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Friday, December 7, 2018

Review: 'Aisha' at the Old Red Lion, 6th December 2018

Friday, December 7, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Don't go to Aisha if you want a chilled out night at the theatre. This is 75 minutes of pain, misery and rage, condensed through the small yet powerful form of Alex Jarratt. She plays the titular Aisha, a 17-year-old girl who has been purchased from her parents by her uncle, married against her will, imprisoned, enslaved and raped almost every day for three years.

And, without wanting to give too much away, you shouldn't hold out hopes of this being some kind of emancipatory feel-good drama of someone triumphing over adversity. There is a battle at the heart of Aisha, but it's the equivalent of a person screaming into a hurricane. 

Written by "AJ", the show has an impressively streamlined purity and sense of focus to it: it's a one-woman monologue; Aisha is on stage pretty much the entire time and; while other characters do feature in it, they're left to the audience's imagination. 

Zeroing our focus onto Aisha rather than distracting us with other performers is a smart decision - if, for example, her rapist husband was actually played on stage then it would diminish the monster that we visualise in our heads. It also makes the painful and traumatising rape scenes in the play that much more powerful, her absent husband standing for oppressive patriarchy as a whole rather than as an individual we can collectively hate.

Another clever choice is Jarrett's interacts with the audience, a technique that sets us on edge and cranks up the tension. The most excruciatingly awkward moment was when she singled out some middle-aged guy in the audience as her father and repeatedly implored him to come on stage and dance with her. Understandably he remained rooted to his seat (which I think was the point - though if I was chosen I probably would have gotten on stage...). Other examples are Aisha handing props to audience members in the front row to look at or, in my case, being asked to hold her dress as she washes herself.

It's a simple and straightforward dramatic technique that reminds us that this story isn't some hypothetical fantasy, but rather something that invisibly happens all around and that (at least on some level) we're all implicated in Aisha and other child brides' plight. After all, what do you do if you see a girl with suspicious bruises standing in front of you at the supermarket till? Would you step in and ask her if she's okay or look the other way?

And then there's Alex Jarrett's performance. I'm not one for lists of superlatives, so I'll just say she's fearless and brilliant. There's a palpable intelligence to the way she interrogates the audience, half mourning the loss of her potential, half eager to show off that even after all she's suffered she's still herself. And yet, you sense a deadening of feeling within her, a gradual dimming in her eyes as she realises that even if she were to escape through a tantalisingly unlocked door, 'normal life' is now a fantasy.

So yeah. This isn't drama for the lighthearted but it's drama that deserves an audience. You might feel bad for looking away when you see something uncomfortable in real life, so sooth your conscience by at least confronting it through art. Kudos to everyone involved, they've knocked this out of the park.

Aisha is at the Old Red Lion under Saturday 8th December. Tickets here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review: 'Jailbirds' at the Etcetera Theatre, 4th December 2018

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

I've got a real soft spot for science fiction theatre. It takes a certain amount of gumption to realise a believable technologically advanced world on stage, even one that's broadly adjacent to our own. Split Note Theatre's Jailbirds manages this - and it does it with a few pieces of white tape and faith in the audience's imagination.

The setting is a subterranean women's prison in a dystopic future. The most feared and notorious inmate is Heath Dane (Molly Jones). Her crimes are never precisely defined, but she's a violent serial killer with a sadistic streak a mile long with genius level intellect. 

As we start the play, she has a new neighbour: the prim and apparently sheltered Moira (Stella Richt). Moira is quickly revealed to be the observer in a scientific study of Dane by Bheur (Kirsty Marie Terry) and Officer Oml (Evangelina Burton) - a psychological tool designed to get the perceptive yet egotistical killer to reveal her secrets. Overseeing this is a long-suffering prison guard (Fred Woodley Evans).

It's an interesting set-up but partially hamstrung by the fact that (at least as far as I could see) there didn't seem to be any pressing need to find out what was going on in the killer's mind. Quizzing an imprisoned serial killer immediately brings Silence of the Lambs to mind. The tension in that story comes from knowing that Buffalo Bill's victim is doomed unless Clarice Starling can convince Hannibal Lector to help. By comparison, the objectives of what the 'study' eventually proves to be in Jailbirds felt more like curiosity than an urgent need.

Another aspect that doesn't work is the Brechtian appearance of director Luke Culloty on stage. He exists outside the text, pausing a scene, rearranging the characters within it and setting them on their way. I love a bit of fourth wall breaking as much as the next person, but its use here doesn't add anything. Distancing techniques like this force the audience to consider the artifice of what they're watching, but I'm at a loss as to how doing this in Jailbirds adds to the play's message (which itself is rather fuzzy).

