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Saturday, February 28, 2015

'Hellscreen' at Vault Festival 2015, 27th February 2015

Saturday, February 28, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"As I enter this place, I am conscious of the present moment. I am responsible for my own actions. I make my own decisions. Anything I choose to do, I do so freely." 
Having to sign a disclaimer like this is a promising omen. The air hangs thick and heavy in damp brickwork of the passages under Waterloo Station, disturbed only by the ominous rumble of overhead trains. What on earth are we to find beyond the sheet metal doors of the 'Cavern' performance space? 

For all that I enjoy theatre, I've never been remotely scared by a play. I've laughed, cried and gotten angry - but never been truly frightened. It's not that I'm particularly brave - a suspenseful horror film can give me a bad case of creeps - but the artifice of theatre stops that fight-or-flight instinct kicking in. Even so I've always been on the look-out for that one show that'd scare the pants off me, leaving me a quivering, sobbing wreck of a man.  Hellscreen, by Firehouse Creative and double barrel productions, looked like a promising candidate for doing just that. Described as "sensual, exciting and terrifying", the show promised to marry theatrical intensity, cinematic sequences and participatory thrills. 

Adapted from a 1918 Japanese horror story by Ryunosake Akutagawa, the show takes the basics and updates them for the modern day. The original story told the tale of 'the greatest artist in the land'. He's commissioned by a patron to create a vision of the Buddhist Hell. To achieve verisimilitude he begins to inflict tortures on his apprentices. Spiralling downwards to depravity, the artist commits a series of atrocities in an attempt to create an true artistic facsimile of hell.

Hellscreen sticks fairly close to this premise, yet  updates it to a contemporary setting. The talented artist is reimagined as intense former YBA Frank Holt (Jonny Woo). An enfant terrible, he furiously opposes all forms of cultural triviality, bourgeois quibbling and blind consumerism. As we meet him he's engaged in an unsatisfying series of works in which he paints paintings of celebrities using his own excrement.

But when a mysterious patron (Suzette Llewelyn) offers him unlimited resources to realise his dream of peeling back the carapace of the world to expose the writhing filth beneath he jumps at the chance. His genius idea is to take court transcripts of gruesome crimes and re-enact them with documentary precision; streaming the productions on the internet. Through gore, pain and humiliation he intends to vindicate and spread his nihilistic worldview with the intention of leading society, via misery, towards an aesthetic honesty.

Holt's only bulwark against going completely off the deep end is his daughter Amy (Vanessa Schofield. An intrinsically good person, she finds her father's gradual slide into sadism disturbing. Though she tries to help she's stymied in her efforts by the increasing diabolical patron, who confines her to an offshore artist's workshop to develop her performance skills.

Hellscreen is never less than fascinating, particularly in the subtly provocative staging. Using the traverse style, the space is bookended by two abattoir-like screens of hanging plastic curtains To enter we must push our way through them, take a plastic stool from the stage and decide where we want to place it. Once we're seated the audience faces itself, the narrow room all but forcing us to observe the reactions and body language of our fellow audience members as much as the on-stage action. All of this quietly serves to implicate us in what we're to see; we must choose to force our way into the space through the curtain, choose our own spot to sit and then silently judge one another.

During the performance the audience's involvement becomes more explicit. Throughout, the performers constantly make eye contact with us, ask us questions, sit directly in front of us miming actions or simply give intense performances mere inches away. This all comes to a head in the crime sequences, where the audience is asked to push a button to drop a bomb on a house, or confronted by a torture victim and asked why we're not stepping in.

I enjoy shows that purposefully set out to make the audience uncomfortable; there's a masochistic part of me that enjoys that uncomfortable curl in your gut, the slight guilt and worry that you're not behaving as you should. But what's the purpose of all this provocation? 

With Hellscreen's preoccupation with graphic torture, decapitations and immolations, all streamed online to a self-hating public, there's obvious echoes of the execution videos of ISIS. I'm not entirely sure whether the similarities of ISIS' recent high-profile murders are fortuitous coincidences or not, but the shared iconography can't be denied. Thing is, I'm not sure what exactly what's being said about them. 

