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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Review: 'Beckett Triple Bill' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 17th January 2020

Saturday, January 18, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Joan Rivers once said "There is nothing funny about ageing. It is rotten and depressing. Anyone who tells you otherwise just hasn't been paying attention." After seeing director Trevor Nunn's Samuel Beckett triple bill at the Jermyn Street Theatre I'm inclined to agree.

The trio of plays consists of Krapp's Last Tape, Eh Joe and The Old Tune, which add up to just over two hours. The three plays all see elderly men reflecting on their past, each of them haunted by memories that slip through their fingers like sand through an hourglass. Common to all are frequent haunted expressions, as if the characters are coming to a sudden crushing realisation that they've reached a dead end.

If you're not familiar with Beckett, the show throws you in at the deep end with Krapp's Last Tape. The majority of the first 15 minutes consist of the elderly Krapp wandering aimlessly around the stage, groaning at the aches of his body and eating a couple of bananas. Propulsive drama this ain't, but it serves a function. You have to become accustomed to Beckett's rhythms and, most importantly, pay close attention to the performer.

James Hayes in Krapp's Last Tape
The emotional core of these plays doesn't lie in grandiose gestures or angry exclamations, but in the flicker of an eyebrow or the quiver of a lip. These are fiercely buttoned-up characters, each of them having constructed a fortress around their feelings as they've gotten older.

Niall Buggy in Eh Joe demonstrates this most clearly. Originally written for television, this short play shows the titular Joe sitting on his bed as a sinister voiceover (Lisa Dwan) torments him with memories. Joe neither says nor does anything, simply sits on the bed and reacts to the internal monologue - the action takes place on Buggy's face. Nunn amplifies this in a pretty straightforward way - projecting a live feed of his face onto the wall behind them that gradually zooms in closer and closer. It's a simple, elegant and goddamn effective technique and as the voiceover grows ever more sinister it sent chills up my spine.

Both Krapp's Last Tape and Eh Joe are pretty grim, so ending with The Old Tune is a smart move. This is built around the simple joke of two old men (Niall Buggy and David Threlfall) reminiscing about a golden past that neither can clearly recall. As they pick through their swiss cheese memories cars rumble past - they have been left behind by a society that has no place for old men. In fact, given that the pedestrians they ask for a light ignore them, perhaps they're already dead and just haven't realised yet.

Niall Buggy & David Threlfall in The Old Tune
Whatever the case, this triple bill feels like a warts n' all appraisal of getting old. All three actors on stage are eligible for free bus passes and Trevor Nunn is now 80. This direction and these performances make the show's repeated reflections on distant youth, physical vigour and all those regrets and embarrassments that much more tangible.

The sentimental image of getting old is a Werther's Originals ad: a sun-dappled time of relaxation as you reap the benefits of your legacy. The reality is the slow chipping away of your body and mind as you look in on a world that's moved on without you. It's depressing, the chuckles are rough, but at least it's honest.

The Samuel Beckett Triple Bill is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 8 February. Tickets here.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: 'Project O - Voodoo' at the Lilian Baylis Studio, 16th January 2020

Friday, January 17, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

I thought I'd made a big mistake coming to see Project O's Voodoo. It had been a long day at work and I'd cleared my mind with a long run in the evening. So by 9pm at the Lilian Baylis Studio in Sadler's Wells I was pretty snoozy. Worse, I was told by the staff there that I couldn't even take a cup of tea into the show to help keep my eyes open.

Smash cut to 90 minutes later. I'm pepped up and full of beans, dancing my ass off in a hazy, dark and moodily lit room to a banging electro number. My route here involved smashing stuff up with a hammer, watching people writhe like maggots, a 1980s power ballad with balloon-based percussion and raising a shot glass to nothing in particular.

Project O are Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, with Voodoo billing itself as "a science fiction addressing the desire, confusion and responsibility of being a single subject who is also a symbol of many long-persecuted people". Generally, descriptions like that don't bode well, but Voodoo is actually pretty straightforward about what it's doing.

The show begins with a lengthy introduction as the audience are seated in groups of five, watching a slowly scrolling list of events projected onto a wall. These cover historical events like suffragette Emily Davison walking in front of the King's horse in the 1913 Derby, pop culture moments like the 1997 release of Men in Black, odd snippets of history like the 1998 Japanese release of the Sega Mega Drive, and deeply personal moments for the performers, like being informed their father has died or meeting their future husband.

