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Friday, November 19, 2021

Review: Outside at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, 18 November 2021

Friday, November 19, 2021 - by londoncitynights · - 1 Comment

Outside reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Broken people and bad times are my kinda theatre, and in Outside writer/director/actor Gabrielle MacPherson serves up a positively bulging smorgasbord of misery, violence, revenge and despair. I don’t know why I’m so attracted to stories like these, but give me something gloomy anyway over some saccharine musical.

We spend an hour in the company of Willa, a young woman apparently sorting through the detritus of her parents’ lives. She’s surrounded by cardboard boxes stuffed with documents: love letters sent by her philandering father, business receipts from her mum and, something deep inside, a document that could save her life.

As you’d expect from a play advertised with the main character’s face spattered with blood, Willa’s story isn’t all sunshine and roses. The monologue slowly gives us pieces that make up the sad jigsaw of her life: physical and mental abuse, visits from social workers, moving towns to avoid too much attention, and any thoughts of liberation squashed by being told what’s out there is worse.

It all adds up to a jagged character who tumbles between various emotions, as if she’s never learned the right social cues on how to behave. The piece is full of dark little vignettes, the creepiest of which comes when she adopts a kitten. The “spiky little thing” becomes sick and Willa casually dumps its unconscious body in the bin, so as to hide the fact she had a kitten. Her treatment of it is a subconscious echo of what we gather has been done to her and it sent shivers up my spine.

The reality of what's happening now is a mystery for most of the play (or it was to me at least), but if you’ve seen stories like this before you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what's bubbling just under the surface.

MacPherson’s writing puts an admirable amount of trust in the audience, giving us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow through the story and having confidence that we’re able to assemble into a coherent whole. This kind of thing is harder than it looks, so it’s a testament to her skill that it all feels so natural.

It’s also performed beautifully and proved my maxim that the only place to sit in fringe theatre is in the front row. That gives you the chance to interact with the performer - and MacPherson frequently made eye contact with me, helping both raise the tension and drag me into her world.

I gather that Outside had its first performances during lockdown over live-stream. While those reviews seem to be positive the show reminded me of the importance of being present during a performance. In person there’s no getting distracted by playing with your phone, no connection issues or audience glitches, and comfort from your familiar surroundings.

But Outside really benefits from being seen in person, as being locked in with Willa was quite a ride. 

Outside is at the Rosemary Branch until 20 November. Tickets here.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Review: Not Lady Chatterley's Lover at the Greenwich Theatre, 1st November 2021

Tuesday, November 2, 2021 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Not Lady Chatterley's Lover reviewed by David James
Rating: 1 Stars

There's a brand of bourgeois British comedy that I find as fun as having needles jammed under my fingernails. Think Radio 4 on a Sunday afternoon, a 7pm ITV sitcom, or Carry On. Happy Idiot's Not Lady Chatterley's Lover lands squarely in this territory and about five minutes in I realized with a doom-like curl of dread the nightmare I'd signed up for.

The show parodies D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, more famous for the 1960 obscenity trial than its merits as a piece of literature. Lawrence's book skewers British class, centering on the intense sexual relationship between Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper Mellors. All that comes alongside a then-progressive view of sexuality, frank descriptions of sex acts, and a gradual dismantling of the idea that fucking is something to ashamed of.

Not Lady Chatterley's Lover clearly disagrees, sticking to the British default of being incapable of talking with sex without resorting to tired innuendo and double entendres. It's 2021 for god's sake, we should be able to talk about sex without stammering out vaguely transphobic jokes about men in fishnet stockings. The inability to deal with this is eventually proven when they quote Lawrence directly, then smirk and toss the book off stage, dismissing the explicit dialogue as "weird". 

Perhaps I'm taking a goofy comedy too seriously, but it's not like we're inundated with stage adaptations of Lady Chatterley's Lover and - despite being smothered by inane gags - the skeleton of Lawrence's story is still compelling. But that factor results in constant friction between the source material and the comedy.

Most obvious are the continual gags about people with disabilities. The inciting incident for the book Lord Chatterley has been injured in World War I and is now paralysed from the waist down. This is naturally a source of continual gags at the expense of people in wheelchairs, with particular hilarity drawn from the fact that he's now also impotent. 