There's a whiff of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror in the way Hellscreen identifies contemporary trends and takes them to their logical conclusion - presenting us with an outrageous world yet one that's grown organically from our own. But, ultimately, the easily accessible real life horror show of a caged man being burned to death can only trump Hellscreen's fictional imagination. 

I can't really criticise the show for being overtaken by reality, how could any playwright foresee the videos periodically emerging from Syria and Iraq? Yet it has, draining some (but not all) of the horror from the final scenes.  If the message of Hellscreen is that we should be condemned for our attraction to sadistic violence, then (right though they are) it's a bit of an obvious observation. Similarly, if the show is a more targeted condemnation of those who choose to stream ISIS' videos then it becomes a bit vague - unable to answer whether merely observing an online atrocity implicates us.  

This confusion aside, there's a hell of a lot to admire here; from the inherent tension to every facet of Jonny Woo's performance, his papery skin stretched tight over his skull and fists clenched, to the eerily insectile costuming and demeanour of Suzette Llewellyn, to the one bright spot of innocence we find in Vanessa Schofield's singing.

My search for a truly terrifying piece of theatre continues: Hellscreen leaving me ethically uncomfortable rather than cowering in pants-shitting terror. But this is a deeply effective production, one that's constantly finding new ways to toy with the audience and provoke a response from us. In a world of fluffy theatrical trivialities it cuts a distinctive, solitary figure -  one well worth checking out.


Hellscreen is at the Vault Festival until 8th March. Tickets and details here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

'What the F*ck Is Love?' at the Roundhouse, 26th February 2015

Friday, February 27, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Well, it's a combination of neurotransmitters, sex hormones and neuropeptides. When you spot an appropriate mate your subconscious zings, activating dopamine pathways in the brain. Vasopressin saturayes the ventral pallidum, as does oxytocin in the nucleus accembens. Meanwhile the paraventricular hypothalamic nucleus mediates your attachment behaviour, making you go all gooey eyed as you lock eyes over a crowded dancefloor. This, in combination with a spritz  of testosterone and estrogen (and trace amines phenethylamine and tyramine) powers lust. That giddy fluttering in the heart? A neat cocktail of norepinephrine and serotonin, also contributing to your restless and decreased appetite.

Well, that's one way of looking at it anyway. Cushion (pronounced K'Shon) Collective have a few others. Love is the pining of an endangered albatross driven to online dating. Love is the maternal cannibalism of one woman and her prawnchild. Love is the masochistic self-hypnosis of a moth caressing a flame. Et cetera.

Cushion Collective are; Sam Reynolds, Fauve Alice, Jasmine Lee, Scarlett Lassoff, Gerald Curtis, Felix Briant, Hannah Davis, Sophie Wakefield and Jessica McKerlie. I'm familiar with nearly all of these performers, am friends with a couple and have worked closely with at two of them. At last year's Hackney WickED Festival they packed out The Yard Theatre, putting on a show that was by all accounts pretty wonderful. I wish I'd made it, but at the time I was coated in raw egg and thus friend to no-one.

Last night, in the studio theatre of the Camden Roundhouse, the Collective struck again. Using the dual misery/cuteness of Valentine's Day as a kicking off point, the artists explorrf love through cabaret, performance, comedy and music. Our guide was Sam Reynolds, who took the stage to the trashy plastic pop beat of #Selfie. Clad in denim hot pants he cavorted around the stage lasciviously rubbing his selfie stick. It's crude, but as a distillation of 21st century identity masturbation, thrusting a telescopic cock substitute at the audience while taking photos of yourself is hard to beat.

With that we're off, each performer getting two or three quick segments within the show. There weren't any duds, but there were a few performers that stood out for me, memorable moments that stick to the mind like a chewing gum chud on the bottom of a bus seat.

