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Thursday, August 25, 2016

'Performances of the Skeleton House #2', 24th August 2016

Thursday, August 25, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Something peculiar happened last night in Clapham. From within a well-to-do townhouse came billowing clouds of talc, dusting the street in a thin alabaster layer. If you'd have glanced up, you might have been a naked woman, face whited out, hurling fistfuls of the stuff from an open window. This is The Skeleton House.

With its owner mysteriously absent, the house is in the custody of artists, who are using it as a home, studio, residency, workshop and exhibition space. Considering that performance art tends to take place in industrial warehouses, semi abandoned buildings in odd areas and (occasionally) car parks, it's surreal to step through the door of a typical terraced house and find someone licking the walls with a mirror strapped to their back.

That someone is Natalie Ramus with Site:Requite:Trace. Sadly, these are the last days of The Skeleton House as the owner is returning in early September. In just a few weeks this curious suburban anomaly will revert to type, though Ramus aims to pay tribute to the way the place has cradled the people that've lived and worked within its walls. 

To achieve that, she's blindfolded herself, strapped a mirror to her back, wrapped a ribbon umblical cord around her body (trailing off somewhere upstairs) and spent the night licking the walls. It's a strange kind of communion; a performance utterly unconcerned with actually being observed. As we arrive, Ramus is the only person who's begun, so she gathers a little appreciative crowd. Then, as the other performances start up, people filter away. Eventually she's left alone, blindly exploring the house in slow motion with her tongue as the primary sensory organ.

She ends up licking the fireplace, observed by only one person. It's gentle, meditative and quietly respectful, somehow sanctifying the house. Her contributions (and those of the other artists) pile up against the ghosts of the past and future Claphamites to come.

This segues nicely into Sebastian Hau-Walker's Ausculta (Vision Serpents). On heading into the kitchen we're instructed to take a set of wireless headphones, a pillow, an orange and lie down on the floor. Projected onto the ceiling is grainy camcorder footage of Sebastian as a boy, graduating from kindergarten and generally being a rather sweet child. Meanwhile, the adult Sebastian perches like a gargoyle on the kitchen counter, dressed in Clockwork Orange white and a mortarboard.

He then creeps along the kitchen counter, orange clenched between his teeth. As he explores the cupboards he finds VHS tapes (presumably of the projections). As he hums Auld Lang Syne he bashes them against his head and the oven, eventually cracking them open. Then he takes the reels of tape and fixes them to the ceiling, causing them to unspool in a beautiful silvery column, piling up in shimmering heaps on the audience. By the end of the performance he's naked, wearing a tattered black cloak of tape and surrounded by the physical remains of his treasured family memories.

There's a lot of meaning to unpack here, but this is a kickass piece of performance art. In purely visual terms the sight of videotape unfurling in liquid columns from the ceiling is absolutely fascinating to watch. I had the fortune to be sat right below one of them and the sensation of tape piling up on my face and chest was fantastically, awesomely weird. 

And what does it all mean? Well, probably only Sebastian knows the full story, but it's certainly autobiographical and deeply personal. It's easy to try and fill in the blanks between the child on screen and the adult bashing a videotape against his skull. Other than the home videos, we hear distorted heartbeats and fuzzy organic soundscapes through the headphones. By the end of we're laying amongst the jumbled, frozen knots of his own history, now just piles of polyethelene.

Unpicking things a little further, Sebastian makes reference to his Mayan heritage in the introduction.  Following a bit of post performance Wikipediaing, the serpentine quality of the unspooling tape and Sebastians actions make this a translation of a Mayan bloodletting ritual. This facilitates communication between the past and present - which we see all to viscerally in the distorted, artifacted videoportal projected onto the ceiling. On top of that, by the end he's quite literally cloaked in his own past, the tape echoing feathered ceremonial cloaks that signified the spiritual power of the Shaman.

It was dead good stuff and precisely the kind of performance art I like: sincere, unironic and refreshingly open. Sebastian's personal connection to symbology and use of his own history rendering it devoid of the masturbatory obscurantism that can gum up pieces like this.

Last up were Alicia Radage and Robert Hardaker with S O M E T I M E S W E W E A R A N T L E R S / / S O M E T I M E S W E W E A R H O R N S. This felt like The Wicker Man on diazepam. 

