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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: 'Napoleon Disrobed' at the Arcola Theatre, 19th February 2018

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Napoleon Disrobed reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Everyone knows Napoleon died on the island Saint Helena. What this play presupposes is... maybe he didn't? Told by an Idiot adapts Simon Ley's novella The Death of Napoleon into Napoleon Disrobed, which shows us the would-be Emperor of Europe switching places with a lookalike and scarpering back to Paris with dreams of kickstarting another military campaign.

Napoleon is a notoriously tricky figure to fictionalise. Partly because his life was so vast in scope that it all but demands to be considered as a whole (if a project can defeat Stanley Kubrick it's not to be sniffed at) and partly because there is such a strong collective image of what Napoleon was like: unusually short and perpetually angry.

Napoleon Disrobed neatly sidesteps all of this: it's an imaginary story so doesn't need to lock horns with reality and it directly concerns itself with the false images and misconceptions modern audiences have about its subject. 

It's also not afraid to be weird. Really weird. We open with an impromptu round of University Challenge, through which we're quizzed about the particulars of Napoleon's life. This quickly cuts to St Helena, where Napoleon swaps identities with a lookalike called Eugene and sets out on his voyage. What follows is a dreamy, surreal plot involving a woman called Ostrich and her failing melon business.

This eventually leads to stuff like Napoleon engaged in a game of tennis with pots and pans as racquets and melons as balls, combined with quickfire scenes in which he attempts to soothe an unhappy baby or is presumed insane when he reveals his real identity. It feels as if the plot has been free-associated or improvised - akin to one of those shows where the narrative is assembled from audience suggestions.

Consequentially, it's difficult to figure out what Napoleon Disrobed is actually about. There's maybe a kernel about the nature of identity and living up to expectations, but every time it looks as if the focus will finally tighten and we'll get some context, another madcap sequence kicks off and it's forgotten once more.

Still, at least it's funny as hell. Paul Hunter's Napoleon is outright hilarious, stalking the stage with a classically comedic air of self-importance, Basil Fawlty-ishly air reacting to the indignities he suffers. Hunter doesn't so much break the fourth wall as demolish it, which goes a long way to keeping the show vibrant and pacey. Ayesha Antoine, playing every other character via a selection of wigs and hats also excels, introducing herself by piping up from a front row seat and proceeding to hurl herself into the various parts with gusto.

The show also boasts has designer Michael Vale's fantastic 'rocking' stage, which further cranks up the kinetic element of the play. This is a slippery story and watching the actors work to find their footing is reminiscent of Buster Keaton style slapstick comedy.

Napoleon Disrobed has a lot to shout about, from great stage design to top-flight performances. Despite that, there's something tangibly missing, it's wacky that it's impossible to care about what's happening and it doesn't have much insight into its historical subject. If the show achieved the pathos it appears to be aiming for in the final scenes it'd be something special. 

As it is it's 'merely' very, very funny.

Napoleon Disrobed is at the Arcola Theatre until 10 March 2018. Tickets here.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: 'It Made Me Consider Me' at the New Diorama Theatre, 15th February 2018

Friday, February 16, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It Made Me Consider Me reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Hot damn, what a space! GRUFF Theatre's It Made Me Consider Me is staged in ND2, a stupendously enormous Regent's Place office block just around the corner from the New Diorama. Its round central atrium feels similar in scope to the reading room at the British Library. It could be a kind of corporate Colosseum, in which desperate office drones battle to the death as their co-workers bay like animals from the balconies. 

Tonight it's the venue for R.A.L.P.H - a company which specialises in memory retrieval, storage and playback. We, the audience, are a group of fresh employees working through an induction day. This involves being given a fresh identity and taken through the methods and philosophies of this very strange company. 

Our guides on this adventure are HR Manager Sue (Cordelia Stevenson), memory technicians Christopher and Peter (Johnathan Blaydon and Derek Elwood), handyman Merv (Thomas Bostock) and eccentric rollerblading CEO Ralph (Rhys Slade-Jones). Each of these characters is slightly 'off': over-enthusiastic to the point of mania, passive-aggressively snapping at each other's heels and apparently afraid of someone or something...

