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Friday, March 22, 2019

Review: 'Random Selfies' at Ovalhouse, 21 March 2019

Friday, March 22, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

Loretta is ten years old and cannot understand why she would want to take a photo that isn't a selfie. What on earth would be the point of a photograph without her in it? This is the core of Mike Kenny's Random Selfies, a show that tries to understand how social media has altered the way children perceive the world, their relationships and themselves.

The show is firmly set within Loretta's world. Christina Ngoyi plays every role, altering her tone and body language in order to quickly convey her teasing mother, older neighbour Mrs Thing and her new friend Maya. A meandering narrative takes through a typical couple of days in Loretta's life in which she meets a new friend (asylum seeker Maya) and worries about whether she's going to be invited to the popular's girl's birthday party.

Though the set is a broadly realistic ten-year-old's bedroom, Rachana Jadhav's digital projection mapping allows it to become various other locations, as well as introducing hallucinatory depictions of Loretta's life and feelings. Memories of old posters fade into view on the walls, a wall becomes transparent and astronauts float lazily through the night sky. 

Nothing particularly dramatic happens in Random Selfies, but then the whole objective appears to be to create a play that mirrors the lives of any children in the audience. I'm sure they can empathise with Loretta when she protests her mother temporarily confiscating her tablet, annoyed at the invasion of privacy and worried that her secrets are going to be revealed. Similarly, there's a nicely pitched eternal angst about fitting in, with Loretta fretting that her name isn't amongst the most popular names in the country.

Running through all of this is a theme about fear of invisibility, a metaphor for loneliness. First introduced when Loretta and her brother are discussing which superpower they'd have, her brother sees it as a ticket to doing whatever he wants and learning secrets. Loretta understands it as a kind of existential threat: her world is governed by visibility and microscopic kernels of praise, the worst case scenario her fading into life's background and forever going unacknowledged.

This is all very relevant stuff. You can't open a broadsheet without reading some columnist fretting that children these days are being made miserable by their exposure to social media. I'm generally pretty sceptical of this sort of thing: every generation is 'ruined' by some new technology that adults are suspicious of: be it social media, texting, videogames, the internet or television. 

But there is definitely something dramatically worthwhile about getting to grips with the unique ways that online interaction affects children. The best moments of Random Selfies are when Loretta is curating a new identity for herself, trying to rebrand herself 'Lola', with a fresh personality at odds with her true self. Watching children promoting themselves within a competitive marketplace of personas is a great way to show how a hyper-capitalist society unconsciously warps those within it, and the musings on this are when the show is at its best.

But - perhaps because the play is short and aimed at children - there is simply not enough time to properly work through this complex topic. Throughout the show, there's a tension between keeping it accessible for children in the audience and including enough meat for the adults to chew on. The end result is a show that's too dull for younger audiences (I heard bored whispering) and too lightweight for adults. 

I'm with the kids on this one. Though I appreciate that the show shies away from talking down to younger audiences by dramatising their lives without condescension, it struggled to keep my attention. And when the show is a mere 55 minutes long, that's a problem. At least in this form, Random Selfies lacks energy and rhythm, moving at a trudge when you want it to sprint. 

Random Selfies is at Ovalhouse until 7 April. Tickets here.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Review: 'Piaf: The Legend' at The Crazy Coqs, 20 March 2019

Thursday, March 21, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Edith Piaf lived an interesting life. The daughter of an acrobat and a cafe singer, she was abandoned at birth and raised in a brothel. Learning her trade singing on the streets of Paris, she was plucked from obscurity and became one of the most celebrated singers of the 20th century. But even with fame and wealth, sadness was never far from the singer famously dubbed 'The Little Sparrow'.

Her life is fascinating and her songs are beautiful, which explains why it's been such fertile ground for drama, with Piaf being the subject of multiple biopic films, plays and books over the years. Now, with Piaf: The Legend, New Zealand singer Mandy Meadows presents a classy evening of chansons at Crazy Coqs, accompanied by an authentically Parisian sounding band.

