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Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: 'Inside Pussy Riot' at the Saatchi Gallery, 16th November 2017

Friday, November 17, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Inside Pussy Riot reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

Back in 2012 I protested and fundraised for Pussy Riot during their 2012 trial, at the conclusion of which they were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". I attended meetings at the Royal Court Theatre in which people who'd attended the trial reported their experiences in court and heard the closing statements of the three defendants (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch (aka Nadya, Masha and Katya)) performed by actors. Following Nadya and Masha's conviction, I followed the communications from the 'Corrective Labour Camp' and was relieved when they were released early

All this made it extremely surreal to be sat alongside Nadya Tolokonnikova as we processed through a heightened reenactment of her punk prayer protest and subsequent trial and incarceration. This is Inside Pussy Riot, an immersive theatrical experience that tries to educate the audience about what Nadya, Masha and Katya went through and provide a framework on which we can construct our own rebellions.

What the show precisely consists of should remain a mystery. The line between performer and audience is frequently blurred, there's a constant tension on what the show expects from you and nobody knows what is going to be through the next set of doors. It'd spoil the show to explain what's in store, so I'm not going to go into specifics.

What I can say is that there's an uncomfortable tonal friction between the show's DIY punk ideals and its establishment surroundings. The show wears a cloak of feminism, its opening room a perverse mini-cathedral studded with icons of Trump, Farage, Putin and Harvey Weinstein. The show repeatedly makes a point about the importance of free speech and specifically giving women a voice. But I couldn't help but think of that picture of gallery founder Charles Saatchi squeezing Nigella Lawson's throat closed to shut her up. This discontinuity between message and place became an itch I just couldn't scratch. 


Worse, Inside Pussy Riot styles itself as political, but communicates only the vaguest political sentiments. You're handed placards with generic 'protest' slogans like "Save the Planet", "Nobody Rules Me but Me" or "Share the World's Wealth" and later encouraged to yell them out loud (this is insanely awkward). It falls flat - but how could it not when there's zero engagement with the ideology that underpins the slogans? The show often feels like the political equivalent of a teenager buying an AC/DC t-shirt from Primark purely because the logo looks kinda cool.

On top of that, playacting the role of a Russian prisoner made me insanely uncomfortable (especially as I was literally sat alongside Nadya, who had experienced this first hand). Maybe that uncomfortableness was the point, but pretending to be a tortured prisoner in a flashy London gallery in one of the richest neighbourhoods in one of the richest cities in the world felt like straight-up misery tourism. This was only compounded in the launch's afterparty, where the shiny happy people of West London's art set quaffed free shots of vodka alongside trays of simulated labour camp food.

Knowing that Nadya Tolokonnikova co-wrote this makes me feel a little better - there is a validity in taking the nightmare inflicted upon you by a repressive state and reforging it into a weapon to retaliate with - but all too often the show strays into plain old camp. For example, you do not particularly feel like you are gaining a real understanding of the horrors of incarceration when a sexy dominatrix prison guard is strutting around calling you "Princess".

Beyond all that, there's a frustrating regimentation to the show. Immersive theatre at its best gives the illusion of barely coordinated chaos. In the best immersive shows I've seen the audience is at least under the impression they're in control and forging their own stories. Here you dutifully troop from room to room, with an actor at one point breaking character and explaining that the show doesn't really work if you disobey the orders. On paper, the show is about going your own way and kicking back against societal norms. In practice Inside Pussy Riot is about doing what you're told, which extends even to the final moments where you're commanded to step forward and perform protest like a dog begging for a treat.

Inside Pussy Riot looks, sounds and acts the part, but peel away the surface and it's entirely hollow. Political theatre really must do better than simply telling us to "stand up for what you believe in".