The show winds and weaves out of the central atrium into the half-finished back rooms, full of networking equipment, air-conditioning units and heavy-duty fuseboxes. It is a deeply surreal place: supposed to be throbbing with money-making activity yet inert and creepily sterile, as if the shrink wrap on the place has yet to be fully removed. Though the cast are all effective it's the setting that does the heavy lifting - simply being here is atmospheric as hell.

But despite some effective scene-setting and a decent sense of mystery, the various pieces of It Made Me Consider Me never quite gel. I'm guessing that the piece was formulated in response to the location, with GRUFF Theatre figuring out what kind of show would best exploit what's available to them.

In that respect, it's a success. But the show is so self-consciously weird that there's little room for pondering what the story means. Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind covered the same territory, exploring the significance of memory through a science fiction lens and ending up making some pretty profound points. So it's a shame that It Made Me Consider Me just didn't 'make me consider me'. Boiled down it's a bunch of talented performers running as fast as they can to conceal that there isn't much thematic meat on these bones.

That's not to say I didn't have a good time. It's nice to see a genuinely immersive show and I always love the thrill of stepping into a scene and performing. I also deeply dug the off-kilter 70s sci-fi vibe and the send up of beige corporate culture. And, on top of all that, simply being in the building is fascinating.

It Made Me Consider Me is a really good piece of theatre, but it could be a mind-blowingly great piece of theatre if they followed through on their concept and developed the narrative a bit more. Still, it's going to stick in the mind for a while to come yet.

It Made Me Consider Me is at the New Diorama until 21st February. Tickets here.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review: 'The Moor' at The Old Red Lion, 13th February 2018

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Moor reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The best line in Catherine Lucie's The Moor comes early on. Heroine Bronagh (Jill McAusland) is describing the titular moor that surrounds her isolated West Yorkshire home: "It's rained all week. And the peat has risen. When the peat is high, the rocks disappear. They reappear gradually, as it gets drier, like teeth growing out of gums". It's a hell of an image, transforming the landscape into something organic, hungry and subtly terrifying.

The Moor is set in an isolated West Yorkshire community in which grandmothers tell stories of 'little people' who inhabit the moors - and warn their grandchildren not to get on the wrong side of them. Within this is Bronagh, who has just given birth, whose mother has just died and who is stuck with Graeme (Oliver Britten) an abusive, overbearing and jealous boyfriend. Her life is, as they say, a bit shit right now.

The first act neatly sets out her domestic situation, with Graeme returning drunk from a party and angrily accusing Bronagh of flirting with another man. She denies everything and slinks off to bed. The next day she awakes to see that the man she was flirting with has gone missing - and Graeme is suddenly acting very suspiciously...

It's a decent mystery and were the play concerned with straightforwardly working through it could easily sustain an hour of drama. Unfortunately, this whodunit creaks under the weight of heavy-handed symbolism and thematic elements that it ultimately cannot support. 

Lucie's focus quickly switches from narrative meat and potatoes to intangibles like *deep breath* the psychological effects of physical and emotional isolation, a cocktail of post-natal depression and grief, the collective British folk memory, the elasticity of memory, the symbolic nature of dreams, overt and institutional misogyny, discrimination against travellers and the effects of alcoholism. 

Every one of those elements is potentially fertile dramatic material, but all at once, on top of a murder mystery? It's a recipe for unfocused drama, one in which what's actually happening to the characters is too far down the list of priorities. 

Worse, the sense that the plot is a secondary concern leads to a bunch of dissonant elements: would there really be a TV news story or a police search for a male traveller who has gone missing for one night - especially as he's already on the run? Would the police really be so blase about a potential key witness to a murder they're trying to solve? I generally hate this kind of nitpicking, but here it's the most obvious symptom of an undercooked narrative.

It's a pity, because otherwise this is a faultless production. Oliver Britten is a powerful and intimidating physical presence as Graeme - deploying a frankly terrifying wide-eyed stare. Jonny Magnanti also is effective as a brusque yet paternal police officer. Jill McAusland is seriously eye-catching though, managing to be fragile and impossibly strong while keeping the character consistent (often within the same scene!). 

The cast (aided by some nice stage design) almost crowbar this unwieldy play into shape. But there's only so much they can do. Catherine Lucie has a nice ear for dialogue and atmosphere and, above all, is clearly a playwright with a lot to say - I just wish she'd decide what it was.