The list encourages you to find links between the events, teasing various arcs of political and social evolution over mankind's history. Here the medical positions of Ancient Greek doctors sit side by side with the release of Spiceworld in 1997. But the chronology is cut off mid-stream when Hemsley and Johnson-Small emerge with hammers and smash it up.

I am not hard to please when it comes to entertainment, but even I was surprised how much I enjoyed the simple cathartic act of watching someone smash up a wall with a hammer. As they do this the air gradually fills with dust and small wooden shards litter the floor. The smashing of all this information indicates a clearing of the decks for the new - so it's appropriate that soon after both performers undergo a caterpillar-like transformation via white fabric chrysalises.

Soon after the performance space itself transforms, with the audience being asked to remove their shoes and stash their coats. It is at this point that I regret wearing clearly mismatched socks, having figured after my run that I'd only be wearing them for a few hours. Oh well.

This eventually leads into the audience lying on the floor, the performers solemnly telling us to listen to our heartbeats. As we do we're gently encouraged to feel its rhythm and the gently pulsing soundtrack. Gradually we move to our feet as the music picks up, and everyone begins dancing like they're a few shots in.

At this point, I'd usually toss in a warning for introverted audience members that you're fully expected to participate in the show - but if you turn up to an "immersive dance performance" you probably know what you're getting into. Me? I loved it. As I danced I felt myself shaking out the stress and fatigue of the day, enjoying getting into the rhythm.

The point of all this seems to be the creation of a new identity that understands the past but isn't defined by it. It often feels as if performers of colour - especially black performers - are encouraged to channel a mindboggling long and cruel history of racial atrocities into their work. It's an unfair burden and Voodoo attempts to chip some of that accreted shit away and rediscover yourself through physical motion and connection with your body's mechanics.

That it can be that and a damn good time is impressive stuff. I was enjoying myself so much that one of the assistants had to come and tell me to stop dancing as the performance was over. Jokes on her, I was dancing all the way home.

Project O - Voodoo is at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells until Saturday 18th January. Tickets here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: 'The Girl With Glitter In Her Eye' at The Bunker, 13th January 2020

Tuesday, January 14, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

What does it mean for something to be 'your' story? Writer/director Masha Kevinovna and OPIA Collective's The Girl With Glitter In Her Eye attempts to answer that, understand what appropriation is and explain why it's such a hot button issue. 

The plot follows Helen (Modupe Salu), a young British artist struggling to break through into the professional art world, and her best friend Philomela (Anna Macka), who is trying to make her small coffee shop a success. The pair have been friends since childhood, and the play quickly cements them as people who know each other inside out.

But trouble is brewing alongside the coffee. Helen's work (an apparently beautiful kaleidoscopic picture inspired by a schoolfriend getting glitter in her eye) has been deemed 'too nice' by art director Helen (Naomi Gardener). She tells Helen that someone with her background should create something with a bit more bite: a zero-subtlety implication that a young black woman must have a miserable past she can draw from. Helen doesn't, but Philomela does. 

Meanwhile, Philomela is looking for something unique to push her cafe over the edge and decides that plantains are the key. Helen bristles at her friend using a food associated with her cultural heritage for commercial reasons, gritting her teeth as she listens to her blithely talk about how popular they are. So, we have two friends - one poised to exploit the other's past trauma and the other stealing her cultural cuisine.

The set-up that allows Kevinovna to get to grips with what it means to 'appropriate' something. This is primarily shown through Helen grappling with her conscience as she turns her friend's misery into a piece of art, knowing she's only doing it for a career boost. It's a difficult ethical nut to crack: surely artists cannot only be expected to create work based things they have personally experienced? And anyway, putting yourself in another's shoes is the bedrock of empathy, and art could always use more of that. But how much does an artist owe their inspiration?

It's a question that echoes out beyond the plot and into almost every piece of media we consume. For example, how are we in the audience to know that The Girl with Glitter in Her Eye isn't appropriating someone's trauma to tell its own story? Kevinovna picks at this knot throughout the play, though there's ultimately there's no untangling of it. If there is a lesson to be learned, it's to not to see the lives around you as sources of inspiration to be siphoned. Where the precise line falls between empathy and appropriation is up to you.