Fortunately, the play is buoyed up by two effective performances from Molly Jones and Stella Richt. Richt initially seems a bit flat and affectless, but as events proceed you begin to understand that this is a deliberate decision. As the play winds towards a conclusion the dramatic focus begins to shift from Heath to Moira, and Richt delivers a couple of powerful speeches that work brilliantly.

But, as in the text, all eyes are on Molly Jones for the majority of the play. Most of the time she's operating in a different league to the rest of the cast, simultaneously scheming, physically intimidating and weirdly vulnerable. Jones manages to underly her outwardly sadistic dangerous exterior with some weird vulnerability. The character is missing an eye (neatly conveyed with an opaque contact lens), and you sense that she knows her powers are gradually diminishing the longer she languishes in her cell. 

So it's a mixed bag. Split Note Theatre clearly have the talent - and they also clearly have an admirable sense of narrative ambition. I suspect a couple of rewrites, a hard think on what message they want to convey and how the story could be tweaked to do that would pay off gangbusters.

Jailbirds is at the Etcetera Theatre until 8 December. Tickets here.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Review: 'Cuckoo' at the Soho Theatre, 21st November 2018

Thursday, November 22, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Escaping a hometown is no mean feat. Like a spaceship trying to escape a planet's gravitational pull you have to build momentum, gradually building up speed in order to break free of its orbit until - in one blissful moment - you're freed from all the petty dramas, bad memories and old beefs - able to leave the past behind and set a course for tomorrow.

Some never make it. You see them on infrequent visits home: sat in the same pubs, in the same barstools, drinking the same pints. Each year a little balder, a little fatter, gradually morphing into their parents. They will die in this place, and their children will repeat the cycle. This is the life trap, and Lisa Carroll's Cuckoo captures it well.

Set in the Dublin suburb of Crumlin, the play follows teenagers Iona (Caitriona Ennis) and Pingu (Elise Heaven), two square pegs in round holes trying their best to escape to a new life in London. Ostracised by their peers for their nonconformity, they're bullied, bored and have visions of a glitzy life in London, where their woes will melt away in a tide of celebrity encounters, over-sized Top Shops and fancy nightclubs.

But their escape won't that easy. Pockets (Colin Campbell) and Trix (Peter Newington) are two young men happy to be big fish in a small pond. They see Iona and Pingu's departure as an implicit criticism, this upsetting of the status quo exposing their small-scale ambitions. And so they plan to tear the pair apart and keep them here.

Cuckoo is intelligently staged, written and performed - with Caitriona Evans' Iona a genuinely impressive achievement in acting. Carroll's script seems to have a memorable line on every page and it's written with a punchy, aggressive energy that cuts through flowery bullshit.

And yet... for all it's qualities I simply didn't enjoy watching it. This is a long play - running close to two hours without an interval and I found the experience of watching it incredibly depressing. There is very little light at the end of this tunnel, and after so long of watching yelling, unhappy people drag each other through the mud I was glad for it to end. 

One thing I found particularly sad was how Carroll defines her characters' limited dreams. For one, her wildest ambition is to be a background dancer in someone else's music video, for another one of the prime attractions of London is that there's a big Top Shop. These are two examples of many, but Carroll never misses a chance to impress upon us how pathetic and insular her characters are and this relentless misery quickly ground me down.

Naturally, all this leads to a bleak, downer ending in which most of the characters vaguely comprehend that their futures are a barren, joyless wasteland and that they can never truly escape themselves. After that, I blearily stumbled out into the cold November night feeling thoroughly miserable.

This might be exactly what Carroll was after - and if so this is a success. There's a hell of a lot to admire about Cuckoo, but the actual experience of watching it is, quite frankly, an ordeal.

Cuckoo is at the Soho Theatre until 8 December. Tickets here.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: 'Thirteen Cycles' at the Rosemary Branch, 15th November 2018

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

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

I'm in awe of good improvisational comedy. It's thrilling watching performers probe the possibilities of a new story, gradually filling out the details of rough character sketches and mutually teasing out themes. It's a highwire act that can easily go wrong (and boy have I seen it go wrong...) but when it works it's like you're right in the midst of the creative process - a magical feeling.

Katy Schutte and Chris Mead have this magic in spades. They're expert, seasoned improvisational performers - and Thirteen Cycles gives them ample space to show off their talents. The theme is science fiction, with the seed of the story being locations contributed by the audience. Though there's no audience participation beyond the opening minutes, the whole thing kicks off when someone yells out "spaceship repair". 