Mostly naked apart from a couple of twigs, Robert and Alicia stood facing a bedroom wall. At the centre of the room was a chair sat in a big pile of talcum powder. Dangling from the ceiling was fishing wire festooned with white-painted leaves. In achingly slow motion, the pair navigated towards each other along the wall, eventually coming together in an embrace. Ordinarily this would look sorta sexual, but Robert's cock and balls were bound up in a gaff, leaving him flat and androgynous.

Then Alicia moved to the chair, with Robert sat alongside her. With precise motions she constructed a tall of twine and twigs around his head, leaving him looking like he'd walked out of a Guillermo del Toro movie. When the crown was finished, he began to writhe around, pulling down the dangling leaves with a satisfying *twhip* as the cords gave way. He then stood in front of Alicia and removed the gaff, letting his cock dangle free. 

Alicia stared on blankly, then, as Robert kneeled in front of her, she got up and began to toss big heaping fistfuls of talcum powder out of the window into the street - as if the very house had begun to boil. Then, shaking out the sheet on the chair, a blastwave of white enveloped the room. To cap it off they retreated to their rear of the room and gently anointed each other with red wine, concluding the performance.

So what does all that mean? Beats me. But whatever it was, it was extraordinarily beautiful and hypnotic, a mysterious ritual that felt equal parts pagan and fetish, but with a warm undercurrent of affection and a subtle romance to it. It's easy to read Alicia as representing a historical all-femininity, beginning as a powerful matriarch and gradually being transformed into the submissive by the increasingly unbound masculine presence that swirls around her. But then, in the finale we're all coated in the same flesh and working from the same organic baseline, represented by the ashlike powder around them.

It's also startlingly intimate; a performance that all but demanded silence and attention from those concerned. The atmosphere felt a bit like being in church, the kind of instinctive hush that comes over a crowd in the presence of religious superseriousness. Sustaining this over more than hour requires some serious performance chops, not just to maintain this intensity for so long, but the confidence to know that people will be fascinated by it. 

Walking out of there I felt like my brain had been in for an MOT. I really should do more writing about performance art - I miss seeing stuff so strange, so open to interpretation, so unconstrained by commercial considerations and so utterly fearless. A hell of a night, and a wonderful way to close out The Skeleton House.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors' at the New Wimbledon Theatre, 23rd August 2016

Wednesday, August 24, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

There really should be more musicals about giant flesh-eating plants. Little Shop of Horrors (in both its cinematic and stage guises) has always been a favourite of mine, the show neatly bypassing my usual problems with musicals (sappy, sentimental, nauseatingly crowd-pleasing). In contrast, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's comedy musical has a healthy disregard for its characters, a wickedly dark sense of humour that tiptoes the boundaries of taste and, most importantly, is about a nice man who feeds corpses to a giant flesh-eating plant.

Said plant is 'Audrey II', named after Audrey (Stephanie Clift), the secret love of awkward, uberniceguy Seymour (Sam Lupton). Audrey and Seymour work together at failing florist s 'Mushnik's', managed by the eponymous Mr Mushnik (Paul Kissaun), who inches every closer to bankruptcy each day. 

The three scratch out an existence in urban everynightmare 'Skid Row', "Where the folks are broke", "Where your life's a joke", "Where the hop-heads flop in the snow". The production effectively underlines the squalor by populating the neighbourgood with sex pests, chain-smoking pregnant women and scowling bums leering from every shop doorway. On top of that, Audrey is trapped in an abusive relationship with sadistic dentist Orin (Rhydian), who leaves her arm in a sling, gives her a couple of black eyes and generally treats her like garbage.

Faced with all this, is it any surprise that the desperate Seymour sees Audrey II as his ticket out of hell? And anyway, there's plenty of scumbag candidates for plant food out there on the mean streets...