From L-R Sophie Wakefield, Jasmine Lee, Gerald Curtis, Felix Briant, Fauve Alice, Sam Reynolds, Scarlett Lassoff, Hannah Davis
This was a night peppered with fun costumes, twisted mermaids and feather-topped moths. Both were ace (the moth costume in particular), but the one that lodges firmest is Sophie Wakefield's albatross act. The conceit is that the problems of nature's loneliest bird can be solved with online dating. Taking the form of a cheesy infomercial, Wakefield (beaked, feathered and melancholy) mimed loneliness, brief happiness and breakup. It was goofy but unexpectedly touching, the naturally bird-like body language of the artist used to maximum effect.

Performances like this go a long way towards dispelling tired old performance art clichés. Rightly or wrongly, the general perception of performance artists is of pretentious, obscurantist and painfully self-serious metropolitan hipsters. I know bunch of people who fit this description, eagerly seizing any opportunity to vanish up their own arse (which would be a fairly typical performance). With that in mind it's refreshing to see this pomposity pricked by Scarlett Lassoff, with her pitch perfect piss-take of Marina Abramovic.

Lassoff as Abramovic takes us through her marriage 'technique'. Selecting two members of the audience she leads them through satires of famous performances. Wigs are bound together, eye contact is forced and the 'Great Wall of China' meeting is recreated in slow motion. Throughout we're beset by Abramovic-a-like buzzwords, stentorian commands and that holier-than-thou stare as if she's got personal enlightenment solidly locked down. Now, I kinda like Abramovic's work, but boy oh boy does she prove to be a ripe target for a takedown.

My favourite performance of the night was to come almost at the end. Jasmine Lee's strange, intense, scary piece appeared to take inspiration from the surreal end of cinema and photography. Emerging with a piece of paper with a grass design printed upon it, she proceeded to gradually strip back herself. Running fingers through her hair she pulled ragged chunks out and threw them onto the floor, before inviting me to reach up and remove a shiny chemical face peel. The transparent, plasticky surface distorted her face for a moment, stretching it outwards before springing back to recognition.

Then, as she beckoned to the ceiling we noticed a large pink model prawn dangling from a rope. As Lee leapt up to snatch at it, the prawn danced from her fingers. Eventually she retrieved it, cradling it like a mother and baby. It was almost cute, almost. Then she ripped out its wide, passion-fruit eyes and bit into them, crushing seed and pulp around her face.

I have no idea what the hell this meant, but I deeply dug the whole Lynchian Eraserhead mutant baby murder vibe, the creepiness of the giant prawn imagery combining with Lee's natural gravitas to create something next to impossible to pin down. Everything at What the F*ck Is Love was funny, some were funny and touching, but only Jasmine's was funny and touching and magnetic - sucking me in perfect creepy confident vibes.

So a good night. To appreciate performance art it's usually best to remember the maxim that the artist is under no obligation to entertain the audience. Having an enjoyable time during a performance is strictly optional, true success lying in meaning, aesthetic, form and a thousand other intangible factors. But What the F*ck Is Love was all those as well as being hugely entertaining, which made it a super enjoyable night that everyone involved should be pleased with.

What the F*ck Is Love featured several people I know well. Ticket bought by me.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Yarico' at the Eel Brook Theatre, 25th February 2015

Thursday, February 26, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The 18th century comic opera Inkle and Yarico is an important piece of theatre. First staged in 1787, it tells the tragic tale of Yarico, an Amerindian girl who saves the life of Inkle, a marooned English trader. The two fall in love, marry and make plans to return to London together. Unfortunately Inkle turns out to be a complete shit and sells Yarico into slavery. 

A spectacular success, the humanist themes fed neatly into the growing anti-slavery movement. Yarico's sad predicament, snatched from paradise, lied to by disreputable white traders and sold as chattel, works as a simple parable that exposes the immorality and greed of the slave traders while accentuating the humanity and nobility of those enslaved. It's popularity spread across Europe and North America, the show helping bolster public opposition to slavery, all of which culminated in the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

Now, with the admirable intentions of both educating audiences on the history of slavery and exploring how this tale remains relevant in 2015, Yarico is resurrected as a modern musical. The skeleton of the story - innocent island girl betrayed into slavery - remains the same, yet with a few modern wrinkles. This Yarico (Liberty Buckland) is a native Caribbean islander who rescues inveterate gambler Inkle (Alex Spinney). They fall in love, as does Yarico and Inkle's best friends Nono (Tori Allen-Martin) and Cicero (Jean-Luke Worrell).