As Meadows acknowledges early on, the diminutive French singer is quite at odds with her: a tall, blonde New Zealander. But despite their physical differences, when Meadows sings she captures something of the distinct Piaf aural experience. I'm no musicologist, but I've always loved the way Piaf poured so much emotional resonance into her songs. In every recording, you hear her not just singing a song but performing it, emphasising words and phrases until they're practically creaking with pathos.

Meadows has an admirable set of pipes and manages to capture this elusive quality without sounding like a mere impersonation. The litmus test of any Piaf tribute show has got to be the iconic Non, je ne regrette rien. Meadows absolutely nails this - you get the impression that it's as much as pleasure for her to perform as it is for us to hear it. 

Interspersed with the songs are a potted biopic of her life, with Meadows giving her take on what it meant to be Edith Piaf. The most effective sequence is about her doomed love with boxer Marcel Cerdan, one of France's most highly esteemed sporting heroes. Their love story ended with tragedy when his plane crashed on his way to visit her, and Meadows delivers this with a flair and skill that make the following songs that much more effective.

That said, this is a rather uncritical take on Piaf's life. Meadows resurrects the largely debunked and apocryphal tale of Piaf aiding prisoners of war during the Nazi Occupation of France. It's a rousing tale in which she craftily uses her fame and ingenuity to forge passports and save the lives of about a hundred French fighters. It's also almost certainly a post-occupation PR exercise concocted to fend off the accusations that she passively collaborated with the Nazis - having performed shows in clubs reserved for German officers.

I don't necessarily mind a hagiography, but I think it makes for a far more interesting story if you show how Piaf wasn't a perfect moral actor and that there are aspects of her life that should be criticised. But then I suppose this is Piaf: The Legend rather than Piaf: The Woman. 

Whatever your opinion on that, you can't deny Meadows' vocal talents and the way she breathes life and vitality into these classic songs. I believe the show is going on tour later this year, so if it rolls into your town prepare yourself for a smart and stylish night, all borne on the breath of a seriously talented singer.

This review was conducted via a live stream of the performance from Crazy Coqs.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: 'For King and Country: 1944' at CoLab Factory, 14th March 2018

Friday, March 15, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Just under a year ago I reviewed Parabolic Theatre's For King and Country, which tasked the audience with repelling a Nazi invasion of England in 1940. I loved it. Proper immersive theatre is surprisingly hard to find, with many shows billing themselves as immersive despite being nothing of the sort. But Parabolic do it right, trusting the audience to move the narrative along and nudging us towards developments that feel organic. 

So when I was invited along to the sequel, For King and Country: 1944, I leapt at the chance. Whereas the previous show asked us to play a fictional government under threat of invasion, 1944 drops us into a United Kingdom now firmly under the Nazi jackboot. Operation Sealion was a success, Winston Churchill has been executed, the British Army is now under Nazi command and Oswald Mosley seems pleased as punch.

But all is not lost. It is June 6th, 1944 and on the east Irish coast there's an Allied liberation force formed of American and Commonwealth troops. They're preparing to invade Britain and drive the fascists out - but they're going to need support from Resistance fighters remaining in London if they're going to succeed. And that's where you come in.

Correctly taking the view that if it's broken don't fix it, 1944 is structurally very similar to its predecessor. The audience is divided into different departments which need to co-operate with one another to achieve shared goals, our decisions are evaluated and consequences decided off-stage and we must react and cope with events taking place around the country. 

If this all sounds a bit intimidating, it is. At least to begin with. Though the audience is trusted to link pieces of information, draw conclusions from them and execute a plan, the cast is always ready to help and, if you're going seriously off-piste, will subtly point you back in the right direction.