To be fair, this did lead to the single funniest aspect of the evening: that there was a guy from the Royal Legion selling poppies in the theatre lobby. I wonder what he'd have made of the well-to-do Greenwich crowd chortling away at the antics of the traumatised veteran and his ruined marriage.

I don't really have much more to say because the experience just made me kinda sad about what can pass for comedy. For the sake of honesty I should say that most of the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, so this crap obviously appeals to someone. 

The most positive thing about the night was reaching the interval and discovering - to my intense relief - that my girlfriend hated it just as much as I did. Having a press ticket means I'm dutybound to stick around until the final curtain, but she got to duck out and go home early. Still, if nothing else this was a great sense of humour litmus test: if she'd been guffawing alongside the hogs in that theatre it'd have been time to reconsider the relationship.

So yeah, total shite. Avoid.

Not Lady Chatterley's Lover is now on tour. Tickets here etc etc.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Review: iMelania, 13th October 2021

Thursday, October 14, 2021 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

iMelania reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

First thoughts were that a play about Melania Trump might have missed the bus. After all, with Joe Biden in the White House and a whole new set of problems tearing the world apart, who has the time for a former First Lady who was often invisible even when her husband was the leader of the free world?

But iMelania acknowledges and incorporates its subject's absence to make a smart and concise statement on identity. At the core is the paradox of Melania Trump: an immigrant married to a man defined by his anti-immigration policies. 

The show nails why she's intriguing and frustrating, with her actual pronouncements and interviews so anodyne you can't help but try and figure out what she's *really* thinking. What does the smiling vanishing from her face the nanosecond her husband turns away mean? Is she really rolling her eyes as he speaks? Why in god's holy name did she wear a coat with "I really don't care, do u" on it during a trip intended to show the opposite?

Varjack-Lowry dig through these mixed messages in a smartly produced online show that takes place over two screens. This isn't complicated: the performance consists of two streaming videos played in sync that simulate WhatsApp conversations and a laptop desktop. It's technologically straightforward but neatly simulates the way most of us consume current affairs.

The early segments recapping Melania's greatest hits are entertaining enough, especially in how they highlight the way the Trump presidency is rapidly curdling into nostalgia, but the show properly comes to life when it gets personal.

The focus on nationality and identity is refracted through Brexit, with both Varjack and Lowry ruminating on how their legal nationalities map onto their personal identities. There's a cruel precision to some of this: with the most moving part the keenly felt injustice of missing out on an Italian passport because you were born two months after the 1992 cut-off date.

The longer the show goes on the more Melania looks like a perversely good mirror for the immigrant experience, particularly the way she juggles contradictory identities. For instance, when Varjack and Lowry discuss the struggle of being legally considered something you're not it's easy to map that onto footage of Melania being praised by right-wing media as the epitome of the All-American woman.

The show ends on an anticlimax, though that's not Varjack-Lowry's fault. iMelania was supposed to have been staged in summer 2020 when it seemed all too plausible that its subject would have stayed in the limelight for another four years. But COVID got in the way, though in a strange way it's appropriate that Melania has apparently vanished off the face of the Earth since being booted out of the White House. 

Trying to nail her down is like trying to grasp onto a fistful of sand. There's no personality except for a vague cattiness and no politics except a very muted echo of her husband's fury. By the time the virtual curtain dropped I'd started to see her as a human Rorschach test, an outline to be coloured in as you see fit. Hell, maybe there never really was a Melania Trump and we all collectively imagined her into existence.

With COVID now (hopefully) receding into the distance and theatres re-opening these innovative online performances may start to vanish. But it'd be a shame if they disappeared completely as iMelania proves how powerful digital theater can be.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Review: 'Going Ape' at the Union Theatre, 29 June 2021

Friday, July 2, 2021 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Bad Nights and Odd Days reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

As the lockdowns lift and theatres open their creaking doors, dust down their stages, and warm up the lights, it's forgivable that there's a hell of a lot of plays on the way about COVID. After all, Britain's playwrights and actors have been deprived of an audience for far too long and their job is to process the last 18 months through drama. 

But in the midst of all that soul-searching and societal psychoanalysis, there's got to be room for shows that just want to have some goofy fun. Enter Andrew Corbet Burcher's Going Ape.