Plans are quickly drawn up to sail to Bridgetown, Barbados and then onto the spires of London. Yarico can't believe her fortune; having learned English from a lost copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare she's something of an Anglophile. But she'll never see London. Inkle, drawn into a below-decks game of dice bets Yarico on a roll of the dice. Soon she's eking out a miserable existence on Governor Worthy's (Adam Vaughan) sugar plantation, her knowledge of Shakespeare marking her as a 'pet' for the snootily cruel Lady Worthy (Charlotte E Hamblin).  But with a slave revolt quietly bubbling up in the plantation, Cicero and Nono plotting to free her and a despondent Inkle reappearing perhaps there is hope yet?

If shows were judged on their principles this would deserve unanimously rave reviews. But they're not, and despite the obvious best intentions of cast, crew and producers I'm sad to report that Yarico simply isn't very good. 

Problems begin in the opening scenes, in which Yarico and Nono bemoan the tedium of island life. There's an irritating 'Carry On' tone to these early scenes, the native tribe played for laughs with songs about fishing and hammocks. Actors lounge about the stage in modernish clothes looking like student backpackers, the only concession to 'tribal'-ness the odd swipe of white face paint somewhere on their bodies. 

At this point the tone is stuck firmly in campy sex comedy, with Nono excitedly spouting innuendo about spending weeks at sea being "sprayed with salty sea foam".  A couple of minutes later we're thrown into the middle of a traumatic slave auction. This tonal mismatch continues throughout and largely serves to undermine the drama. It's as if 12 Years a Slave had seen fit to give Solomon Northup a dopey comedy sidekick who'd periodically spout pidgin English and trip over stuff.

By and large, the more Yarico skews to the dramatic the more tolerable it becomes. Fortunately the second act amps up the seriousness. It's here that Liberty Buckland, adrift in the early scenes, finds the pathos and misery in her character. Almost every successful moment in Yarico comes courtesy of her considerable talents, scratching out tragedy from within this mixed-up script.

Unfortunately that doesn't compensate for whatever else is going on in the play. The scenery, consisting of a couple of bamboo sticks dangling from the ceiling, does little to convey the tropical Caribbean. Nor does a performance space that looks suspiciously like an S&M dungeon: with a tacky black vinyl floor and walls covered in (what appears to be) black electrical tape.

The score and book are, for the most part adequate. The early, cheery songs are a bit brainless, but I can enjoy a simple song about a hammock. More lamentable is Chocolate, in which sinister plantation owners use eating chocolate as a metaphor for raping their slaves. The easy highlight is Spirit Eternal, especially the final performance featuring the whole cast that impresses because of its volume and palpable sincerity.

Yarico is a classic case of noble intentions colliding with poor execution. I agree that the story should be better known, that it's historically important and that it has contemporary relevance (slavery still being very much a problem). But this production bites off more than it can chew, leaving us with a tonally screwed-up, cheap looking and often tedious experience.

If only could you run a show on sincerity alone...


Yarico is at the Eel Brook until 14th March. Tickets here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

'Miss Saigon' at the Prince Edward Theatre, 24th February 2015

Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

With a deafening *thunk thunk thunk* of helicopter blades opening the show, Miss Saigon  leaves audiences in no doubt that they're watching one of the big musicals. After a record-breaking ten year stint in the Theatre Royal, Nicholas Hytner's bombastic production finally closed in 1999 after 4,000 performances. In 2014 it was resurrected in the Prince Edward, the producers hungrily eyeing the lucrative box office and cultural stature of its sibling show Les Miserables, situated just a couple of hundred metres down Old Compton Street.

Famously derived from Madame Butterfly, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical tells the tragic love story of Chris (Alistair Brammer), a US soldier and Kim (Eva Noblezada), a Vietnamese sex worker. Thrown together in the closing days of the Vietnam War, they fall in love amidst the hedonism of Saigon. After a hasty marriage ceremony Chris plans to bring Kim back to the US with him. But in the chaos of the US withdrawal the two are separated, Chris heading back to Atlanta and Kim left to a life of poverty.