Menken and Ashman's book runs on a Motown engine; provided both by Audrey II and the chorus trio that leads us through the story in the Prologue, Skid Row (Down town), Da-doo and the later Ya Never Know and Don't Feed the Plants. Mixed in are a couple of justifiably famous ballads (Suddenly Seymour and Somewhere That's Green) and a smattering of rock. My personal fave is Grow For Me, a gently lolloping number with some intensely clever rhymes about horticulture. If you're unfamiliar with Little Shop, you'll find obvious echoes of Menken and Ashman's future work on Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

The cast delivers all this with impressive precision and personality. The bedrock of the night is the excellent chorus (Sasha LaToya, Vanessa Fisher and Cassie Clare), who keep things bouncing along while bringing the on-stage city to life. The highlights are Sam Lupton and Stephanie Clift. Lupton does a straight-up fantastic job in his two major songs, stuffing them with personality and character right up to bursting point.

But the undisputed best thing of the night is Clift's Audrey, particularly her Somewhere That's Green. You could hear a pin-drop in the theatre as she works through this equally sad and funny ode to dull domesticity. Hearing Audrey wax lyrical about going to bed early, eating TV dinners and her chain link fence - her heart soaring at the idea of ultimate consumer conformity - is a tiny bit breathtaking. She deserves every atom of the riotous applause she receives.

Similarly, the carnivorous plant that powers the story is effectively brought to life by via puppetry and Neil Nicholas' vocal stylings. By the closing scenes I felt for Josh Wilmot, trapped inside the puppet in what must be sweltering heat. There's a real air of sinisterness in the quiet way it's dinosauric head follows Seymour around the set, and the vicious *snaps* when it crunches through bone.

The only real trip-up is the mononymous Rhydian, not only playing the sadistic dentist, but repeatedly popping up in cameo roles. Perhaps this is a "Who are the Beatles?" kind of moment, but I've never heard of this guy (the ripple of applause he got when he appeared on stage had me scurrying to my programme to find out who the hell he was). Apparently he's famous from X-Factor, which in retrospect explains why he's on the front of the programme.

It's not that he's bad per se, but he seems a bit self-satisfied while not being half as fun (or as funny) as Lupton and Clift. It's perhaps difficult to accuse someone of over-egging the part of a nitrous huffing dental super-sadist, but Rhydian comes perilously close (and really suffers in comparison with Steve Martin's iconic performance in the movie). I get the commercial reasoning for shoehorning him into so many scenes, but the focus really should be on Seymour, Audrey and Audrey II, not on Rhydian's peripheral characters.

That aside, this is a great production of a seriously great show. Ashman and Menken gift the show its vigorously pumping black heart; somehow managing to make a domestic violence subplot hilarious without crossing over into bad taste, as well as forcing us to love characters before doing downright horrible things to them. Much like it's botanical supervillain, Little Shop of Horrors is a show with teeth.


Little Shop of Horrors is at The New Wimbledon Theatre until 27th August, then on tour. Tickets here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: 'Thlides' at the Lion and Unicorn, 22nd August 2016

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

At first glance, Thlides sounds as if it could be a dusty old Greek tragedy with a mutilation fetish. It turns out to represent what happens if you try to say 'slides' with a lisp. What the play transpires to be is similarly opaque: entirely set in the splash pool between two slides at Butlins, about a psychologically bruised army vet called 'Spawny John'.

Sat in a paddling pool filled with polystrene packing foam, Spawny John sits, playing with his phone and gently sipping soup. He's soon joined by a friendly rubber duck, and then a procession that includes (but is not limited to) a hyperactive/horny frog, abusive 'greebly' teenagers, a tiny Chinese dragon and a snooty Scandinavian lion lilo. They mostly talk about biscuits.

There's faint shades of Beckett in the single location and purposefully dowdy dialogue, and the play bravely flirts with intentional dullness. Thlides is peppered with neat writing flourishes, one of my favourite being the characters scolding each other for making Batman references when a high-brow audience like us would be far more likely to want to know about Nietzsche. 

Similarly, all five performers, Lydia Lakemoore, Rosie Grundy-Orchison, Ashley Winter, Grace Felton and Louise Wilcox, turn in a memorable set of grotesques and weirdos. I was a particularly big fan of Grace Felton's gruesomely caricatured teenage boy, all elbows, squatted knees and a twisted scowl - like something that'd leapt out of a Bosch painting. Lydia Lakemoore, in centre stage throughout, also turns in a performance that spans the emotional gamut, obviously vulnerable, but so whacked out on antipsychotics that she spends the whole play in an emotionally neutral haze. Late in the play, when Spawny John encounters his doppelgänger, Lydia does a subtle bit of cheering up that allows the play to end on a strange but vaguely positive note.

