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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.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Review: 'We Sing/I Sang' at the Cockpit Theatre, 15th September 2020

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Virtually Opera's We Sing/I Sang bills itself as "an improvised sci-fi ritual opera". A hazily defined 'Crisis' has hit the humanity and the old world has been erased. From the ashes a new collective consciousness - Mind - has formed. Now Mind is leaving this ruined planet behind and making tracks for the stars. The lessons, thoughts and memories we take to the new reality are up to us.

Part of the Cockpit Theatre's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, We Sing/I Sang's Crisis is clearly heavily informed by COVID-19. I suspect this topic is going to be the case for a lot of fringe art for a while yet. The country's playwrights and performers have been deprived of an audience for far too long and are no doubt bristling to translate their experiences into plays, poems and songs.

We Sing/I Sang is an austere experience, which I guess is as much a socially distanced necessity as an artistic choice. On a largely empty stage, CN Lester improvises an opera from our prompts accompanied by a viola soundtrack from Hannah Gardiner. They stand at the rear of the stage, with the performance space occupied by Leo Doulton's masked androgynous dancer.

A lot of artists are clearly blue-balled (and blue-ovaried) after spending so long being unable to express themselves live and Virtually Opera recognise that the audience will feel that way too. As such, our thoughts shape the show as we answer questions on our phones that are projected above the performers.

We're asked "What group of people tried to take advantage of the Crisis?", "You have a memory that brought you solace during the Crisis. Who was in it?" or "What unusual ability did some people develop during the Crisis?" Our responses (and some general plot direction from 'adjudicators') shape the plot.

I replied "Conversation with bees" to the last question and watched as Lester worked their way through a verse about how, in the wake of the apocalypse, they realised that they could comprehend the faint buzzing all around them. I'm always impressed by quick-thinking improvisational skills and there's a smattering of resonant lyrical moments throughout the show.

Anyone improvising free-form opera has the benefit of being able to vamp for a few bars while they think of what they're going to sing next, but it's still fun to watch. Plus I figure that Lester (or someone backstage) is choosing what suggestions to base the show around so as not to break the atmosphere.

By and large, this succeeds in what it sets out to do and was a meditative reentry to performance after a long hiatus. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the show make it something that theoretically could be staged once society has actually collapsed. I mean, humanity would have to be completely on the ropes before we couldn't cobble together a singer, a single instrument and a dancer. 

Being encouraged to be introspective about our own experiences during lockdown was also surprisingly touching. We're often casually asked how we are, but it just wouldn't be British to respond in any way other than "...fine". Getting quizzed on specific questions on your mood, memories and thoughts felt pleasantly therapeutic. And after months of staring at the walls of my cramped house I'll take whatever emotional probing is on offer.

I have a couple of criticisms. The show's IT set-up isn't great, consisting of switching between a webpage and a Google Spreadsheet. You have a limited time to enter your answers and I had to close my browser down in order to make new links appear. It just about works, though I can see less tech-savvy audience members getting frustrated as there's not much guidance in how to interact with the show once it's begun.

Also, Leo Doulton's dancing fills space but doesn't add anything interesting to the performance. He's something to look at during the singing rather than an integral part of the show and I couldn't connect his costume and choreography with Lester's singing and Gardiner's music. That's not to say I wish he wasn't there, just that all three performers should interact a bit more.

Quibbles aside, We Sing/I Sang is a great show for our mid-apocalyptic times. I'm a sucker for interactive elements in theatre and weaving them into opera kept me engaged throughout the show's concise 35-40 minute runtime. 

It sounds like damning with faint praise that I was simply happy to be somewhere else at night other than my sofa, but this was great food to break a long theatrical fast with.

'We Sing/I Sang' is being broadcast online as part of the Cockpit Theatre's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival on 17 September. Information here.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Review: 'Nuclear War / Buried / Graceland' at the Old Red Lion, 5th March 2020

Sunday, March 8, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

I'm not a huge fan double or triple bills of short plays. It's not that it's necessarily a bad format, but it's very tricky to write about while doing justice to each individual play. That remains the case, but I walked out of The Old Red Lion's latest triple bill (described, somewhat pretentiously, as a 'triptych') in a great mood. The two-hour show consists of David Spencer's Buried, Max Saunders-Singer's Graceland and Simon Stephens' Nuclear War.

First, a quick overview of this theatrical three-course dinner. 

Buried is a 50-minute long piece about the experiences of the playwright's grandfather during World War II. Played by James Demaine, the story is told from the perspective of a soldier who's been buried alive. What follows is a chronologically tangled and poetic demonstration of the psychological impacts of war.

Graceland is a dark comedy in which Anthony Cozen's teacher settles in to teach his Form 9 class, as represented by the audience. He's obviously stressed and is behaving increasingly strangely. All too soon we discover why today is the worst day of his life.

Finally, we get Nuclear War, which is a fusion of choreography and abstract verse about the end of the world, a personal view of death, the dissolution of the self and the inevitable forces of entropy that will emotionally, physically and scientifically tear us apart. This is performed by Zoe Grain and Freya Sharp.

The three plays don't share much in common other than a somewhat nihilistic perspective on life. There's a content warning on the way up to the theatre explaining that these plays contain "trauma, PTSD, scenes of a distressing nature, suicide, grief, sexual content & strong language". While I don't want to spoil too many of the twists and turns, the promise of this sign is fulfilled a couple of times over.

There's a lot to like in each of these plays, but while Buried boasts a committed performance from Demaine, and some sparkling writing (especially in the gruesome scenes based around corpse disposal), it eventually feels a little repetitive. The jumbled chronology meant I was concentrating on piecing the story together rather than appreciating the emotions. 