I spent my time in the Intelligence Department, which consisted of poring over documents in order to direct the other departments towards military and espionage aims. Whoever at Parabolic is in charge of producing all this paperwork deserves some kind of award - it's all utterly convincing, full of world-building detail and has a trail of breadcrumbs scattered through it that rewards lateral thinking. 

Based on these documents our team successfully sniffed out secret Nazi weapons programmes, made calls impersonating Nazi commanders so as to confuse the chain of command, and forged documents to get our spies and assassins where they needed to be. Now, you might not think forging documents would be particularly exciting - but it's surprisingly rewarding to figure out ways to replicate every last detail of a document with what you have to hand.

I don't want to explain too much more of what happens for fear of spoiling the surprise, but much like its prequel, I had a great time putting myself into another world and puzzling my way through a situation completely removed from my everyday life. Huge credit to the cast (Christopher Styles, Edward Andrews, Zoe Flint, Tom Black, Ed Cartwright, Beth Whitaker and Owen Kingston), who are some of the most quick-witted and natural improvisers I've seen in years.

So how does 1944 compare to 1940? Both are excellent shows, but I think the original remains the one to see. I think this boils down to 1944 feeling less dynamic: you are essentially a third party in the conflict between the Nazis and Allied Forces, which makes you feel slightly less involved in what's happening than if you were, say, commanding the invading forces yourself. Similarly, while the objectives and surprising developments are fun, there's nothing quite on the same level as the revelations you learn in 1940.

Plus - and this is in no way a criticism of the company or the show - at the performance I attended there were a couple of Hooray Henry city boys who got drunk, sniggered and whispered through the serious moments, and had to be told not to take selfies in the middle of the show. To the audience's credit, there were attendees who took the whole thing seriously, but it's a reminder that any show that relies so much on the audience can easily be spoiled by a couple of bad eggs.

If you've already seen and loved 1940, this is a no-brainer. The way Parabolic Theatre develop the story and construct a scarily believable world is way beyond what other immersive companies are trying to achieve. That said, it doesn't quite hit the heights of what came before, but it's still an easy recommendation.

For King and Country: 1940 and 1944 are playing on alternate nights (and as a weekend double-bill) at Colab Factory until April 28th. Tickets here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Review: 'Yamato: The Drummers of Japan' at the Peacock Theatre, 12th March 2018

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars 

Ah, the simple pleasures of a guy beating the living shit out of an enormous drum. It's a sight, sound and sensation that awakens something primal within you: the pounding bass beat reverberating throughout the theatre; a thud you hear with your whole body rather than just your ears; an insistent rhythm that makes you want to dance around a fire smeared in paint chanting mad nonsense as you prepare to hunt the great totem bear and...

Wait, where was I?

Ah yes, central London, 2019, in the Peacock Theatre watching an excellent Japanese drum troupe performing their awesome new show. They are Yamato and their new show is Passion, the latest in a long series of touring shows in this country in which they showcase their enormous percussion instruments and their insane levels of skill.

The night consists of a series of pieces that range from comedy skits with elements of clowning in which the performers battle one another from drum supremacy, bits of audience participation where we clap and cheer along with the music and, my favorite, when the whole troupe is on stage performing as one and creating the most wonderful racket.

I really want to emphasise how *loud* Yamato is. On entering we're provided with earplugs and signs in the lobby warn us that this show is going to crank up the volume. During the show I glanced around to notice that the majority of people had theirs in. I tried my best to tough it out, but there came a moment where I had to admit defeat and put them in. Even with earplugs it's a thunderous cacophony, a series of booms that you can palpably feel shaking your hairdo and wobbling your larynx.

One notable aspect of Passion I realised midway through the show is a lack of technology. While there are one or two amplified instruments used in the show, the vast majority of the sound emanates from the drums themselves rather than through a sound system. The fact that taiko drums have been around since about the 6th century in Japan means that the show we're watching could have been devised and performed at any point within the last millennia and a half.