That said, for all the good stuff listed above, I didn't enjoy Thlides. Mostly because surreal humour grates on me like nails down a chalkboard. The style of comedy reminded me strongly of The Mighty Boosh, a show that I've never enjoyed in the slighest. My problem with this style of comedy comes from being expected to laugh at simple non-sequitur strangeness; for example in Thlides an inflatable Norwegian lion-shaped lilo passes judgment on Spawny John's hat. There is no punchline. That is the gag. Lol. So random. 

Simon Amstell put it best in his blistering takedown of Noel Fielding: "Is that how it works? You just throw out funny words like hippopotamus and juggling? Anyone can do that." It's an intrinsically lazy form of humour and Thlides relies on it as a crutch.

Consequentially, by about the half-way mark I was first struggling to care, then fighting a losing battle not to drift off to thoughts of what I was going to have for dinner. Considering that the play is a brief n' breezy 50 minutes long, boredom isn't exactly ideal, but by the time the characters were engaged in an aimless chat about Jaffa Cakes I was itching for it be over. 

This just isn't my cup of tea. Legions of people enjoy this style of random comedy but to me it's like gazing into a comedy abyss. I give everything I review the benefit of the doubt and try to engage with it on its own terms, but, frankly, I struggle to see the point of Thlides.


Thlides is on tonight only (23rd August 2016) at the Lion and Unicorn. Tickets here.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Review: 'Screens' at Theatre503, 12th August 2016

Saturday, August 13, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Screens greets its audience with a tortured, decapitated and very dead cat. Eventually the house lights go down and a middle-aged woman enters stage left, reacts in horror to the sight before her and furtively scoops it into her shopping bag. Who did this and why? And why is this woman nicking a dead cat? It's a fantastically ambiguous opening to a play, leaving the audience curious and disturbed, but above all wanting to find out what the hell is going on.

Sadly, we never do. Playwright Stephen Laughton sets out to explore contemporary models of self and identity yet becomes trapped in a quagmire of expository dialogue, bizarre character developments and the most contrived narrative coincidences I've seen in ages.

The story revolves around three members of a London family of Turkish Cypriot origin. Mum Emine (Fisun Burgess) came to London to escape the worsening situation in Cyprus in the 70s. She's subsequently had two children, neurotically gay Al (Declan Perring) and spiky teenager Ayşe (Nadia Hynes). The meat of the play is an exploration of their identity, kicked off by a revelatory email that show that their Mum might not be quite who she said she was.

This kicks off an exploration of how nationality contributes to identity. Laughton smartly zeroes in on two people for whom their this is a bit blurred. Al and Ayşe take pride in their Turkish and Cypriot heritage, yet have to square it with their cultural and behavioural Britishness. On top of that, they spend half the play glued to their phones maintaining their online identities; Al having shy little flirts on Grindr; and Ayşe constantly updating her Instagram and Twitter, commenting on her life to her thousands of followers.

Part of what makes Screens so disappointing is that it's got a couple of nuggets of brilliance in it. There's a great bit of dialogue where Al outlines the pressure of being the second generation of immigrants, explaining that they're who their parents had in mind when they fled halfway across the world, so pressure is on them to make the most of life here and not squander the sacrifices they've made. Similarly, there's a really nice bit of writing where Ayşe rejoices in her patchwork quilt identity, enjoying being a little bit Muslim, a little bit Turkish, a little bit street: British 'with a twist'. Also, I appreciate the sheer now-ness of the play: this is an explicitly post-Brexit piece of drama that takes great pains to reflect right now - to the point of featuring Pokemon Go.

Top stuff. But it's soon completely swamped by shite. Perhaps the earliest sign that things are going awry is a dreadful and very long scene in which Al meets a guy, Ben (Paul Bloomfield) for a Grindr hookup which devolves into an argument on the Greek invasion of Cyprus in the 70s. Now, given that much of the play hinges on us understanding why Turkish Cypriots don't like Greeks, the audience needs to understand the post-war history of Cyprus. 