Set a few hundred years after Adam and Eve (Siôn Lloyd and Melanie La Barrie) were booted out of the Garden of Eden, we find them as a bickering married couple awaiting a visit from Cain (Gabriel Vick). He arrives with his new girlfriend Lucy (Laura Tyrer) in tow, an Australopithecus with plans for personal evolution. They're soon joined by new brother Seth (Henry Collie), a budding musician canoodling with his girlfriend Genevieve (Anabel Kutay).

Siôn Lloyd and Melanie La Barrie as Adam and Eve

At times Going Ape feels like a sitcom pilot, each character is broadly drawn and nothing is taken seriously. Lloyd channels Fred Flintstone via Jim Royle for his Adam, behaving as the classic put-upon patriarch around which the drama is built, with each subsequent character slotting into extremely familiar archetypes. I also particularly enjoyed Vick's "gap yah" trust fund dope Cain and the way Tyrer pulled a reverse Flowers for Algernon as she got smarter (and bossier).

It's also very loosely plotted, with the first half of the show a series of character introductions and the second showing them putting on "the first show" to retell Genesis. But narrative isn't necessarily important for a comedy as long as it delivers jokes, and Going Ape successfully cleared my "make me actually laugh three times" bar for a successful comedy.

But though it caused ripples of giggles, I realised that comedies face an uphill battle while social distancing is on. Smaller audiences mean fewer laughs no matter how funny you are and this lessened feedback must affect the performances. Even so, I chuckled a whole bunch throughout: enjoying Adam taking his job of naming the animals seriously - especially when getting snooty about Lucy naming herself 'Australopithecus' ("what kind of name is that?!"), everyone's shared joy over discovering bananas, and the interactions with God towards the end of the play.

Gabriel Vick and Henry Collie as Cain and Seth

There are a couple of clangers. I wasn't a huge fan of Collie's obliviously dim Seth, who was too broad even for this material - and I don't understand why he was dressed as a beatnik. Perhaps this was simply to facilitate the worst moment in the show in which they make a reference to The Fast Show, a gag that feels like its fallen out of a time warp from 25 years ago and should be jettisoned immediately.

I don't want to bag on Going Ape too hard. It might not be the tightest, side-splitting, or most narratively propulsive show around, but I can't deny I had a good time. Smiling and laughing as part of an audience still feels alien (and likely will for a while yet) and honestly, it's nice to watch something that's pure silly escapism that has zero relevance to the nightmare world beyond the theatre door.

Going Ape is at the Union Theatre until 10 July 2021. Tickets here.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Review: 'Bad Nights And Odd Days' at the Greenwich Theatre, 25 June 2021

Saturday, June 26, 2021 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Bad Nights and Odd Days reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

As the dreary lockdown months stretched on I struggled with the itch that only theatre can scratch: breathing the same air and occupying the same space as fictional characters, traveling to watch a story play out without distractions, the communal thrill of experiencing emotions as an audience.

But beyond all that is the simple fact that theatre gets a lot more intense than most other media. Enter the Greenwich Theatre's Caryl Churchill quadruple bill, Bad Nights and Odd Days. This brings together four short plays dealing with (among other things) rape, abortion, suicide, and environmental apocalypse. 

After the nightmare year we've had you might shy from the idea of spending two hours shut in a room with series of traumatised and isolated people, but Churchill's writing seamlessly pirouettes through sincerity and farce. One second you're shivering at the raw dialogue of a couple struggling to cope with sexual trauma, the next you're giggling at their bourgeois pretensions.

Dan Gaisford as Mick

You can't slide a Rizla between Churchill's changes in tone, which are common to all four plays but best displayed in Three More Sleepless Nights. This does exactly what it says on the tin: a nocturnal daisy chain of bad relationships featuring characters played by Paul McGann, Verna Vyas, Dan Gaisford, and Gracy Goldman. 

In one of the 'nights', a woman has a creepy disassociative episode. It plays out like dream logic: she speaks in confusing fragments, eventually clutching a carving knife and talking about suicide. It's unnerving, tense, and eerily realistic. All that's offset by her partner who is amusingly oblivious, recounting the plot of Ridley Scott's Alien just to have something to say. 