But while there are no easy answers, the questions make for a pretty neat play. Salu, Macka and Gardener are all excellent. Salu nails the conflict between guilt and ambition, fleshing out Helen without the play simply telling us what she's feeling. Macka compliments her performance brilliantly, her eyes flashing with hurt as she realises what her friend has done. And while Gardener doesn't have a main role in the plot, she's a striking physical presence on stage.

The one thing I don't think works particularly well is the wraparound classical elements. At the beginning of the show (and at a couple of points throughout) the three women play the Furies via some interpretative dance. Perhaps I'm missing something, but all this stuff felt like an unnecessary layer of artifice on top of Helen and Philomela's story. 

Given that The Girl with Glitter in Her Eye is a brief n' breezy hour of drama, the time spent on these classical allusions would have been better used on the main characters. Plus, this is an easily relatable story and gussying it up with references to ancient Greek theatre can only make it less accessible.

But hey, it's good stuff and I'm all for shows that pack a lot into a short run-time and don't mess around. The ethical quandary's about appropriating others' stories remain as the curtain falls, but the show should give anyone attending a lot to chew on.

The Girl with Glitter in Her Eye is at the Bunker Theatre until 27 January. Tickets here.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Review: 'Lullabies for the Lost' at the Old Red Lion, 9th January 2020

Friday, January 10, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

We're only ten days into the new decade, a continent has ignited, we appear to be perched on the precipice of a world war and we have five years of Boris Johnson to look forward to. If there was ever a time for an anxious play, this is it.

Rosalind Blessed's Lullabies for the Lost is a collection of monologues from people living with various mental health issues. There's a skeletal narrative about these characters being trapped together in some kind of monochrome purgatory and having to earn the right to escape it. But this framework is just the cracker on which some extremely miserable cheese is served.

And man oh man, this is some absolutely brutal stuff. From the first monologue on the characters are talking about self-harm, the way their bodies are falling apart, the filth in which they live, the way their minds rebel against them and their sorrow at watching their potential trickle through their fingers like sand through an hourglass. Fat bubbles up through too-deep self-inflicted cuts, throats are slashed with broken wine glasses, vomit smears the walls.

The show hits such high notes of desperation and misery that it wasn't particularly surprising when someone fainted mid-way through and they had to pause the show to check that she was alright. For all I know this person might have had low blood sugar or something, but I assumed that the material was so visceral her brain noped out.

But though it hits those high notes, they're mercifully not sustained. There are laughs amongst the misery as the characters examine the surreal and ridiculous places their condition takes them. For example, an in early monologue about social anxiety and depression, Chris Porter's Larry tries to come up with an excuse why he can't attend a meal. He considers telling them his cat has had a stroke. There's a beat. "... Do cats have strokes?"

These moments of comedy are a double-edged sword. Laughing along with these characters cements our emotional connection with them, which only makes the pits of their despair that much more crushing.

Fringe plays about mental illness aren't exactly uncommon - at any given time there will be various confessional monologues about how miserable the writer's life is going on in a room above London pubs. But Lullabies for the Lost casts its net wider than the playwright's personal experience, showing us that there are many different ways to be in pain, all of which come loaded with their own particular horrors.

You might argue that this play is being sad for sad's sake: like Madame Tussauds' Chamber of Horrors but for mental illness. But there's a mile-wide empathic streak running right through the show, culminating in a video appearance from Hildegard Neil giving us assurance that we should stop being so neurotic and muddled up as "you're just not that important". That's not exactly a traditional pick-me-up, but realizing that no-one gives that much of a shit about what you look like, how successful you are and what you do can be an intensely liberating experience.

All this is delivered by a fantastic (and very well chosen) cast. In a play like this it's silly to pick favourites, but I've been a fan of Helen Bang for ages and she's as great as she usually is here. I also really enjoyed Kate Tydman's Nerys, who nails presenting an outwardly healthy and confident exterior while rotting away behind closed doors. But, perhaps because he gets the most nightmarish monologue of all, Duncan Wilkins' performance is the one that's going to stick in the memory longest.

This all adds up to a not exactly fun night at the theatre, but definitely a worthwhile one. I had actually been suffering from a pretty brutal cold all week and prior to the show was weighing up just staying in bed. But Lullabies for the Lost synced up perfectly with my gloomy, drowsy and stuffed up state of mind. Nothing is sugar-coated here, and the night is all the better for it.