Inside Pussy Riot is at the Saatchi Gallery until 24 December. Tickets here.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: 'Phoenix Rising' below Smithfields Meat Market, 15th November 2017

Thursday, November 16, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Phoenix Rising reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager who's finally escaped the home of their abusive parents. A childhood of emotional and physical neglect has left you at odds with the world: you have no money; you're unemployable; you're nursing several undiagnosed mental health problems; your council-provided flat is surrounded by drug addicts and alcoholics; and you might have you've got a string of convictions for petty theft breathing down your neck. Everything is terrible and you can't see a way out. Who's going to help you?

GPs have a name for what's wrong with patients who come to them with complaints like these: "shit life syndrome". This sounds flippant but isn't meant to be. Doctors explain that people with shit life syndrome genuinely suffer from physical and mental health problems, but the causes are a knot of economic, social, medical and emotional problems that can't be loosened by a magic pill.

Callum (Aston McAuley), the protagonist of The Big House's Phoenix Rising suffers from a classic case of shit life syndrome. He's your classic angry young man who lashes out because "at least he knows one person is fighting for him". We find him living in an extremely grotty flat, his life punctuated by visits from nosy social workers who seem to just want him to say something upbeat so they can say he's making progress on a form. The one positive thing in his life is that he's a promising sprinter, enough for coach Josiah (Charmel Koloko) to take an interest in him and try to forge him into a champion. 

Phoenix Rising is not a very upbeat kind of play and Callum's tale is not a happy one. It's studded with betrayal, nihilism and abject misery - if you're hoping for an uplifting tale of someone beating the odds, go and see something on Shaftesbury Avenue. But if you're up for something a with a palpable sense of reality to it, this provides.

Part of this results from production company The Big House, which works with young people who have been in care (I previously loved their Knife Edge last year). The company was set up by Maggie Norris in 2013 after she learned that almost half of all prisoners under the age of 21 were previously in the care system. This has resulted in a company whose mission statement is to "break this cycle and many others that care leavers find themselves trapped in". Alongside dramatic training, they provide counselling and long-term support to enable marginalised young people to live independently.  Phoenix Rising is the finale of one of their projects: developed and performed by the participants alongside a professional writer (in this case Andrew Day).

I'm always a little nervous about seeing plays built on such noble foundations. What if it's rubbish? Critically demolishing a charity production just isn't a good look. But if it was terrible that's precisely what I'd have to do.


Fortunately, Phoenix Rising is great. While the overall story is pretty miserable, the piece is studded with funny moments and charismatic performances. Every actor gets a moment to shine, with particular kudos going to Jordan Bangura, Perrina Allen, Daniel Akilimali and Rebecca Oldfield. Excellent though they are, it's Aston McAuley that really grabs the eye: simultaneously relatable and intimidating,  and pitiable and proud.

Callum's story is knitted together from a multitude of observations about life in care, ranging from the cold-blooded trauma of having your children removed from you by court order, to the over-prescription of anti-depressants ("I don't want to look at shit and think it's chocolate ice cream!"), to the alienation of mental health patients, to the indignity of having your entire life bundled into a manila folder for any yahoo at the council to leaf through. Taken as a whole, it feels real, something only bolstered by the sincere and committed performers.

Also shouldering some of this is Maggie Norris' direction and choice of location. The car park underneath Smithfields Meat Market is all stained concrete and crumbling Victorian brickwork, with the dramatic lighting heightening the feeling that these events take place below society's notice. The slight tang of stale piss in some corners of the place contributes to this - it's a rare show that's improved by smelling a bit pissy.

Phoenix Rising comes at an entirely appropriate time. Many of the problems these characters face are directly rooted in the austerity economics of the current Conservative government. Today saw the release of a landmark study in the British Medical Journal that concluded that their cuts to health and social care resulted in 45,000 more deaths between 2010 and 2014 than would have been expected if funding had stayed at pre-2010 levels. Based on these figures, the authors predict that 2015 to 2020 will see approximately 150,000 avoidable deaths due to these cuts. This is plainly described as "economic murder".

Without being preachy, Phoenix Rising shows us precisely what a rubber stamp in a wood-panelled Westminster office does to people's lives. With consequences like these, no wonder so many are suffer from chronic cases of shit life syndrome. Something needs to change. And fast.

