush of being able to tell someone you despise to just fucking kill yourself already jeez.

The early internet utopians never saw the Skinner box of social media and algorithm-driven content coming, but if they could have known how much future generations would be infested with brainworms I bet they'd have taken a crowbar to the ARPANET servers, Skynet-style. Or, as the play puts it,
"Thank you, Tim Berners Lee. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I bow down to you the way a dying alcoholic bows down to whoever the fuck first left grapes in a bottle too long."
So yeah, I really liked Original Death Rabbit. It's smart, funny, touching - and genuinely understands the history and culture of the internet in a way that most theatre doesn't. On top of that, Louie Whitmore's set is impressively detailed and allows you to get to know the character before she's set foot on stage. Plus, Kimberley Nixon is great - and I promise I'd say that even if didn't know her.

Watching the play you get to thinking about all the weirdo online shut-ins who spend their days endlessly shitposting. What would their lives have been like if they weren't getting their validation from numbers ticking up on a website? Did so many people hate so much before there was an online void to project their hate into? Let's face it, the internet was a mistake.

Original Death Rabbit is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 9th February. Tickets here.

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