Lullabies for the Lost is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 31st January. Tickets here.

Images are courtesy of Adam Trigg.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Review: 'One Million Tiny Plays About Britain', at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 17th December 2019

Wednesday, December 18, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

After taking a month off to campaign for Labour in the General Election (for all the good it did...) I'm back at the theatre. The first play I'm seeing in this terrifying and depressing new world is One Million Tiny Plays About Britain. The material arises from Craig Taylor, who began collecting overheard conversations that were eventually published The Guardian's magazine, collected in book form and now put on stage.

The play is a mosaic formed of the lives of everyday people from across the United Kingdom, all played by actors Emma Barclay and Alec Nicholls. Among others, we spend a few minutes with a woman on the phone outside her Holborn office block, witness inter-office tensions in Edinburgh, watch two men struggling to piss in a London pub or a father and daughter sneaking into first class on the train to Wolverhampton.

The backdrop for this appears to have been imported directly from a working men's club: slightly tatty and chintzy Christmas decorations, battered pub furniture and a very old television. This fits neatly with the warm and fuzzy tone: while the play might not be explicitly Christmassy it certainly doesn't do anything to ruin your sense of goodwill to all men.

Thing is, I don't have goodwill to all men. I actually have bad will towards quite a lot of men right now. I've spent the last month engaged in futile doorstep conversation with people from all walks of life: ranging a homeless guy with "literally nothing" on the streets of Soho to a woman who peered around the door of her Kensington Mansion wearing a jewelled necklace that looked like something a Batman villain would steal. 

All that and last Thursday meant that I am sick to the back teeth of hearing what the average person on the street has to say, because recent empirical evidence indicates that the 'average person on the street' is an arsehole.

I know I can't reasonably lay that at the door of One Million Tiny Plays About Britain, but let's just say that its sentimental sweetness would have gone down a hell of a lot easier if I'd have seen it a week ago.

On top of that, the piecemeal structure means there's no thematic through-line in the play. This means it ends up as a cosy, Readers-Digest-style reflection of the way things are. While I guess there are some smiles to be found in regurgitating reality on stage with a wry smile and a woolly jumper, it feels like the kind of thing you'd see in Reader's Digest or on at mid-afternoon on a Thursday on Radio 4. The closest the play comes is conveying some universal Britishness that spans across ages, classes and geography - but even if the play inadvertently identifies this it doesn't go on to do anything with it.

As it stands, while I appreciate the talent that Barclay and Nicholls display when performing their many, many characters, and while I am generally a fan of writing about small-scale personal experiences, this play simply didn't land with me. The wrong play at the wrong time. Maybe your mileage will vary,

One Million Tiny Plays About Britain is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 11th January 2020. Tickets here.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review: 'Excluded' at St Saviour's Church, 13th November 2019

Thursday, November 14, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Usually when a play makes you angry it's a bad thing. Not so with Excluded, which is performed by young people that the government doesn't give a shit about, who are demonised every single day in the media and who face an endless uphill battle against a class-stratified society designed to keep them at the bottom of the pile. 

Fortunately for them (and us in the audience), there are companies like Intermission Youth Theatre, who offer a ten-month programme for "vulnerable young people" to build confidence and teach performance skills.

Intermission must have done a good job, because the last thing I'd describe this cast as is vulnerable. Instead, they fizz with energy like an antacid dropped into a glass of water. Even before the show begins there's a face-off in the lobby of the church, with two characters having a rap battle in the midst of the crowd.

The meat of the show takes place upstairs. The conceit is: what if Shakespeare's most famous characters were teenagers about to take their GCSEs in a deprived local school. So you get Hamlet (Oliver Knight) rubbing shoulders with Caesar (Alexander 'X' Lobo Morena) and Lady Macbeth (Stevanie Matthews), while Romeo (Ricardo P Lloyd) and Juliet (Destiny Tola Onisile) canoodle in the back.

The overall effect (and I'm going to shamelessly steal this from cast member Jaspreet Bance) is like an Avengers: Endgame of Shakespeare. All your favourites are here, and the odd combinations of characters really pop on stage. Throughout the play, there's a loose central narrative of rivalries within the classroom, combined with side stories that get under the skin of particular characters. The whole thing is held together by Miss Portia (Rebecca Soper), who is wholly and sadly believable as a teacher losing faith in the education system she represents. 