Very quickly we're in the middle of a grimy yet futuristic workshop as a grandfather and grandson mechanics bicker amongst each other as they fix up a classic spaceship. This gradually expands into a dystopia involving a throat-stabbing rebellion, a snooty elite showing off their organic pet cats and some rather grisly methods of execution.

Each show is unique, and they promise a variety of inspirations from Star Wars to Solaris. That said, the show I saw demonstrated the distances that Schutte & Mead were prepared to go. Though it's basically a comedy show there are serious scenes and a few genuinely emotional moments. The pair quickly devices extremely likeable characters and then cruelly dispose of them. As this happens you sense a kind of emotional G-Force - the more serious it gets the more it becomes difficult to change gears towards comedy.

The result is a story that's unfinished, that has a few frayed edges and a couple of narrative dead ends - but with real imagination and heart. Schutte and Mead even weave in recurring dramatic motifs and symbolism - which is like, next level improv.

Despite all this, there is one big element of the show that doesn't really work. Much is made in the promotional literature of the use of live projection mapping and score by Lemon Jelly's Fred Deakin. Projection mapping means, essentially, that an object on stage can have a texture overlaid on at any time. Theoretically, this should allow the show to visualise whatever situation the actors decide to create, with Deakin improvising along with the actors.

Well, either it didn't work properly on the night I went or it just doesn't work well at all, but what it amounted to was a couple of apparently random patterns projected on the wall that didn't seem to have any relation to the scene in question. Live projection mapping to improvised theatre is no doubt incredibly difficult, both technically and creatively and the show falls short of its stated ambitions by quite some way.

Plus - and I hate to say this as a long-time fan of Lemon Jelly - the live score soundtrack wasn't that great. There was a lot of low rumbling synths accompanying scenes but it felt like ambient noise more than an actual score. Maybe this was just a bad night for it. 

Thirteen Cycles is undeniably entertaining improvisational theatre - Schutte and Meade are almost annoyingly good at what they do. I laughed a hell of a lot. Still, it doesn't quite live up to its marketing. Go expecting laughs rather than technical wizardry.

Thirteen Cycles is at the Rosemary Branch until 29th November. Tickets here.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Review: 'Vessel' at Battersea Arts Centre, 8th November 2018

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

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

Picture this: I'm sat in the front row of a theatre with four women sat on chairs in front of me. The set is a gigantic piece of curved plastic with no horizon. To an ambient electronica soundtrack, the women simultaneously recite a poem at various speeds and tones, resulting in an overlapping chorus that sounded like "we are the shattering the shimmering this is the shimmering we are the shattered this is the shattering shimmering this is a shattering place..." and so on. This is Sue MacLaine's vessel - and it's hypnotic. 

I felt like I was coming up on psychedelics, especially as sitting in the front row seemed to encourage the performers to periodically lock eyes with me - a lazer gaze that was in danger of burning right through my skull. I kinda wobbled on my seat and felt a bit light-headed. t was cool - but what the hell does it mean?

Well, the show bills itself as being about the "radiance of survival", which sounds nice but doesn't exactly clarify things. Clearing things up a bit is that the performance is bookended with a description of the medieval practice of the Anchoress, in which a woman would be walled up inside a church where she would remain for the rest of her life. She'd be fed through holes in the wall, dispense spiritual and personal advice, contemplate the nature of God and, in a pretty metal twist, dig her own grave. Cool.

MacLaine stages the contemporary interpretation of this, with the four performers (Tess Agus, Angela Clerkin, Kailing Fu and Karlina Grace Paseda). They present a spectrum of modern femininity, are walled off from one another (by circles drawn on the stage) and deliver a litany for today. This adds up to a chaotic catalogue of modern life, an avalanche of nouns and verbs about finance, sex, politics, tech and a tonne of other stuff.

It's an almost unbearable avalanche of information, neatly simulating 'worry-fatigue'. There is so much shit going on in the world right now that it's difficult to keep track: you expend your energies campaigning for the NHS just as you worry at the USA's rapid slide to white nationalism while climate change keeps you up at night. Then you watch a TV show about plastic pollution in the oceans - which you'd forgotten about as it had been swallowed up the constant doom-laden cavalcade of bad news. And shit! I should really do more about fixed odds betting terminals...

It's too much for one person to handle - you would go nuts if you tried. vessel suggests an alternative, or as writer/director Sue MacLaine puts it:  “I would argue that choosing to withdraw and being in silence is a political act. Trying to serve from an internalised place is as valuable as external shouting."