A couple of years later the two reunite over the revelation that Kim has borne Chris a son, Tam. But, shock horror, in the interim period he's also gotten married to the All-American Ellen (Tamsin Carroll). On the personal scale these characters tackle the thorny thickets of abandoned love, accidental bigamy, arranged marriage, the fate of mixed race children and exploitation of women and on the macro-political scale Communism and Capitalism violently duke it out, all to a series of somewhat catchy showtunes. There's also a lot of flashing lights, loud bang, big bits of scenery and - aw-no-way-dude - an honest-to-god helicopter.

Miss Saigon, along with fellow stalwarts like Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and The Lion King, is pretty much exactly the kind of show you'd expect to see on a prime West End stage. It's unselfconsciously big, tremendously loud, slick as hell and ultra-confident. If the fringe theatre that makes up most of what I see on stage are a fleet of yachts bobbing gently up and down in the sea, Miss Saigon is a 200,000 tonne cruise liner casually bonking them out of the way.  If you're a tourist in London and have £50 you want to splurge on a grandiose show, you won't be disappointed.

Let's face it, you're not going to see this kind of thing in some pokey theatre pub.
But is it actually any good? The woman sat in front of me who leaked tears like a broken tap seemed to think so. The plump oldies dutifully trooping onto a touring coach outside were all in good spirits. Even my fellow critics appeared to have had a great time. Me? Well, it was okay. I guess.

Me criticising a show like this is akin to an ant angrily pelting an elephant with grains of sand, especially as I can't think of anything particularly awful about it. It's more a combination of gushy melodrama, overly bombastic music and, perversely, that it was so professionally polished that spontaneity and personality are all but erased.

There's undoubtedly good bits, I was most engaged during two fantastical sequences that define the aesthetics of communism versus capitalism. Neat parallels are drawn between two gigantic golden idols of Ho Chi Minh and the Statue of Liberty, both ritually worshipped by blank-faced automatons, on the communist side black pyjama clad revolutionaries and on the capitalist side dancing nudie girls. This dichotomy allows Miss Saigon to evade criticisms of exploiting the Vietnam War for entertainment purposes; simultaneously giving lip service the political dimension while placing its central love story 'beyond' squabbling ideologies.

There ain't half a couple of wobbles though, all too often Miss Saigon appears every one of its 25 years old. Looming large is the uncomfortable fact that every single Vietnamese woman in the play is a sex worker of some kind. Admittedly, swathes of the show are devoted to the inhumanity of exploiting vulnerable young women, but these efforts are undermined by the fact that all the female inhabitants of the bar are beautiful, shapely and directed with an eye towards audience titillation.

Sexy and oh-so-exploited.
Miss Saigon gets a smidge more worrying if you approach it on a purely allegorical level, with Chris and Kim's relationship symbolising US intervention in Vietnam. Mid-way through the play our hero soldier, defending his decision to rescue Kim, exclaims "I'm American! How could I not intervene?!" Painting America's decision to intervene in Vietnam as a misguided attempt at humanitarianism, with the real tragedy "all the good we failed to do" is a light coat of imperialist whitewash on a grubby slice of American history.

But perhaps, just perhaps, West End audiences wouldn't fork over heaving fistfuls of pound notes to be hectored on the shortcomings of postwar Western foreign policy.  And, let's face it, a musical about the Vietnam War could be colossally, brain-breakingly bad, rather than the mere iffy awkwardness of Miss Saigon. 

On some level I wish I'd enjoyed Miss Saigon more than I actually did. The cast are precisely as talented as you'd expect from a show this extravagant, with special kudos to Jon Jon Brione's excellently lizard-like Engineer. But this combination of show-offy duets, middle-of-the-road ballads, overblown romance and plot beats so clunking they measure on the Richter scale just isn't my kind of culture. 

I did enjoy that helicopter though.