Phoenix Rising runs until 2nd December. Tickets here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: 'The Dark Room' at Theatre503, 13th November 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


The Dark Room reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The Northern Territory of Australia doesn't look very pleasant at all. Angela Betzien's The Dark Room, first staged in Sydney in 2011, shows us a society suspended in a piss-yellow soup of toxic masculinity, that produces hardened fuckups so damaged there might be no way back for them.

The play takes place inside a single motel room, telling interlinked stories that take place in the same space at different times. First up are Grace (Annabel Smith) and Anni (Katy Brittain), a traumatised 'feral child' and a social worker caring for her overnight. Next are Stephen (Tamlyn Henderson) and Emma (Fiona Skinner), a cop and his pregnant wife returning from a wedding. Finally, we get Craig (Alasdair Craig) and Joseph (Paul Adeyefa), a guilt-ridden cop and a vulnerable young boy. 

None of these stories is particularly cheery (though there fleeting moments of humour). Taken in totality we get an idea of a snowballing cycle of abuse and misery, fuelled by cheap beer and nihilism. Parents, bitter at their ruined lives, take it out on the children, who will do the same to the next generation and so on. 

This inescapable decay is felt keenly by Stephen and Emma, who have recently arrived from Sydney and found their worst nightmares about the region realised. You can't help but feel their paranoia about what a child raised here might become. It manifests itself in the dead-eyed brutality of Craig, a cop with little else to cling to but hackneyed notions of manhood. But it finds its full embodiment in the shattered and vicious Grace, an abused teenage girl perhaps lost forever in a maze of trauma and self-destruction. 

There are glimmers of compassion in the darkness, but the infinite patience and empathy of social worker Anni and the palpable (yet wavering) conscience of Stephen seem as fragile as a butterfly facing down a hurricane. Betzien offers no easy solutions to these problems, because there aren't any. But we can unflinchingly examine situations like these and try to understand why they happen, and, if we can't solve them, we can at least try to ameliorate them.


The Dark Room is a fine bit of writing, crammed full of nuance and atmosphere. It reminded me a little of Ted Kotchoff's 1971 classic Wake In Fright, which similarly delves deep into the forgotten parts of Australia and exposes the beery, sun-blasted viciousness that permeates them. Grace, in particular, is written with a care clearly borne of intense research into the behaviour of abused, angry teenagers. She's an incredibly psychologically complex character and it's a testament to the writing that we understand her through observing her behaviour rather than exposition. 

This production also boasts intricate direction by Audrey Sheffield. Blocking out scenes involving five or six characters, all occupying the same physical space but temporally removed from one another is no mean feat, and it's a credit to her that everything moves so fluidly and naturally. Stage design also lives up the typically high standards of Theatre503, a basically naturalistic motel room with chipboard walls and floor, this effect heightens both the cheapness and temporary nature of the place. 


Performances are similarly great. I particularly enjoyed Tamlyn Henderson's Stephen, who is teetering on a moral tightrope, threatening to become just another Northern Territory bozo cop. But the obvious stand-out is Annabel Smith's Grace, who commits to the role to a frankly scary degree. We repeatedly see flashes of pain and madness in her eyes and through them understand all too well why she wants to hold the world at knifepoint.


It's a great play and a great production, squeezing a hell of a lot into 75 minutes. The Dark Room is by no means an easy watch, but it is a deeply satisfying one.


The Dark Room is at Theatre503 until 2 December. Tickets here.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review: 'The Red Lion' at Trafalgar Studios, 7th November 2018

Wednesday, November 8, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments



The Red Lion reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Football is more dominant now than at any point in history. Millions of people can simultaneously cheer on a match from every corner of the world. Afterwards many retreat to the virtual world of EA's FIFA video games or fiddle with their fantasy leagues. Even if you don't give a shit about the sport, the all-encompassing celebrity of the world's top players ensures that everyone constantly aware of them.