The Moor is at The Old Red Lion until March 3rd. Tickets here.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: 'AI Love You' at the Vaults, 8th February 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

AI Love You reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

AI Love You's future isn't here yet, but it's in the post. We chat with voice-activated home assistants like Amazon's Echo and Google's Home, the R&D into sex robots and teledildonics is accelerating and, perhaps sinisterly, unknowable algorithms analyse our behaviour and mould our online advertising and experience to our particular tastes. 

All that combines in Melanie Anne Ball's AI Love You, in which Adam (Peter Dewhurst) is a twentysomething Londoner in love with his robot girlfriend April (Eve Ponsonby). Three years ago he was selected to receive one of the first prototypes, programmed to adapt her behaviour to increase his happiness and identical in every way to a 'real' woman. 

Now he's fallen in love with her (and, apparently, she with him), and she's malfunctioning. This presents as a degenerative disease: she wants to be deactivated rather than slowly losing her mind. He wants to prevent what is effectively her suicide, arguing that you would do the same for any human loved one in the same circumstances

It's an interesting situation, amplified by the decision to make the show a debate fuelled by the audience. Throughout we're asked to vote on whose argument is more convincing, the results shaping the course of the show and culminating in a Q&A session with the characters. It's Black Mirror meets Jeremy Kyle!

For my part, I found the show an eerie and faintly sad insight into male entitlement. Adam was explicitly chosen because he's a 'normal' guy - with friends, a supportive family, a career and no psychological issues. Even so, his proximity to an artificial woman designed to make him happy is eroding his morals: April is programmed to "bend like a blade of grass" to unquestioningly emotionally support him, leading Adam to disparage human women as he considers he's already got perfection.

She is, essentially, his slave. The question of whether an AI has consciousness or is just simulating it through programming is not something the play can answer, though it if looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then as far as I'm concerned we should treat it like a duck. Based on that, it's clear that she's stuck in unwilling servitude - something underlined by Adam's ability to force her to do things by saying "it would make me happy if you would..." Tellingly, he subtly but repeatedly reinforces the concept of her as property rather than as a person.

A decade ago these issues would have been an interesting thought experiment, but now they're inching into reality. The consequences of emotional attachment to lifelike AIs are absolutely something we're going to have to deal with sometime in the next 20 years or so (realistic humanoid robots are still a pipe dream though), and this gives us a preview of arguments we're destined to see play out very soon.

Aside from all that, AI Love You is a downright neat piece of drama. Dewhurst and Ponsonby quickly and believably sketch out their characters, with Ponsonby's body language and motions ever-so-slightly 'off', revealing her robotic nature. They're both skilled improvisers, able to quickly and believably interact with the audience as the show goes on.

Relying on a receptive audience is a pretty bold dramatic move - especially as there's a portion of the show where a random audience member is expected to chair a discussion into the issues raised by the play. This could go badly wrong (I'm guessing it probably will at some point), but last night's audience was perceptive and engaged. Having said that, I'd love to know what other audiences voted for, and whether making April more obviously artificial would affect that.

It's refreshing to see a smart and well-performed play that places so much trust in its audience - it's nice to be able to give your opinion on a contentious situation in the moment. One of the highlights of a so far very good Vault Festival - check this out!

AI Love You is at Vault Festival until 11 February. Tickets here.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Review: 'A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar)' at the New Diorama, 6th February 2018

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

It's the kind of darkness where you can't see your hand in front of your face. The kind where your pupils dilate to saucers, hungry for the slightest stray photon. The kind where a muffled rustle conjures up horrible monsters. The kind that envelopes you like a suffocating blanket. It's a bad darkness, and bad things happen in it.

This is Lulu Raczka's A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar), an intensely atmospheric two-hander with as firm a command of light as any play I've ever seen. It's set in a fuzzily defined dystopian Britain ("It's the future, but only slightly"), regularly suffering from blackouts that go way beyond lighting a candle. Trapped within one of these are Steph (Laura Woodward) and Bell (Bryony Davies). 

Bell is a bored bartender, filling the time running a dive bar nobody goes to anymore. She's a spiky Northern goth, with big stompy boots, pink hair extensions and an aggressive, forthright sexuality to her. All that makes her the opposite of schoolgirl Steph, who's in a garish pink and mustard uniform, pigtails and straw boater, all perky adolescent awkwardness and naivety. Steph is searching for her friend Charlotte, who has disappeared in a recent blackout. Bell knows something, but she isn't about the spill the beans to just anyone.