Miss Saigon is at the Prince Edward Theatre for the foreseeable future. Tickets here.

Huge thanks to Rebecca at Official Theatre for the press ticket.

'Focus' (2015) directed by Glenn Ficarra &John Requa

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Who knew petty crime could be so much fun? Focus, a tale of charming pickpockets, con-men and confidence tricksters, treats theft as an art form. Our hero, Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith), is essentially an evil Derren Brown. Through a combination of psychological tricks, subconscious programming and old-school grifting, he manipulates his marks so expertly they only notice they’ve been taken for a ride when he’s long gone, if at all.


Focus is released 27th February 2015

Interview with a PR Man

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Today, something of a change of pace: a peek behind the stage curtain of theatre blogging/arts reviewing. 

A fortnight ago I was invited to join a referral programme that would involve a link to purchase tickets being placed on my review. The offer explained that I would get 10% commission on any tickets purchased through the link. Considering that West End ticket prices run from about £50-£100 (and that's a conservative estimate) this isn't small change.

Admittedly, the notion of squeezing some money out this website is tempting. After all, in these trying times I'd be mad to say no to a couple more pieces of silver jingling about in my pocket. But I did say no. My instinctive reaction was suspicion that binding my critical judgment to my bank balance was a bad move.

So when asked if I wanted to chat about this service I figured why not. Promoting it is Chris Hislop, an experienced arts PR man who I know pretty well. I always look forward to his press invites as he has a pretty great track record, sending me invites to interesting and challenging fringe theatre; recently Hamlet at the Cockpit Theatre, Marching on Together at the Old Red Lion and Dante's Inferno at the Rag Factory.

I met him on the South Bank last Friday to discuss this new reward scheme. My objectives were to discover where the money paid to reviewers was going to come from, what the long-term goals of the project are and whether it affects the integrity of critics to be paid a slice of ticket revenue.

Front page of Reward Theatre
As for the first question, Chris led me through what he described as a "murky, murky world" of interactions between theatre box offices, production companies and various ticket resellers. He explained that London ticketing is based around which reseller has the cheapest ticket at the time. The tickets themselves are worth whatever they're worth at the point of origin, from there they can be sold or given to an external box office (e.g. the TKTS booth in Leicester Square). If they're sold the reseller will keep the profits, if they're given the theatre will take a slice of the sale. As described the system is "very much like stocks and shares".

Murky indeed, and a iceberg I'm glad I only see the very tip of. As I see it, in the theatre rewards system, bloggers would become passive agents for the ticket resellers. I can't imagine that the company running the service are buying tickets in bulk, so I assume they are running an external box office that buys from theatres on a per ticket basis, with the individual blogger being paid a slice of their profits. This laid to rest at least one of my worries: that I'd be siphoning off money that should go to struggling companies trying to break even.

As to the second question on the company's ambitions for the service, Chris claims there are none and no volume projections for how many tickets are to be sold via these links. The company running it apparently have no ambitions for what they want to achieve, Chris merely being hired as PR for the service to get the word out to bloggers about it and test the waters. Given that this service is apparently up and running, I find it unlikely there's not some future strategy involved. Annual London theatre box office receipts run to about half a billion pounds, a lucrative pie that any self-respecting events company should want to stick a finger into. These press links are one way in - essentially piggybacking on the reputation of theatre blogs and websites.

But it's the "selling out" factor that sticks in my throat. Prime among my concerns is that this service gives theatre reviewers a financial incentive to give positive reviews (and that most bloggers have no "Chinese wall" between advertising and editorial). After all, if you're getting paid based on the amount of tickets sold via the link, it logically would be in my interest to exalt how amazing these plays are and that you should absolutely - definitely - attend. Even if I was scrupulously honest about keeping my bias at a distance there's still (in my eyes at least), the suspicion of corruption. My nightmare scenario is me giving a panning to a crap show, then the director angrily pointing out that if he'd been part of the affiliate service maybe he'd have gotten a more positive review.

How could I counter that accusation? Ask them to trust in me that I'm not biased? In my experience, if someone says "I know this opens up the possibility of a conflict of interest, but I can assure you that I am a good person and wouldn't take advantage" I don't believe them even if they believe it themselves.  