Even so, a scene in which a shy gay man meets someone for a first date with the aim of exploring his sexuality while simultaneously delivering lengthy plot-crucial, expository dialogue on the complicated history of postwar Cyprus is a chocolate teapot: no matter how you construct it, it ain't gonna work.

By the three-quarters mark things go off the rails completely. Unbelievable coincidences stack up upon one another and the characters make bizarre, almost surreal choices. 

Alright, I'm going to need to spoil a bit of plot to explain this properly, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you care. So, Ayşe is hanging out her boyfriend Charlie (George Jovanovic). They want some alcohol and ask the next passing pedestrian to buy it for them. In a ludicrous twist, this turns out to be Ben, Al's date from before. He refuses, and in the space of about five minutes she calls him a paedo on Twitter, this quickly trends, they fight and then she beats him to death with a chair. I couldn't help but think of Ron Burgundy.

It's just... why?

Soon after, just under an hour after it started, Screens abruptly ends with nothing resolved. It feels as if, having written himself into a corner, Laughton bodges together a quasi-enigmatic ending and bolts for the fire exit. 

On top of all that, the acting isn't exactly up to scratch either. Fisun Burgess comes off best with a quietly dignified, guilt-ridden take on the mother, and though Declan Perring is stuck in one gear, at least it's the right gear. But Nadia Hynes just isn't believable as a London teenager, her 'street' gesticulations and vocal tics very mannered: when she says "aks" rather than "ask" it just doesn't sound natural.

The whole experience was faintly heartbreaking: Theatre503 has always distinguished itself when it comes to writing and I consider its productions the gold standard of the London fringe. While the ideas powering Screens are deeply relevant, their dramatic execution is farcically clumsy. This is a deeply disappointing night and a major wobble for a great venue. 

Screens is at Theatre503 until 3rd September. Tickets here.

Friday, August 12, 2016

'Eight Till Late' in New York City, Interview with Lucy Sparrow

Friday, August 12, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Long time readers will know that I'm long-standing fan of felt-based artist Lucy Sparrow. I first met her in 2013 at an art street party outside my house in London, where her felt portrait of Rose West was being greeted with suspicion and mild hostility. I thought it (and her) were neat. I was soon joined in my appreciation by the rest of London. 

In the intervening years her profile has risen considerably; from her hugely popular felt cornershop in 2014 to what I consider her magnum opus to date, 2015's dazzling Madame Roxy's Erotic Emporium felt sex shop. Now she's set to break America; her next project a recreation of a classic American convenience store in felt 'Eight Till Late', located right in the beating heart of New York City. And all it takes to bring this to life is a couple of quid thrown into a Kickstarter pot (with very neat backer rewards).

I asked her a couple of questions about the project:

How are you not sick of felt by now? How is your relationship to the material developing over time?

"Definitely not sick of it. The art is getting more in depth over time - I might be more obsessed with it than before!"

What are the differences between American convenience stories and UK corner shops that've you've noticed while researching? 

"American convenience stores sell more fresh foods. They're also a lot more disorganised and there's more oddities in the stock on offer. I think convenience stores are what our cornershops used to be before they were replaced by mini supermarkets. But I might just be looking at the differences this way as a newbie to American stores. But in a lot of ways they are pretty similar, in the way they are cornerstones of the community."

Are there any pop culture US convenience stores that lodge in the mind - I always think of The Simpsons Kwik-E-Mart or Clerks' Quick Stop.

Definitely influenced by Clerks and also Ghost World. The same rite of passage in America exists in the UK. Popping to the convenience store for your mum or dad to top up the cupboard, or getting your first job there. The first sniff of freedom either in the form of going out alone or having your own money to spend by stocking shelves.

How's location hunting in New York compared to London? Do the New Yorkers you've spoken to 'get' the project?

"They totally get it, probably more so than the UK before the Cornershop was open. The Americans have more of an idea what it is about I think because the convenience store is still a big fixture in US daily life than the corner shop is over here. Their supermarkets are a lot more spread out than ours we have Tesco Metros and the like on almost every corner whereas small supermarkets aren't really a thing over there.

As for the location hunting I have a lot more help this time. We are using a company because of the space and the fact it is a much bigger undertaking."