The play is designed to give each actor a moment in the spotlight and damn do they each make the most of it. There isn't a weak link here, but I really enjoyed Oliver Knight's Hamlet (I would for sure watch him do the full play), Mark Akintimehin really nailed Shylock and Kashana Johnson's Iago was interestingly villainous without tipping over into caricature. 

But, as good as this all is, it can't help but make you mad as hell. The very existence of a company like Intermission is proof that the education system is simply not working. Why should talented young performers like this have to rely on charity and luck to realise their skills? This is something that can and should be done in schools and paid for out of taxation. But fat chance of that happening under the current shower of bastards. 

After the show concludes there's a very interesting Q&A with the cast. The most revealing question comes when a 12-year-old asks the cast if they have direct experience with knife crime. The responses come thick and fast: almost everybody either knows somebody who has been stabbed to death or committed murder themselves.

This is fucked. And don't buy the tabloid line that there is some inherent criminality or viciousness in these communities: these deaths are a direct result of government economic policy, with the effects of austerity neatly correlating with a rise in knife crime. So, y'know, next time someone tries defending the Tories just picture a bloody heap of dead kids who might otherwise be performing Shakespeare.

Ideally, I would have liked to be able to separate the politics from the performance and rate this dispassionately. This cast are not good because or in spite of their socioeconomic background, they're just good full stop. But when you leave the theatre after Excluded and almost immediately walk into the shadow of Harrods, where access to Father Christmas comes at £2000 a pop, you can't help but feel like something has gone very wrong in this country.

But hopefully not for much longer.

Excluded is at St Saviour's Church until 30 November 2019. Tickets here.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Review: 'Who They Were' at the Etcetera Theatre, 7th November 2019

Friday, November 8, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

As the mercury drops and the nights grow longer, theatre takes a turn for the supernatural. I've just come off the myriad delights of the London Horror Festival, which featured some excellent plays about things that go bump in the night. It seems that even with Halloween receding into the distance this atmosphere is sticking around. Tonight's encounter with the dark side is Luke Culloty's Who They Were.

The 'they' in this equation are Eros and Florence (Lucy Abraham and Adela Rajnović), two immortal vampires meeting each other for the first time in a hundred years. They were once in a passionate relationship, but like the blood in their vampiric veins, it has cooled to an icy stillness. In a relatable twist, even a hundred years after they've broken up Eros still has some Florence's stuff boxed up in the cupboard, and now she's round to pick it up.

The first thing you note when you enter the theatre is that everything is covered in plastic sheeting, American Psycho style. Given that this is a play about vampires, they're sipping on a mysterious crimson liquid and making a toast to 'Brie' (not referring to a cheese), things are primed for the blood to flow.

Culloty has even come up with a neat twist on how Eros 'hunts'. Rather than stalk the streets like her vampire brethren she has set up a suicide hotline. If she cannot talk someone down off the ledge then she summons them to her apartment and consumes them. After all, if they were going to die anyway then what's the harm? 

That's where Joe (Ruby Herrington) comes in. She turns up expecting to be dinner, sitting down on the carpet and curiously enquiring about whether this is going to hurt or not. I've seen a whole bunch of vampire films, TV shows and media and this is a genuinely unique set-up.

But, frustratingly, Who They Were proves to be all fang and no bite. Joe decides she's not suicidal after all and just leaves, with the rest of the play seeing the two vampires coming to terms with their former relationship and find a new emotional equilibrium. 

Now, I'm not some zero attention  span thrill-seeker, but if you've already got the plastic sheeting down and the victim is willing then do us a favour and finish the job! After all, fake blood is both cheap and fun.

Similarly, the core relationship between Eros and Florence isn't given any special qualities due to their immortality. They say they haven't seen each other for a hundred years, but behave like any mortal couple who broke up a while back. Maybe that's the point, but there are ways of showing sympathetic vampires while still making them feel otherworldly - with Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive a great example.

It's not that I had a bad time watching Who They Were, but it feels like there were decisions taken during its production that have inadvertently drained the play of excitement, suspense and.. well, blood. If we're dealing with immortals I'd like to see passionate arguments borne of decades of history rather than tetchy sniping. If the characters lure suicidal people into their flats to eat them - then show us it! There's potential here, but it could be so much more.

Who They Were is at the Etcetera Theatre until 9th November. Tickets here.

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