On a more practical note, there are moments where Demaine stands directly in front of the audience and delivers a shouty speech under a spotlight, which allows you to see him inadvertently coating the front row with a fine layer of saliva, to the audience's obvious discomfort. Ordinarily, this would be par for the course in a small theatre, but these are, oh let's say, hygiene-focused times...

For me, the highlights came with Graceland and Nuclear War. Anthony Cozens does a neat job semi-improvising his way through Graceland, knowing precisely when to slacken and tighten the reins on the audience. I really loved the slowly shifting tone and the way the pieces oscillate between comedy and tragedy, sometimes within the space of a few seconds. Plus, it's nice to get some genuine belly-laughs sandwiched in between the other plays. 

But the best of the three is undoubtedly Nuclear War. This has the honour of being one of the few plays I've ever wanted to watch again immediately after it finished just so I could pick up on more of the nuance. Ditching irrelevancies like characters and narrative, Nuclear War is a weirdly musical piece that doesn't actually contain any music. But it's a confrontational, clearly personal bit of writing that speaks to something absolutely vital about being human... but pinning down exactly what that is maddeningly difficult.

Nuclear War
I'm doing a terrible job at describing this, but just trust me that it's ace. Zoe Grain and Freya Sharp are also jaw-droppingly well-rehearsed. The play relies on near-perfect timing and choreography, with no room for error or stumbles. The spell it weaves is so enticing that you almost develop anxiety that one of them will forget their lines and this precious thing will shatter like a snowflake hitting the ground.

I remain on the fence about these triple bill nights. However, shorter plays like these absolutely deserve an audience. Both Graceland and Nuclear War come in at under 30 mins and neither would benefit from being any longer. Where else can you perform these to a paying audience if not during a triple bill? So, while it might be trickier to write about three plays than one, I'll keep coming if the Old Red Lion keeps putting on stuff of this quality.

Nuclear War, Graceland and Buried are at the Old Red Lion until 21 March. Tickets here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Review: 'Closed Lands' at Vault Festival, 3rd March 2020

Wednesday, March 4, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

You don't have to be a geopolitical expert to see that the next decade is going to bring some drastic and depressing changes to the way we live. Global warming will inevitably result in mass migration from the global south. Arable land in equatorial countries is becoming desert, water sources are drying up, and with a lack of basic resources come the classic four horsemen: war, famine, pestilence and death.

Faced with that, it's hardly surprising that the number of people fleeing their homeland for the economic and political security of stable northern countries is increasing dramatically. Hell, if I were Eritrean, Guatemalan or Sudanese I'd get the hell out of there as soon as feasibly possible. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a massive increase in boats across the Mediterranean as people flee for their lives. Then imagine how European democracies will react to that...

Basically, it's going to be a nightmare for everyone except wealthy right-wing demagogues, who will be happier than a pig in shit. Xenophobia, racism and nationalism will all rise dramatically. There is nothing that any of us can realistically do to stop any of this happening and we're already well into the first act.

All this is the meat of Closed Lands, by Legal Aliens, a company comprised of Luiana Bonfim, Daiva Dominyka, Catharina Conte, Becka McFadden and Lara Parmiani, who are all migrants to the UK. The show is an artistic exploration of the inhumane systems that our countries have established to wriggle through the thin gap between what's legal and what's ethical.

And so, after showing us the celebrations of the Berlin Wall being torn down, we begin picking our way through the modern barriers. Trump's southern border wall is the obvious example, the show combining video footage of the test walls, explanations of the paramilitary 'minutemen' who take the law into their own hands to protect the USA and the misery of attempting to cross the desert over and over.

But Europeans shouldn't feel too smug. Most people haven't even heard of the Ceuta border fence, but the show goes into it in detail. This is the EU's equivalent of Trump's border wall, a fortified barrier in Morocco designed to stop migrants making their way to Spain. While it may not be known to many Europeans, the migrants sure are aware of it - as recently as August 2019 there was a pitched battle where people attempted to storm the wall and cut their skin to ribbons on the razor wire.

We also, of course, touch upon the drowned people in the Mediterranean, through a quick bit of drama in which one of the cast plays a trafficker, who says something along the lines of "sure, it's risky, but how much do you want this?" It should be always remembered that the corpses who end up beached in picturesque Mediterranean resorts were aware of the risks. They judged that the very real danger to their life was worth the chance of escaping to Europe, so throw that back into the face of anyone who describes their choice to leave as the cold and calculated sounding 'economic migration'.

You're probably gathering by now that Closed Lands isn't a particularly uplifting hour of theatre. It isn't, and the more you know about the systems the play is talking about the more depressing it is. 

One element I'm assuming is intentionally absent is the refusal to focus on individual stories. The aim here seems to be to present the facts in an engaging, theatrical and journalistic way rather than try to tweak the heartstrings. I'm on the fence about whether this works or not, as the show sometimes feels like a series of loosely connected sketches about various aspects of the immigration crisis.

For example, for all its bombast and energy, the show ends on a confusing metaphor about vegetables. I get why the symbol was chosen, but it's a pretty opaque way to end a show that feels designed to educate rather than entertain. 

Then again, I have seen a number of shows on the same topic like Cargo, Don't Look Away and The Claim, which all tell stories of specific migrants, so perhaps Legal Aliens are simply want to stake out their own territory on the subject.

Whatever the reasoning, Closed Lands is at minimum engaging, though more you think about it what it's showing you, the more sad the world feels. But ultimately (and this is not a criticism of the show), a theatrical production aimed at well-off theatre-going Londoners is probably less effective in actually changing things than pissing into a hurricane. 

But hey, what else is there to do?

Closed Lands is at the Vault Festival until 8th March. Tickets here.

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