As it is next to impossible not to get sucked into these precise, primal and overpowering rhythms, you sense that you're feeling the same thrill as any human who has experienced a show like this over the years - creating a rare continuity of feeling across the centuries. For example, I have absolutely nothing in common with a 12th-century Japanese peasant - but I do know what she would have felt in her gut when someone struck a giant drum.

So yeah, I enjoyed Passion. I had been worried that two hours of just drumming would get a bit repetitive, but the variations in tone and style kept me engaged right the way through. My only minor criticism is that some of the comedy bits go on a bit, but given that they hide a change of scenery and a rearrangement the drums it's easy to forgive.

A wholehearted recommendation, but bring earplugs!

Yamato: The Drummers of Japan is at the Peacock Theatre until 31 March. Tickets here.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Review: 'Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria' at The Crypt Gallery, 2nd March 2019

Sunday, March 3, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Catharsis Theatre's 'Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria ticks a lot of my boxes. As a history nerd it's nice to see a play that deals with non-British history, and as I don't know much about the Neo-Assyrian Empire it's a good opportunity to learn. Plus, I am always up for spending time in crypts - and the one under St Pancras Church is a long-term fave. Plus plus, I love immersive theatre.

So on paper, this is the show for me. I tend not to go and see shows on the weekend because it's nice to have a couple of nights off reviewing: but for something as promising looking as this I made an exception. Sadly, I wish I hadn't.

Let's get one thing out of the way for starters: despite billing itself as "an immersive theatre event", Ashurbanipal is not immersive theatre. Immersive theatre is pretty fuzzily defined, but the core concept is that it allows audiences to interact with the show and influence its progression. For example, For King And Country at CoLab Factory turned its audience into politicians and generals repelling a Nazi invasion, while Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man largely ditched structured drama in favour of audiences exploring a space and forming their own narratives.

By comparison, Ashurbanipal is a tightly scripted play that requires the audience to simply move between performance spaces to follow the action. As soon as I realised this some of the enthusiasm drained out of me: shows falsely billing themselves as immersive really annoys me. This is very clearly a promenade piece and Catharsis should bill it as such.

But enough about what this play isn't - what is it? We spend the majority of the two hour run time in the court of King Ashurbanipal (Laurence Varda), who is preoccupied with putting down a rebellion from his estranged brother Shammash-skum-ukin (John Lutula). As his military campaign wobbles he senses treachery in his court, with his wife Queen Libball-sharrat (Michal Banai) and his chief scholar Balasi (Wayne Wilson) potentially plotting against him.

It's interesting history, but that doesn't necessarily make it dramatically interesting. Much of the action feels sub-Shakespearian, with the court betrayals and power corrupting stuff feeling like bits of Macbeth and Hamlet have been mashed up together. There's nothing objectively wrong about that (after all, Shakespeare himself was notorious for it), but the writing here lacks the lyricism and poetry needed to bring this story to life.

In addition, setting this within a subterranean crypt doesn't particularly fit with the story. On one hand, I like the metatextual aspect of setting a play about ancient history underground in the foundations of a site of Christian worship, but the claustrophobic tunnels are at odds with the scope of the story and the sparse sets simply don't conjure up images of an opulent palace. 

That said, I do very much like subterranean spaces, so when the show became less than engaging I could at least occupy myself by admiring the elegant Victorian brickwork and reading the stacks of grave markers piled against the corners of the tunnels.

But, y'know, when your mind is wandering so far from the show you're watching that you're trying to work out how the masons managed to construct these perfect arches, something has gone very wrong. If you recently saw the British Museum's I Am Ashurbanipal exhibition and really wanted to see a play about it then go, but if you want an emotionally compelling narrative or an immersive experience then it's a hard avoid.