I put this to Chris, who countered by explaining that, contrary to expectations, positive reviews "make no difference" in putting bums on seats. He explains that "all PR is good PR", what matters is volume of press, which leads to general public awareness of a show. An acidic pan might make a clanging disaster of a show sound so intriguing that rubbernecking audiences flock in (as Viva Forever! clumsily attempted). This is a slightly dispiriting revelation - I'd always liked to imagine my rave reviews were driving up audience figures. Not so: 
"It doesn't matter what the coverage is, coverage of any kind will sell more tickets.  So no, I don't think there is a problem in terms of conflict of interest because I don't think the star rating of a review affects the amount of tickets that will be sold".
Corralling press with the intention of steering the public towards a show is Chris' bread and butter, so I take him on his word on this. But he's on shakier ground when he makes the argument that because every review is influenced by factors that go unmentioned in the review, what does it matter if money happens to be one of them? 

It's here that he and I differ. For example, Chris doesn't see a problem with a critic not declaring personal connections to a show in a review: "I don't know. I don't want to know". I ask if he thinks there is a critic's 'code of ethics'. He explains that "any code of ethics is subject to mutability".  I disagree: willingness to bend your ethics depending on the situation is a pretty good indication that you weren't particularly ethical to begin with.

Maybe I just listened to a few too many Bill Hicks cassettes as a teenager, but I can't help but see money as a corrupting influence in art. I explain this and Chris responds that "by that fashion, not only does money corrupt, but relationships corrupt, humanity corrupts. Are there shows you've reviewed badly because you've been in a bad mood that day?" There aren't, and I say so. "Of course there are. Have you reviewed well because you had a nice drink and a good time?" Again, no - but if I had a good time because of a show that'd be the review. (I understand the slight hypocrisy in asking you to take my word on this).

I guess it boils down to differing perspectives. As I perceive it Chris approaches reviews from a utilitarian perspective, evaluating them by their usefulness to a press campaign and the metric of whether they can contribute to shifting tickets. So, if you view reviews as an impartial, targeted advertisement, connecting the ticket buying mechanism directly to the review is a no-brainer - if a review is shifting tickets it has fulfilled its function. 

Chris Hislop
My perspective is a bit more high-falutin'.  Even if a review gets audiences to see something, that's secondary to the primary purpose, an intellectual and emotional response to a piece of art. This is what makes a review better than an advert; it's best performed through actual honesty rather than for commercial gain.

As I see it, putting a link that gives me a commission per ticket sold creates a tiny amount of distrust between critic and audience that no amount of reassurance can get rid of. I could tell you that I'll review things exactly the same way. I could even tell myself that's what's going to happen. But what happens if one month I have less money than I need? Even if I take Chris' word that the tone of reviews makes no difference to sales the temptation is still there to skew reviews towards positivity. How can you ever know know that I'm not doing exactly that at any point?

All you'd have is my word and only a fool takes someone on the internet at their word. Even if my reviews were all genuine they'd come with a seed of doubt. Maybe some critics can deal with that - I don't want to. I prize my integrity and independence - and understand that they're fragile assets that once sacrificed, can never truly be regained.

Perhaps I'm being wilfully precious about all this. I've got a decently sized (though not mindblowingly huge) audience, and I have no idea if you'd notice or even care if I signed up to the ticket commission service. Maybe, if you approach it from a certain angle, it is indeed morally permissible for a critic to get a slice of a ticket sale. Perhaps a year from now every other London theatre blogger will have signed up to it and be rolling in that sweet commission dough, leaving me poor and envious.

But I'd feel like I'd sold out, and that's what's important.

Did I make the right decision?  Am I overthinking things? Let me know in the comments below:

Monday, February 23, 2015

'King Lear' at the Peckham Asylum, 22nd February 2015

Monday, February 23, 2015 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The chapel at the old Peckham Asylum is the most atmospheric performance space I've seen in a very long time. Founded in 1827, it sat in the centre of an almshouse for elderly Victorian Peckhamites. Then, in 1941 the Nazis did some unwanted remodelling when they chucked an incendiary bomb through the roof. The resulting blaze scorchied the walls clean of decoration and left the building an exposed, roofless shell. Miraculously the stained-glass windows survived, one of the last eerie echoes of past opulence.