The situation adds up to a combative back and forth: the disparate pair clashing as they gradually get to know one another, growing closer as the darkness becomes ever more claustrophobic.

One of the scripts cleverest aspects is how much it leaves unexplained. The dystopia is only ever explained in generalities ("with things they way they are..."), leaving it up to the audience to imagine what could have gone so wrong with society to get us to this point. That the characters studiously avoid discussing it hints at their collective trauma, yet also allows for the blackouts to be understood in metaphorical terms. 

I interpreted the darkness as a masculine repression of women: a growing ink blot of ignorance that forces women into prescribed gender roles, entraps them in their homes and presents an ever-present threat to their safety. But these two women aren't going to take this sitting down, seizing the lack of light to spin a tale of empowerment and grisly revenge on the men who've wronged them. It's fantasy, yet when it's explained so vividly in the pitch black you cannot help visualise every detail.

All that's supported by consistently smart stagecraft. Everyone here deserves kudos, but particularly Lizzy Leech's design, Kieran Lucas' sound design and Peter Small's lighting design. Ali Pidsley's direction weaves these elements together beautifully: the soundscape mirroring the crack and popping of the fluorescent lights, or the organic squish and tangy smell of the shredded rubber on the floor. It makes for an oppressive, unfriendly dramatic space, the traverse staging giving the actors no place to hide except darkness.

A Girl In School Uniform is 80 minutes of uneasiness punctuated by comedy and genuinely creepy horror - a genuinely compelling and memorable night at the theatre. It also proves how much can be achieved on a (presumably) limited budget by applying intelligence, talent and creativity.

A Girl In School Uniform (Walks Into A Bar) is at the New Diorama Theatre until 17 February. Tickets here.

Production photo by Graham Michael.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: 'Becoming Shades' at Vault Festival, 1st February 2018

Friday, February 2, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Becoming Shades reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The Vaults underneath Waterloo make for a great Hades. The arched ceilings, damp dripping down the walls and trains distantly overhead rumbling overhead do a lot of legwork in Chivaree Circus and Upstage Creative's Becoming Shades - in which the audience becomes lost souls amidst the hellhounds, pomegranate seeds and enigmatic boatmen of the Greek afterlife.

A loose retelling of the myth of Persephone, the show consists of various circus acts performed by an all-female company scattered around Vault Festival's biggest venue. So, we might huddle around a performer doing a piece of interpretative dance, then be hustled over to another part of the room where we take in an acrobatics act and so on. Impressively, this is all musically accompanied by a live duo, Sam West and Becks Johnstone, the latter of which is such a talented vocalist that it feels a bit odd to have your back to her whilst she performs.

The show bills itself as immersive theatre but, like most shows that claim this, it isn't. Instead, it's more of a promenade piece. Though we're poked and prodded by staff who make sure we're not blundering into the fire-eaters, this is an almost entirely passive experience in which we sit down, shut up and watch people do stuff. That the show isn't interactive isn't necessarily a criticism, but "immersive" is quickly becoming a meaningless marketing buzzword and I wish shows would stop diluting the concept.

Becoming Shades also claims to be a "female story of empowerment", which is also a bit debatable. On the face of it, the Persephone myth isn't particularly progressive: a woman abducted and forcibly married, who has little agency of her own within the story. Chivaree Circus zeroes in on the imagery of a busted open pomegranate as a symbol of female sexual power, eventually reincarnating Persephone as a Queenly fertility goddess in full command of her own sexuality (she then twirls around on a flaming yonic hula hoop to really hammer the point home). 

That's all well and good, though I'm always sceptical of shows about female empowerment that also feature attractive women in skimpy outfits doing hi-octane pole-dancing routines to dubstep. I get that doing this reclaims misogynist imagery and subverts masturbatory objectification, but y'know, it's still a sexy pole dancing routine.

Stuff like that feeds into a subtle but damaging disconnect between narrative and form. Essentially the show feels like a vehicle for various circus routines around which Greek myth and imagery have been stapled rather than the two properly tesselating. That contributes to an emotional disconnect that makes it difficult to care what's happening.