Given that you've been on the road a bit lately, have you had any interesting reactions to the work from people of various nationalities?

"I had some interesting reactions from the Canadians in Montreal when I took the sex shop over there. They really embraced the concept. Montreal is a very open minded city and it was the best possible location for it, outside of London. And when I went to Basel, ArtBasel was on. It's probably the most prestigious art fair, so it was good to get recognition and comments from critics."

Finally. If space, time and money were no object, what felt based installation would you create?

"Probably an entire felt spaceship, maybe a replica of Apollo 11. Or a whole space-station or an aeroplane! My mind is already wandering into all the possibilities..."

If you think 'Eight Till Late' sounds awesome (and come on, it totally does) then please contribute to the Kickstarter. My only regret is that I (probably) won't be able to make the trip over. Then again who knows? I've always wanted to do a very special New York City Nights...

'Macbeth' at the Courtyard Theatre, 11th August 2016

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The last few months of post Brexit British politics have been brutal. The Tories, tasting Cameron's blood in the water, got the knives out for their leadership contest. This, in typical Conservative Party fashion, was a clinical and swift orgy of political violence. Some (Gove, Osborne, Johnson) were unceremoniously dispatched - Theresa May triumphant. The words of Ian Holm's android in Alien, fascinated by the efficiency of the xenomorph killing machine, come to mind: "I admire its purity... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality."

The less said about the farcical Labour leadership coup the better.

This is just one example of the current climate of grasping, fevered ambition, making for the perfect time to stage Macbeth. Shakespeare's parable about power, morality and guilt has and will never be irrelevant, but right now its blade feels that much keener and hungrier for blood. After all, perhaps those scrabbling for a seat at the top table sense that time is running out.

The Prowl Theatre Company stage their Macbeth inside a black box upstairs in the Courtyard Theatre. In the summer heat it's a stygian, sweaty and claustrophobic environment, the square single-rowed seating practically forcing the audience into the action. 

Darkness gives way to a spotlight that illuminates the three witches huddled in the corner. In a chorus of half-giggles and incoherent muttering they chalk out a pentagram on the floor and launch into their disconcerting pagan poetry. From then we're into a whipcrack quick 70 minute Macbeth. As the central couple descend into murderous realpolitik, the bodies hit the floor with increasing regularity until the curtain falls.

There's a lot to praise here, most obviously striking being Helen Kösem, Greta Wray and Bethan Johns' fantastic witches. All credit to Prowl Theatre, their Weird Sisters are about as weird as I've seen in any production. Wild of hair, with kohl smeared around the eyes and sporting dementedly twisted expressions, they spend their time on stage writhing around on the floor, enjoyably cackling their way through the dialogue and later mocking an amusingly miffed Macbeth. 

Also of note is Joe Stuckey's excellent Banquo. Now Banquo, whose big character moment is sitting still and not saying anything, isn't the trickiest character in the Shakespeare canon. Yet Stuckey, who sits amongst the audience in the feast scene, brings a wonderful, sardonic quality to the role. Once dead, he behaves like a character who's read ahead a few pages in the script, confidently knowing that bloody retribution for his murder is just a couple of scenes ahead.

Sadly, Tom Durant-Pritchard and Sophie Spreadbury's central duo don't fare quite as well. Durant-Pritchard (also directing) certainly looks the part, and is helped by effective lighting that accentuates the gloominess of his features. Still, there's little sense that his decisions weigh heavily upon him and the subtle corruption that marks a great Macbeth isn't quite there. Spreadbury fares a little better with Lady Macbeth, her rendition of "out, damn spot" appropriately chilling. Still, she and Durant-Pritchard both suffer from the abbreviated runtime, their gradual descent into villainy told in vignettes rather than the gradients it needs a real emotional kick.

Squeezing this much Shakespeare into such a small space is worthy of praise - but the characters, if not the themes, suffer from the compression. Still, it's a production with an clear sense of its own aesthetics; strongly and striking lit; using alarmingly realistic-looking kitchen knives in place of swords; and knowing precisely when to deploy a bucket of the red stuff. 