For half a century or so the ruins decayed: plaster peeling from the walls, rain staining the remaining stone busts, the biblical scenes in the windows gradually blackening with London pollution. Now it's repurposed as an art/events space, the blasted surroundings impressively evocative of faded religions, forgotten dreams and failed empires.

All this makes the asylum the perfect place to stage King Lear. Shakespeare's unravelling ruler finding his perfect reflection in the ruined space. Traverse staging opens up the nave of the church, allowing the actors to move freely around us, variously seeking refuge in the remains of the chancel and change costume behind crumbling walls. Performing Shakespeare in 'found' surroundings is hardly a new idea in theatre but it remains an effective one. In the confines of parochial theatres, walls draped in velvet and bums pressed into plush seats, the prose can sound stuffy and establishment. 

Not here. With the winter wind murmuring around the walls the sensation is that we're peering into some time-dislocated court rather than watching actors on a stage. Shakespeare's language finds a natural ally in the architecture, making the iambic pentameter weirdly contemporary. The costumes and aesthetic are pitch-perfect too; though dressed in quasi-medieval clothes there's a subtle touch of modernity - for example Lear himself wears scruffy military olives. If you squint you can imagine you're watching some A Canticle for Leibowitz-like future society, thrown back to feudal serfdom by an apocalyptic war and scratching out lives in the crumbling remains of our present.

At the centre of all this, John McEnery's Lear is a formidable, forthright yet faintly depressing presence. He's a man far from his prime, yet rages furiously against the dying of the light. Hints to his past power lie in the instinctive deference shown to him in the early scenes, but as we proceed through the story he appears to shrink before our eyes, his limbs and posture gradually curling inwards like a dying spider. Ferocious orders slowly become barks of confusion and then madness as his mind collapses. 

There's a touch of dementia to this Lear, signified by other characters feeding him the occasional line and his later brandishing of the script and reading his lines from it. I've got mixed feelings about how effective this. On one hand it's a clever psychological symbol of madness; that Lear feels his words are proscribed, that he senses his fate is sealed and has some recognition of his existence as a tragic dramatic character. On the other it often limits McEnery's performance, forcing him to fuss with a book throughout his scenes. An iffy touch and arguably an unnecessary one given that we can gather all we need to know about Lear's character through intonation, body language and action.

John McEnery's as King Lear.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves similarly well, confidently tackling the text in a clear, forthright manner. But there is one major criticism that I cannot get around. For the entirety of the show I was practically frozen solid. These beautiful surroundings have one flaw; the building is unheated and uninsulated. Upon exhalation you see your breath hang in the air in front of you, the concrete floor greedily sucks in body heat and the odd icy draft winds its way down your back.

Unaware of this, and having headed straight from work, I was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and a thin coat. After about ten minutes I was seriously uncomfortable. By half an hour I was shivering uncontrollably. By an hour and a half in (even after the ten minute interval) my feet had gone completely numb. Other members of the audience appeared also chilly, though were wrapped in blankets, polar wear and thick downy coats. One woman even appeared to have a hot water bottle inside her outfit. 

That I was freezing cold throughout is a banal criticism, but it meant I didn't enjoy the play half as much as I'd have liked to. Towards the end of a punishing three hours my body was involuntarily shaking, I was frustrated that these characters weren't dying off fast enough and was silently cursing Shakespeare for being so damn wordy. The only way I could stave off this unhappiness was sympathy for the actors performing in this, especially for Ludovic Hughes (who spends large portions of the show in his underwear). If I'm in pain god knows how he copes.

This is an effective production in a beautiful setting but some warning needs to be given to the audience in advance that it's going to be this goddamn cold. Even the provision of a few more heaters might have made the overall experience less physically miserable.


King Lear is at the Peckham Asylum until 5th March 2014. Tickets here.

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