Laughing while also being freaked out is my kinda vibe and Churchill's plays feel as if they're getting away with stuff they shouldn't.

Also impressive is that despite all four being written in the 1970s they feel alarmingly contemporary. That's on fine display in the dystopian Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen, which takes us to a smogged out future London where the air is poisonous, the economy has collapsed, and the human race faces extinction. It's a timely apocalypse, particularly as its theoretical future maps well onto our microplasticky, nitrogen dioxide-saturated present.

Kerrie Taylor as Roz

It means we end on an appropriately ominous note, as hope strolls offstage and leaves the characters locked down in a tiny apartment facing an ambiguous future. Oh well, the theatres are back open, so even if we'll soon be coughing up fistfuls of pulped lung from a new variant at least there'll be somewhere to go in the evening.

COVID is responsible for my only real criticism: social distancing rules mean the audience has to be spread out over a large theatre, which is at odds with the intimacy of the drama. Way back in Row L I was myself wishing I was sat down in the front row so I could watch every subtle bit of body language and facial tic from this great cast. 

I also spent quite a lot of the show looking at the large piece of scenery in the background. It was interesting enough - variously resembling a rollercoaster track, piece of industrial machinery, or dinosaur skeleton - but I couldn't for the life of me work out what relevance it had to the plays. Maybe it's just there for aesthetic reasons to spice up the stage?

Whatever the case, theatre is back, baby. Kudos to the Greenwich Theatre for choosing this misanthropic show as their big debut: it'd have been easy to come back with crowd-pleasing escapism, but there's something palpably 'now' about Churchill's plays post-pandemic. 

Bad Days and Odd Nights is at the Greenwich Theatre until 10 July. Tickets here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Review: 'Queen Mab' at Iris Theatre’s Summer Festival, 22nd June 2021

Wednesday, June 23, 2021 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Queen Mab reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

We're not out of the woods with COVID but at least we seem to be on the right path. The pandemic has been the biggest global event since World War II and we'll be feeling its consequences for years to come. And, as playwrights emerge from lockdown isolation, it's inevitable that many of them will try to process what's happened on stage.

Danielle Pearson's Queen Mab is a noble attempt, throwing together 15-year-old British teenager Freya (Jo Patmore) and 500-year-old extradimensional fairy immortal Queen Mab (Erica Flint). 

We begin just as lockdown starts: Freya is figuring out what to study for her A-levels, bristling against her family, and pining over her classmate Ollie. Enter Mab, who has a brief and flighty conversation with Freya, with the fairy surprised when she remembers their encounter the next day. The two form an unlikely friendship, though Mab warns that things don't end well when immortals get entangled in the human world.

What follows is a gentle and emotional drama about life under lockdown, complete with fantastical story elements that suggest Pearson has read her fair share of Neil Gaiman. 

Erica Flint as Mab

One thing that struck me during the pandemic and that this show underlines is the tragedy of time slowly trickling away. We will never get those dreary lockdown months back and if that lost time makes a thirtysomething theatre critic melancholy it must be excruciating for teenagers.

You can only ever be young once and people like Freya can rightly grieve for those delayed first kisses, the wild parties that didn't happen, and the thousands of missed opportunities to figure out who the hell you even are. 

Pearson offsets the breakneck speed of adolescence against Mab's immortality. For her this is simply another plague humanity must endure. But even though she floats above physical concerns, she senses how humanity's fears, ambitions, and outlook have been warped by the gravitational pull of COVID. Relationships have disintegrated under the pressure, finances have collapsed, and uh, there's all those corpses who'd otherwise be alive and well.

This is condensed into Freya's household, depicted as a microcosm of the British COVID experience. Watching it in a play gives us the opportunity to observe it externally and nudges us towards a Mab's eye view of the situation. This is  underlined by Georgie Staight's solid direction - particularly having Mab move through the audience and occasionally silently watch Freya just outside the rope marking out the performance space.

Jo Patmore as Freya

Both actors nail this and are obviously relishing being in front of an audience. Best of all, their friendship feels realistic: clearing the performance hurdle of why Mab would be interested in Freya in the first place. 