Macbeth is at the Courtyard Theatre until August 27th. Tickets here.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

'Dark Vanilla Jungle' at the Cockpit Theatre, 10th August 2016

Thursday, August 11, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Cockpit Theatre seats 420 people. Last night's production had an attendance of 9. But, curiously, Burning Coal's production of Philip Ridley's Dark Vanilla Jungle is only amplified by the vast empty space that greets actor Lexie Braverman as she enters.

Philip Ridley is a playwright notorious for grappling with subjects most would rather sweep under the rug. His work covers the gamut of extreme violence, sexual perversion and psychological oppressiveness, all slathered with pitch black humour and an obsessive attention to detail. But, even amongst his atrocity-studded bibliography, Vanilla Dark Jungle has a certain notoriety.

Part confessional/part autobiography, Ridley introduces us to Andrea, a young girl. All she wants is to love, and to be loved in return. Yet life can't stop kicking her in the teeth: her father disappeared soon after she was born, leaving her to be raised by her couldn't-give-a-shit Mum, who callously and suddenly disappears upon his return. Abandoned in a grotty flat, she tiptoes along the borders of mental illness until she's 'rescued' by her never before seen grandmother, referred to only as 'Mrs V'.

The proceeding 75 minutes are a symphony of horribleness: neglect, delusion, paedophilia, gang-rape, manipulation, paranoia, self-loathing, fear, abuse, miscarriage and complete and abject humiliation. But hey, that's Ridley for 'ya.

All that's conveyed through a jumbled up narrative through. Andrea talks as if we're interviewing her on her life to date, guiding us through a roughly chronological story with constant detours into apparently trivial minutia. Tiny anecdotes and observations pile up on top of the core narrative, forcing the audience to play detective as they sift through the story and work out what's driving this mysterious, enigmatic, disturbing girl. 

The monologue is filled with typical Ridleyian down-at-heel motifs, for example, an early profession of love for the soft pastry in a McDonalds' Apple Pie later echoes in the description of an amputee's sutured stump, or the way her father takes a big scoop of ice-cream repeats in an uneasily fetishistic description of a scoop taken out of man's skull by a landmine. Things eventually come full circle in a wonderfully ambiguous ending that marks the point where the subtle tendrils of fantasy that've nibbled at the corners Dark Vanilla Jungle finally envelope it.

It all adds up to a vivid and bleak snapshot of modern femininity. Girls grow up in a society that teaches them that they're there to provide. Andrea constantly delineates the sexes: "women suggest, men decide" and "women suck, men spit" taking an increasingly warped pleasure in being submissive and accommodating to men. Ridley being Ridley, Andrea's submissiveness goes to some really fucked up places.

Dark Vanilla Jungle is not an easy piece to perform. Andrea is all over the emotional spectrum and constantly toys with audience sympathies. That said, Lexie Braverman knocks it out of the goddamn park from minute one. Making lemonade from lemons, she seizes on the diminished audience as an opportunity to interrogate individuals during the monologue - shooting accusatory gazes and questions into the audience that make you shrink back in your seat when you're targeted

During one emotional high-point, two hooray-Henrys loudly blunder into the theatre by mistake, not having realised there's a play on. One of them (called Rupert, natch) loudly chats behind the curtain, throwing it open and recoiling in shock when he realises there's a show on. Braverman doesn't flinch, instantly (and quite brilliantly) incorporating this intrusion into her performance. 

That's just one example of the many micro-moments that combine to make a gripping performative tapestry. Braverman's Andrea is somehow girlish/mature, sexy/ugly, manipulative/manipulated etc all at once. Being able to tease out a crystal clear character through this is partly down to Ridley's evocative writing, but also down to Braverman's viscerally palpable, real Andrea.

My only slight criticisms land with the writing. There's a change in plot midway through that feels suspiciously like two separate but similar monologues have been awkwardly welded together and the rough edges smoothed out as best as possible. Plot elements from the first are suddenly abandoned, to be replaced with a whole new set of characters and situations. Still, the themes, symbols and character remain consistent throughout, so it's not too jarring.

Though poorly attended, Burning Coal's Dark Vanilla Jungle knocked my socks off. It's an ambitious, beautifully performed and smartly directed gem of a production that deserves much more of an audience than it had last night. Make a beeline for the Cockpit!


Dark Vanilla Jungle is at the Cockpit until 13th August. Tickets here.

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