Cultural dominance is lucrative stuff, as anyone that's glanced at the FIFA corruption investigations will know. Get the right tournament in the right place with the right sponsorship deal can lead to dump trucks full of money unloading in your Swiss bank account, a daisy-chain of backhanders: on one end gold-plated Rolls Royces and on the other slave labour in a baking hot Qatari building site.

But all this seems pretty damn distant from the changing rooms of the non-league team that' the subject of Patrick Marber's The Red Lion. Set entirely in a changing room that has seen better days, we follow three men making their way through the unglamorous side of football. They are club manager Kidd (Stephen Tompkinson), kit man Yates (John Bowler) and talented young player Jordan (Dean Bone).

Over a (rather appropriate) 90 minutes, we discover what the game means to these men. Each lives and breathes football, finding in its rules, structure and harmony a contrast to the chaos of their personal lives. Yet while each briefly tastes escape, the sport also exacerbates their flaws: resulting in a tangled web of backhanders that's dubbed "playing the angles".

The amounts of money talked about here are pitifully small: players are given cash bungs of £30 to keep them sweet, characters complain that they're struggling to pay the rent and, in my favourite touch, mid-way through the play we notice that Kidd has downgraded his phone from an iPhone to a pay-as-you-go dumbphone. The biggest sum of money spoken of is a £7000 transfer fee, destined to divided out into very small slices to very many people.

Marber's typically rapid-fire dialogue is (as always) a pleasure to absorb, but for my money The Red Lion's true excellence is showing us the tug-of-war between the ideals of the sport and its grubby financial reality. The trio treats moments of footballing skill with religious awe: former player Yates describing the moment he scored in an FA Cup match against a professional team like someone who has been born again; and Kidd and Jordon share the simple ecstasy of a player who can run rings around his opponent.

But all too soon you sense the poison leaching down from up on high. Sepp Blatter and Kidd might be worlds apart but they are also intrinsically connected to one another, coaching their corruption in pragmatism and finding solace in dragging others down with them. If Marber had written a play about top-level FIFA corruption I have no doubt that it'd be good, but it'd lack the pathos of watching otherwise good men scrabble in the mud for their handful of shekels.

So yeah, The Red Lion is a good play. If you're a football fan you'll love it. If you're not (like me) you'll appreciate a taut, lyrical, well produced and performed piece of theatre. This universality is the cherry on top (it is presumably not by chance that we never see anyone kick a football, or even see a ball at all) and makes for a play with a meaty sociological scope.

The Red Lion is at Trafalgar Studios until 2 December. Tickets here.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: 'The Trap' at the Omnibus Theatre, 1st November 2017

Thursday, November 2, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

The Trap reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

A decent proportion of the profits of the British economy are wrung from the sweat of the poor. Shrinking real wages and zero-hours contracts have created an economic group struggling to keep their heads above water. Ever-rising rent needs to be paid, the lights have to stay on, kids have to be in school uniform and dinner needs to be on the table. Living with financial insecurity is terrifying, so it's no surprise that many seek solace in fixed odds betting machines, cheap booze and buy now/pay later financing.

It's a jungle out there, and the predators in the bushes are payday loan companies like Wonga, Cash Genie, and Quick Quid that offer short-term, easy to get loans loaded with fees at exorbitant interest rates. Pay them back on time and you're fine (aside from them pestering you with targeted ads). Miss a payment and you're in trouble: 

"About 8 months ago I borrowed around £90 to pay for a train ticket to see my now ex-boyfriend. What a slippery slope that was. I'm now approx £3,500 into payday loans across four payday lenders. I can only barely afford the interest repayments on these darn things every month."

These are businesses designed to lure in desperate people with low incomes in the hope of squeezing them dry. This trap is the subject of The Trap, a new play by Kieran Lynn. Set inside a branch of the fictional Debt Duck ("the UK's premiere payday loans company") we follow area manager Meryl (Wendy Kweh), branch manager Alan (Andrew Macbean), and his employees Tom and Clem (Jahvel Hall and Sophie Guiver).