Ashurbanipal: The Last Great King of Assyria is at the Crypt Gallery until March 3rd. Tickets here.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Review: 'Dinomania' at the New Diorama, 27th February 2019

Thursday, February 28, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars 

There is no way in hell I'm going to miss a show called Dinomania. Perhaps understandably, there are few plays about dinosaurs on the London fringe, with cash-strapped theatre companies reluctant to blow their budget on rubber Velociraptor costumes. More's the pity, but as Dinomania proves, there is still room in theatre for palaeontology nerds...

I've been a big admirer of Kandinsky ever since their excellent Still Ill back in 2016 and their talents were only confirmed in last year's Trap Street. Those shows covered psychosomatic illness and post-war housing. Now, as if actively resisting being pigeon-holed, they've created a seriously engaging play about Victorian science and the birth of palaeontology.

I imagine that for most people the names Gideon Mantell, Richard Owen and Georges Cuvier don't mean a huge amount, but they're indelibly burned into my brain thanks to 5-year-old me spending hours poring over various Usborne and Kingfisher books about dinosaurs. These books generally had a section on the discovery and classification of dinosaurs, generally taking time to explain how country doctor Gideon Mantell unearthed one of the first dinosaurs while out walking in the English countryside.

You can imagine what learning something like that does to a five-year-old's imagination. Dinosaurs are not only real and incredibly cool but they are literally hidden under the ground in this country. What on earth is stopping me from going out into the woods and finding the most awesome dinosaur the world has ever seen? All of which led me to me begging for a hammer and chisel for my sixth birthday - which in retrospect must have made for a pretty cheap present.

Anyway, all that's to say that I was extremely geared up to see a show about Gideon Mantell. While the show is broadly biographical, following him from cradle to grave, his life becomes a prism through which we understand Victorian science. The Victorians made enormous leaps in our understanding of the natural world - though these revelations were by no means easily accepted.

And so Kandinsky dramatises the key rifts in Victorian science. This begins with the class divisions between upper-class gentlemen scientists like Owen and Cuvier and middle and working class fossil-hunters like Mantell and Mary Anning (who I was slightly disappointed not to see get a name-check here). This feeds into a more serious rift, with young-earth Christianity and Genesis not having room for extinct prehistoric species and the millions of years required to produce fossils.

One of the most fascinating observations Kandinsky make is to explain how the concept of a creature changing form over time and becoming extinct was anathema to the upper-class Victorian consciousness. The scientists of the day looked to nature to justify the supremacy of their way of life (also a great way of securing patronage) and in Dinomania we hear how the theory that 'a mollusc may become a man' can be viewed as an attack on the rigid class structures.

It's a perspective the show reflects in Mantell's life. The child of shoemakers, he's told by his parents that the Mantells were once a great family and throughout the play we see him struggling to gain gentlemanly respectability. But, much as the Royal Geographical Society resist any 'progressive' ideas about adaptability, they resist his very presence among them and do their best to minimise his role in the discovery and classification of Iguanadon.

Kandinsky stages these arguments with their usual razor-sharp precision. The march of scientific progress and the discarding of incorrect or politically untimely theories is depicted by scientists dispatching each other with a pistol shot to the forehead, religious thought is heralded with hilariously overblown latin chanting and, in the play's best moment, the villain of the piece crumbles as he receives a vision of the future: his hated rival Charles Darwin is venerated and he dies miserable and alone. (Ha-ha! Suck it, Richard Owen).

I was never not going to enjoy a play that sits at the intersection of so many things I'm into, but it takes some serious skills to make a potentially dry subject so gripping. I've read a tonne about these dusty old scientists and in my imagination they are always the rigid, stern-looking men you see in their lithograph portraits (or the photographs of them as corpse-like old guys). Dinomania brings them to lusty, passionate life, blood pumping through their veins and sweat on their faces as they decipher the evidence left in rocks. 

I have no idea what subject Kandinsky are going to tackle next but I'll be there day one.