A 'withdrawal' from the depressing realities of life is pretty seductive. After all, what can one person do in the face of a burning, miserable hellworld? Why not just, y'know, pretend that it isn't happening and take some me-time?

But it is awfully convenient to say that doing nothing is a political act and that internalised protest is "as valuable" as doing literally anything to kick back against a culture gone rotten. It leaves the thrust of the show as an off-putting cry for more solipsism in the midst of a planet being ruined by those exact impulses. To put it bluntly: if you conclude that your political action is withdrawal and silence then you are a coward. 

Thing is, vessel obviously doesn't agree with that because it's a piece of theatre being loudly performed in public - the opposite of withdrawal and silence. It results in a weirdly conceived show that's a bit like a dog endlessly chasing its own tail. 

Perhaps the best indication of its confused priorities is the way the show romanticises the situation of an Anchoress. vessel envisages them as venerated symbols of femininity in a community, their cell functioning as a symbolic womb from which a true understanding of reality can spring from within their isolation. The reality was a medieval peasant with mental problems bricked into a wall - not the best model with which to approach the modern world!

vessel is a fine piece of writing, an aesthetic marvel and a great performance - but it's a call to inactivity. And that's the last thing we need right now.

vessel is at the Battersea Arts Centre until 24 November. Tickets here.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Review: 'Billy Bishop Goes To War' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 1st November 2018

Saturday, November 3, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 1 Star

There are no heroes in war, but John Gray's 1978 musical Billy Bishop Goes To War puts a lot of effort into trying to disprove that. Based on the life of Canadian fighter pilot William Bishop (played by Charles Aitken & Oliver Beamish), this is a two-man musical that takes us from his days as "the worst student" in an Officer's Academy, through the Great War and into his old age.

Let's put my cards on the table from the start. I have a deep and abiding dislike of anything that glorifies war, which includes what British hawks have transformed Armistice Day into. Harry Patch, the longest-surviving combat soldier of World War I famously said: "War is organised murder and nothing else”. He died aged 111 in 2009, and now that he's not around to argue back, politicians have seized upon Remembrance Sunday as an opportunity for militaristic nationalist sentiment.

All of which makes this cheery, upbeat tale of a man who murdered 72 people curdle in the mouth. Now, I don't think the producers and creative team behind the show set out to intentionally make a pro-war piece of theatre. After all, the artistic director of the Jermyn Street Theatre, Tom Littler says in the programme: 
"When I was asked to do it I said no. I'm as liberal and anti-war as any other theatre director. [But] when I put it on stage I was staggered by how wrong I had been. If you've arrived with anything like my prejudices, I hope you'll be similarly converted."
I wasn't. 

The show is basically an uncritical Boy's Own story about a man who began killing people, realised he was good at it and thoroughly enjoyed it. This transformation doesn't go without comment, with Bishop explaining in letters home to his sweetheart that he's surprised by how "bloodthirsty" he's become, excitedly explaining the thrill of hitting someone's fuel line and incinerating them in mid-air, and at one point waxing orgasmic about the prospect of machine-gunning sleeping men in their beds.

There is a moment of self-reflection when he destroys a plane and watches the pilots free-falling to their deaths, but given that he's soon eager to jump back into the fight and continue increasing his kill-streak the sight obviously didn't make that big of an impact on him.

Perhaps - perhaps - I'd have more sympathy for Bishop if he'd been conscripted into service, but he signed up of his own volition, has many opportunities to leave the war and simply doesn't seem to give much of a shit about the reasons for what he's doing. The play concludes with a rousing propaganda speech by the now elderly Bishop as he attempts to recruit future soldiers - which may as well be a paid advertisement for the modern military.

What is there to take away from Billy Bishop Goes To War? That military service is the ticket to admiration and fame? That killing people at the behest of the upper-class is actually kinda cool? That, from a certain perspective, the industrial-scale slaughter of human beings can actually be kinda fun and fulfilling? It just seems a bit tasteless to put on such an ooh-rah piece of pro-Great War propaganda in the week running up the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.

Compounding all this is Charles Aitken's portrayal of the young Billy Bishop. Aitken quickly proves himself a deeply talented performer with charisma to spare. He's a pleasure to watch, effortlessly swashbuckling, rogueish and handsome - there's something of Rik Mayall's Lord Flashheart in the way he struts about the stage in his fancy leather coat. But, perversely, Aitken being so good only makes the show's pro-war lean that much more pronounced. 