Despite their prime position in the market, Debt Duck is in trouble. New government guidelines are due to be imposed in an effort to regulate the industry and belts need to be tightened. Ironically, each member of Debt Duck has their own financial problems to contend with as well, ranging from a hefty mortgage to Estonian gangsters with a penchant for kicking the shit out of people. 

What follows is a comedy that wields gags as scalpels, dissecting the situation until the horrible truth of payday loan companies is revealed. These observations range from the obvious: the characters noting the parallels between themselves and the gangsters pursuing Alan, to the subtle: lines of dialogue are repeated amongst the characters to show that they're all similar, and all morally culpable for their actions. 


It's a meaty subject, yet communicated with deft, evocative dialogue. A high street background of pubs, off-licences, pawn shops and cash for gold shops is described as "the forest that grew from the ashes of crisis". Later, Meryl berates Alan, "your shop is in the middle of skid row and you couldn't sell payday loans. You've spent years in a barrel full of tits and all you've done is suck your thumb!" It's also fascinating hearing the characters justify themselves, explaining that they're "almost like a charity" and trying to foster an 'us vs them' mentality. It feels all too believable, chiming well with real-life defences of these companies.

By the end, you get a sense of the slow burning cruelty of life on the breadline, best exemplified by Clem's miserable "I hate this feeling. I feel like I'm going to spend my entire life just making ends meet. I'll live someone else's life because I couldn't afford my own.

I laughed a lot during The Trap, but that doesn't make it any less serious. You realise that companies like Debt Duck are merely a symptom of misery rather than a cause, that they're a small cog in a machine designed to laden people under a lifetime of debt and squeeze them as hard as they can. The problem, inevitably, is capitalism. And in a cruel twist, these characters understand all too well that they have no chance of derailing that juggernaut.

My only real nitpick is that the play ends rather abruptly and I'd have like a bit of closure to the characters' stories. But I guess wanting to see more is a compliment in and of itself. The Trap is a fine bit of comedy theatre, crammed full of ideas, sharp writing, charismatic performances and evocative set design. I enjoyed myself. You probably would too.

The Trap is at the Omnibus Theatre until 19 November. Tickets here.

Production Photos by Laura Harling

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: 'Mister Mushroom' at the Old Red Lion, 31st October 2017

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Mister Mushroom reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

Apocalypse is in vogue at the moment. From Mad Max: Fury Road to The Walking Dead to Fallout 4, there's a huge audience out there who want to immerse themselves in a ruined world in which desperate survivors struggle to carve out a life after society has collapsed. What does this preoccupation say about the general state of mind? We're buffeted by reports on climate change too scary to process, told with authority that our economy is a wobbly mess and (if you hoover up the garbage that the right wing press put out) you might believe we're under siege from barbarous dark-skinned men from the south.

All of that informs The Fallen Institute's Mister Mushroom. Once upon a time, Little Spewling was the epitome of a picturesque English village, speckled with pubs, community halls, schools and farmlands. That all changed when the nearby nuclear power plant melted down, transforming Little Spewling into toxic, radioactive anarchy. 

It seems that there's only one sane man in this anarchy. Holed up in a bunker and subsisting on canned food, he struggles to maintain decorum and civility in a world gone mad. But as the radiation seeps into his home, can he complete his mission of finding 'Bunny' or will he succumb to the madness that's seized the town?

Written by Reece Connolly and performed by Christopher Keegan (also directing), Mister Mushroom is a scuzzy, claustrophobic monologue that revels in making the audience uncomfortable. As it opens on a rather gory piece of self-surgery, and includes to a genuinely wince-inducing dental mishap, I'd say it achieves that particular goal. These shivery moments mean we never get too comfortable in our hero's company, our suspicions about him gradually building as the monologue develops.

Keegan fits the role beautifully: looking creepily ogrish as he squats in his cave picking over the bones of the past and silently hearing the chaos rumbling away above his head. He also builds up a fine head of mania, practically frothing at the mouth in later scenes as his true feelings are revealed. 