Dinomania is at the New Diorama Theatre until 23 March. Tickets here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Review: 'Boots' at The Bunker, 26th February 2019

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars 

The vast majority of what your body does is out of your control. Each cell executes a genetic code, enzymes are busy metabolising nutrient molecules and the mitochondria who supply cellular energy even possess an independent genome. This is just a tiny fraction of what's going on literally under your nose, with your consciousness less the monarch of the body and more an absent-minded CEO.

We are not luminous beings. Understanding yourself as a squishy (and honestly kinda gross) biological machine is important - not just to get a perspective on how you can best maintain that machine but to understand where you fit into a bigger picture. Just as the activity of cells makes up a body, the activity of organisms makes up an ecosystem.

So what does all that have to do with Sacha Voit and Jessica Butcher's Boots? Set in a Boots Pharmacy, this is a two-hander about the relationship between pharmacist Willow (Tanya Loretta Dee) and her elderly customer Liz (Amanda Boxer). 

Willow mostly enjoys her job, though her illusions about being in a position to support patients appear to be dissolving amidst pushing 2 for 1 offers and the Boots advantage card. She also contributes to a pharmacological research journal - an obvious point of pride for her. Liz initially appears a stereotypical cantankerous old woman, but soon reveals a self-awareness and mordant sense of humour that endears her to Liz (and the audience).

A cross-generational bond forms between the two women, with each realising that despite having had very different lives they share common experiences and both feel a deep and profound connection to nature. For Willow, this manifests in her studies of drugs obtained from trees, for Liz the local woodland provides a contemplative space outside a miserable home.

Their conversations explore how women are expected to sacrifice their lives and ambitions to please and care for men. For example, Liz doesn't seem to have been a particularly happy mother, explaining that in a moment of desperation she considered bashing her infant son's head in to stop him crying. Now in her old age, she is a carer for her ailing husband, who we soon learn does not warrant this level of kindness.

Boots repeatedly identify the woodland and nature as an intrinsically feminine sphere that allows freedom from societal bondage. Lia Waber's striking stage design draws a clear distinction between the white pharmacy plastic and the damp woodchips and tree stumps that encircle it. Appropriately enough given the botanical origins of many pharmaceuticals, the woods encroach more and more on the pharmacy the longer the play goes on.

Willow teaches Liz and the audience about the mycorrhizal networks that connect plants to one another, explaining that masculine notions of aggressive competition between organisms are out-dated, with current science revealing complex systems of balance and cooperation in nature. And so they plunge their hands deep into the soil to tap into this network - an attempt to bust through the chrysalis of millennia-old patriarchy and connect with something deep, profound and ancient.

Boots argues that enlightenment comes from recognising oneself as part of nature and not kidding yourself that you're separate from it. The products within Willow's pharmacy are derived from the woodlands; the human body has its own flora that must be tended to; we are all bound to one another in subtle and powerful ways; the forest is within us. It's not particularly difficult for individuals to work this out for themselves, but sadly it appears to escape humanity as a species.

As a thesis on the universal feminine experience and the invisible connections between organisms Boots works gangbusters. Sadly there are a couple of flies in the ointment. A minor one is that the play is studded with jokes where the gag is simply that an elderly person is talking about sex. I get that the point is to critique our expectations of who Liz is, but it's a pretty tired and safe way to conjure up laughs. Plus, if the humour arises from her acting in an aberrant way it only reinforces prejudices rather than attacks them.

Then there's the late reveal about an intensely traumatic event in Willow's past that doesn't tessellate with the rest of the play. Delivered in the middle of the finale, neither characters or audience are given the necessary time to process something with this much gravity. Ideally, you'd be able to recontextualise Willow's behaviour with this knowledge in mind, but it really doesn't add a great deal to what we've already understood about her. 

That aside, a whole bunch of intelligent, perceptive thought has clearly been poured into Boots. It's a sharply written play that communicates with confidence, clarity and humour. I liked it a lot. 

Boots is at The Bunker until 16 March. Tickets here.

(Photos by Tim Kelly, lighting by Jack Weir, set design by Lia Waber.)

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