Flint nicely combines Mab's haughtiness with vulnerability, resulting in a character that feels otherworldly but that's still relatable. She also nails the lyrical dialogue, which echoes Shakespeare without descending into pastiche.

Patmore also impresses, especially in a serenade that's a reminder of the beauty of live music. Her Freya is sincere, incisive, and resists authority - Patmore makes it easy to see why Mab keeps coming back. Perhaps the best example is that at the end of this quick n' breezy 70-minute play I was genuinely touched by the reveal of her self-portrait.

Queen Mab isn't close to making definitive pronouncements on the pandemic, but as a snapshot of a mood it's bang on. I'd worried that we'd get a deluge of plays about the pandemic as theatres (am craving escapism right now) but if they're as good as this bring it on.

Queen Mab runs at Iris Theatre Summer Festival from 21 to 26 June 2021. Tickets here.

Photos by Flux Theatre.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Review: 'NoMad' at the Greenwich Theatre, 27th November 2020

Monday, November 30, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

NoMad reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

I've been a fan of Nell Hardy for some time. Way back in 2016 I saw her in the title role of Pandemonium Performance's promenade production of Alice in Wonderland in Abney Park Cemetary. She blew my socks off and since then I've tried to see her in as much as possible, as whatever 'it' is, she's got it.

So when I was invited to a stream of her one-woman monologue, NoMad there was no way I was passing it up. I'm not sure what I was expecting from Hardy, but a blistering and brutally honest monologue about her own experiences with homelessness, institutionalisation and mental health wasn't it.

Over the course of an hour and a bit, Hardy guides us through the nightmare of processed through a juddering and underfunded social care system intentionally designed to grind those caught in it to dust. NoMad focuses on mental health treatment, making it sound like a sadistic game of snakes and ladders, albeit one with loaded dice, too many snakes and maybe one creaky ladder. But hey, at least being an inpatient means you get food, heat and a bed...

The most vivid and well-realised moments come when Hardy is explaining the physical effects of homelessness. There's the misery of getting rained on: cold and wet clothes freezing you down to the bone and no prospect of getting properly dry anytime soon; the crinkle of an unwashed, overworn sock inside a shoe that hasn't been taken off in days and a vivid recounting of how it feels to have to piss and shit outdoors. 

It's in that last one that Hardy achieves something of the sublime. Much of NoMad is about a sustained assault on her sense of self and the destruction of her ego. Here, in what passes for one of the more light-hearted sequences of the show, she compares herself to a dog - both of them having a piss out in the open. It feels entirely apt, a nice summation of how homelessness erodes away human specialness as divine creatures and reduces you to a deterministic biological machine.

I went into NoMad with respect for Hardy as an actor - and left with a mild sense of awe her writing skills. Prior to this, I'd assumed she was just 'yer typical talented drama school graduate making her way through London fringe theatre scene - but there's admirable sense of purpose and precision in this writing that you simply don't encounter that often.

Plus, while the text is light on explicitly referencing politics, it's difficult to read it as anything other than a condemnation of austerity. Though it might not be mentioned by name, the degradation of care systems, the suffering baked into benefits applications and the ease with which it's possible to fall through the cracks into homelessness are all symptoms of the economic snake oil that's killed hundreds of thousands and inflicted unnecessary pain on millions more.

I'm not saying loading every Conservative politician into some kind of gigantic rocket and firing it into the heart of the sun would have actually solved any of Hardy's problems, but it certainly couldn't hurt to try.

The only flaws of note here are technical. With COVID having effectively shut down fringe theatre I've resisted reviewing plays that have been streamed online. One of the reasons I enjoy theatre so much is the visceral sense of occupying the same space as the performer, which vanishes when you're experiencing a show on video. 

While NoMad's minimalist staging and soundscape probably work quite well when you're physically present in the audience, it doesn't on video. And, putting my technical hat on for a moment, especially not on incredibly low bit-rate video that constantly stutters, judders and freezes, and where the sound breaks mid-way through (thank God for automated YouTube subtitling).

But it's a testament to the quality of the show that it hits as hard as it does even with one hand tied behind its back. Watching NoMad made me positively itch to get back into a theatre - here's hoping 2021 sees this get a proper run as it deserves as much attention as it can get.

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