And so, intentionally or not, Billy Bishop Goes To War ends up feeling monstrous: a toe-tappin' and smile-inducin' good times romp about a man who just looooved to kill people. 

I should say that the Jermyn Street Theatre is also staging Michael Mear's This Evil Thing over the Remembrance period, which is about the misery and injustice inflicted upon conscientious objectors during the Great War. Everything I've heard about that production makes it sound fantastic, and perhaps that's so anti-war that Billy Bishop was chosen as a counterbalance. I wish I'd seen that and not this.

Billy Bishop Goes To War is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 24 November. Tickets here.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Review: 'Brexit' at the King's Head Theatre, 31st October 2018

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

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

A bell rings in a North London pub and someone yells "ten minutes until Brexit!" A collective shudder passes through the well-to-do metropolitan crowd at the idea as we dutifully file into the theatre. I'm shuddering as well - I hate Brexit. It's not just that we're the laughing stock of the world, not just the ridiculous flag-waving nationalism, not just that we're about to commit economic seppuku - but because it is so fucking boring.

I work in politics and law, but Brexit has gobbled up so much the news for so long that even I am beginning to tune it out as white noise. The endless internecine spats in the Tories, the half-assed rebellions of the Labour right, the mewling of the right-wing press and #FBPE types on Twitter. If Britain is destined to end up in a Mad Max style hellscape I wish it'd happen already just so we can get it over with.

But that's not the future that Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky's Brexit imagines. Set a few years in the future, we find Britain still negotiating with the EU and trapped in an extended transition period. New Prime Minister Adam Masters (Timothy Bentinck) is the latest to place his neck on the chopping block -  his only ambition to outlast the short 1922-23 premiership of Andrew Bonar Law, who bowed out in under a year (due to throat cancer).

His plan to 'beat Brexit' is zugzwang - a chess term for a situation in which making any move puts you at a disadvantage. Therefore, he chooses to do nothing at all, playing the hardcore leavers against the remainers. The leavers are represented by Simon Cavendish (Thom Tuck): a deeply unpleasant amalgam of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove, while the remainers' champion is Diana Purdy (Pippa Evans), who seems vaguely Amber Rudd-ish (with a pinch of Vicky Ford). 

With equal but opposing forces locked in stalemate, his strategy pretty much consists of the classic "hide under some coats and hope that somehow everything will work out". Naturally, this doesn't go to plan - and the play spirals towards farce as the Prime Minister desperately avoids committing to a course of action.

It's a cynical piece of theatre - but then these are cynical times. Perhaps the most believable aspect of it is the lead character's sheer terror of ideology. Towards the end of the play, he bemoans his situation, saying that he's got "a right-wing press that despises my every action - even though I tried hard not to take any. And a left-wing press that despises me for my beliefes - even though I tried very hard not to have any!Later, a betrayal by his friend and advisor Paul Connell (Adam Astill) prompts the accusation - "you betrayed our friendship for ideology!"

Like, no shit, dude. If Brexit gets anything right, it's the failure of centrist politicians to understand their own ideology. Brexit's PM paints himself as the epitome of non-ideological moderation, treating 'remainer' and 'leaver' as equally valid abstractions that must be placated rather than understood (notably he merely glances through their lengthy policy proposals). 

The conclusion is a reminder that doing nothing can be far worse than being decisive, that convincing yourself that market and social liberalism combined with a soft nationalism isn't ideological but 'common sense' is ridiculous.  I mean, say what you like about the tenets of far-right leavers, but at least it's an ethos. It's a smart conclusion to a perceptive piece of drama. But, sadly, there are a couple of flies in the ointment. 

The dowdy set design of a couple of chairs and a scuffed, cheap desk against a plain black backdrop does little to convey the wood-panelled gentlemen's club atmosphere of No. 10 and the Houses of Parliament (and I doubt whether any contemporary PM would wear a three-piece suit on a day-to-day basis). 

Plus, for a comedy, Brexit just doesn't have that many laughs. There's a couple of cringey panel-show style political jabs that pass over the audience without so conjuring so much as a titter, and while the play does eventually conjure up a couple of genuinely funny moments they are few and far between.

Brexit nails the philosophical morass of its subject, rightly portraying the process as some nebulous concept that means different things to everyone: a Gordian knot that can never be satisfyingly sliced apart. As a piece of drama? It's a bit too loose, languid and mildly diverting - throw in a bit more bite and passion and you'd be onto something.

Brexit is at the King's Head Theatre until 17 October. Tickets here.

Production shots by Steve Ullathorne

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