What's left is an okay circus show. The general atmosphere and dramatic lighting of the venue is effective, but while there's nothing objectively wrong with the acrobatics, there is also nothing that audiences who've seen a couple of circus shows won't have seen before. My barometer for a successful circus performance is when the audience spontaneously gasps and applauds during a piece, so impressed that they cannot help but react. This happens once or twice over the course of the night, but in general things are a bit muted.

Then there's the little gripes. Constantly being asked to sit down, stand up and being herded around the room every couple of minutes quickly gets old. The expectation that you're to wear a surgical mask for the entire show is annoying (most people discard theirs early on). And the wub-wub-wub dubstep effects on the soundtrack are a bit dated in 2018.

Becoming Shades isn't a bad show but it never comes together in a satisfying way; ending up as a collection of disparate elements that awkwardly rub up against one another. At £30 a ticket it's one of the more expensive (possibly the most expensive) show at the Vaults - if I'd have paid that I'd be feeling a little short-changed.

Becoming Shades is at Vault Festival until 18 March. Tickets here.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review: Medea Electronica at the Ovalhouse, 31st January 2018

Thursday, February 1, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Medea Electronica reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

Revenge is sweet. Revenge that involves a couple of dead kids and an incinerated lover? Maybe that's a touch on the savoury side. Pecho Mama's Medea Electronica retells Euripides 431BC tragedy Medea as a 1980s synthpop concert, making the wronged Medea (Mella Faye) as relatable, empathetic and as kind as possible and then seeing how far the audience is prepared to follow her down a disturbing, bloody path.

Euripides' play tells the story of a wife and mother who finds herself threatened when her husband Jason leaves her and her children for another woman. Medea's vengeance is brutal: she kills the other woman and then her own children, and scarpers to Athens. 

Pecho Mama shifts the story to the late 1980s, with Medea and her family moving away from London to follow her husband's career. In the wake of his Dad's death, her husband Jason suddenly cuts all contact and moves out without explanation. Struggling to understand why he's acting so callously, Medea tries to maintain normality for her confused children. But, as she realises the depth of her husband's cruelty, she bends and finally snaps.

When I first heard about Medea Electronica and its ambition of fusing Greek tragedy with 80s era synthpop, my reaction was more curiosity than outright enthusiasm. I've been to some seriously wanky concept gigs in my time, in which bands with limited theatrical ability disappear up their arses and produce something that's neither a good gig nor good theatre.

It quickly becomes apparent that Medea Electronica isn't going to be one of those shows. Pecho Mama (Mella Faye, Sam Cox and Alex Stanford) match their musical skills with restrained but enormously effective stagecraft that narrow and intensifies the focus on its lead. Every other character is represented by pre-recorded voices, which (no doubt due to intense rehearsal) is technically flawless.

Throughout the show, narrative seamlessly bleeds into song. These effectively communicate Medea's fractured mind: the textured vocals, moody synth lines and warped samples combining into muscular, moving soundscape. It also helps that these are just damn good songs: I felt a strong Brian Eno influence in Into the Ocean Parts I and II and glimpses of Portishead in Manta Ray, all of which pushes my musical buttons.

But all this would be for naught if it weren't for Mella Faye. It's been a while since I've seen a performer so emotionally and physically committed to her role. She's magnetic perceptibly 'acting' her way through the songs rather than merely singing them. Medea's journey from caring mother to child murderer is a tricky one to get right, yet Faye's gradual unravelling is horrifyingly plausible - her final transformation into fire-wreathed avatar of fury and righteous destruction sending shivers up my spine.

The show feels designed to push its audiences' buttons. It's impossible not to sympathise with Medea's plight and understand the roots of her rage. You see a woman being gaslit, manipulated, isolated and victimised: on paper practically a case study in misogyny. But just because someone is a victim doesn't mean they're not capable of terrible things, the show essentially asking us to sit as a jury and decide whether she's culpable for the atrocity she commits. These are questions that kept me awake last night and were on my mind while commuting to work: classic signs of a complex, memorable piece of theatre.

To put it simply, Medea Electronica is the kind of show I wish I saw more of. It's expertly crafted, performed to the highest standards, thematically fearless, smart as hell and cool as fuck. I can't recommend it enough.

Medea Electronica is at Ovalhouse until 10th February (tickets here). Then on tour (details here).

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