Unfortunately, much of the potential impact of the piece is torpedoed by the fact that Keegan hasn't memorised his lines. Part of the conceit of the piece is that we're reading this man's manifesto/autobiography, so the character having typed documents around him is appropriate. But the knock-on effects of him constantly referring to the script are numerous. Most obviously, Keegan pretty much has to remain seated at a desk, which severely limits his physical performance. It also makes for occasionally stilted delivery and the constant gazes down at the papers mid-sentence break the character's engagement with the audience.

I'm sure there's a good reason why Keegan doesn't know this by heart - perhaps he stepped in to play the character at late notice or something, but whatever the excuse it genuinely harms the show's flow and overall effectiveness. Maybe this is why a late plunge into complete mad (and a stab at political relevance) isn't half as engaging as it probably should be. 

Mister Mushroom is a nice idea, but the execution leaves something to be desired. Perhaps if it was staged and performed with a little more panache it could hit the heights it wants to but right now it feels incomplete.

Mister Mushroom is at the Old Red Lion as part of the London Horror Festival until November 2nd. Tickets here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review: 'Pebbles' at The Katzpace, 24th October 2017

Wednesday, October 25, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Pebbles reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

Elton John's 1972 hit Rocket Man delivers a great parenting tip: "… Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids / In fact it's cold as hell / And there's no one there to raise them if you did". All current scientific data concurs: you absolutely wouldn't want to raise children on Mars, or for that matter, any other distant, spinning, barren ball of rock and sand.

Lidless Theatre's Pebbles grabs this baton and runs with it, using outer space as a metaphor for isolation, loneliness and self-loathing. Our hero is Jonie (Babe Sanders, also writing), who suffers from a mysterious illness that has resulted in her being exiled on a distant planet. We meet her on day 181, busily searching for a communications satellite that will let her order supplies and speak with her family. Things are looking pretty dire: she's having to restrict herself to one square of bog roll per bathroom visit.

The entire point of her being here is that she's isolated. This makes the sudden appearance of Bryon (Charlotte Beaumont) somewhat surprising. While Jonie is methodical and efficient, Bryon is chaotic and constantly verbally and physically dicking around. She very quickly gets on Jonie's nerves. But then, she could help her in her search...

What follows is an extremely funny, touching and concise piece of theatre. Sanders' script is polished to a mirror sheen, bundling up a load of complex emotions, a successful metaphor and a decent dollop of (clearly well-researched) science fiction. Jonie is a relatable, three-dimensional character and charismatic, albeit in a somewhat detached manner. In what might be the most impressive move, Bryon manages to be exceeding annoying to Jonie without actually being annoying to the audience. A lot of that is due to Beaumont's excellent performance, but the finely judged writing doesn't exactly hurt.



The solitary fly in this ointment is the opening scene delivered in pitch black via voiceover. It sort of establishes Jonie's disease, but not really, and in fact feels like a completely separate piece of writing appended onto the front of Pebbles. It also feels incredibly reminiscent of sketches in Chris Morris' Blue Jam. That's one of my favourite things ever, so I'm not exactly moaning, but any information it contains can be inferred from what follows and it probably doesn't need to be there.

Buoying up all this is note-perfect stage design from Kitty Hinchcliffe. Effectively minimalist, the set consists of a sea of white pebbles, with two large rocks in the middle. It's simple but perfectly executed, feeling like one of those designs that's going to stick in the mind for while. Costumes are similarly great: uncluttered white space suits that suggest functionality rather than get bogged down in detailing.

Pebbles is the inaugural show for the Katzpace, which is nestled underneath one of my favourite London bars, Katzenjammers. It's a great show to launch this new space and I wholeheartedly recommend checking it out. I hope to return to the Katzpace soon. I'm also signed the fuck up for whatever Bebe Sanders does next.

Pebbles is at the Katzpace Sunday 22 October – Wednesday 25 October 7.30pm plus 2.30pm (Wednesday). Tickets here.

Photographs by Gregory Hicks.

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