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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Review: 'We Sing/I Sang' at the Cockpit Theatre, 15th September 2020

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars


Virtually Opera's We Sing/I Sang bills itself as "an improvised sci-fi ritual opera". A hazily defined 'Crisis' has hit the humanity and the old world has been erased. From the ashes a new collective consciousness - Mind - has formed. Now Mind is leaving this ruined planet behind and making tracks for the stars. The lessons, thoughts and memories we take to the new reality are up to us.

Part of the Cockpit Theatre's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, We Sing/I Sang's Crisis is clearly heavily informed by COVID-19. I suspect this topic is going to be the case for a lot of fringe art for a while yet. The country's playwrights and performers have been deprived of an audience for far too long and are no doubt bristling to translate their experiences into plays, poems and songs.

We Sing/I Sang is an austere experience, which I guess is as much a socially distanced necessity as an artistic choice. On a largely empty stage, CN Lester improvises an opera from our prompts accompanied by a viola soundtrack from Hannah Gardiner. They stand at the rear of the stage, with the performance space occupied by Leo Doulton's masked androgynous dancer.

A lot of artists are clearly blue-balled (and blue-ovaried) after spending so long being unable to express themselves live and Virtually Opera recognise that the audience will feel that way too. As such, our thoughts shape the show as we answer questions on our phones that are projected above the performers.

We're asked "What group of people tried to take advantage of the Crisis?", "You have a memory that brought you solace during the Crisis. Who was in it?" or "What unusual ability did some people develop during the Crisis?" Our responses (and some general plot direction from 'adjudicators') shape the plot.

I replied "Conversation with bees" to the last question and watched as Lester worked their way through a verse about how, in the wake of the apocalypse, they realised that they could comprehend the faint buzzing all around them. I'm always impressed by quick-thinking improvisational skills and there's a smattering of resonant lyrical moments throughout the show.

Anyone improvising free-form opera has the benefit of being able to vamp for a few bars while they think of what they're going to sing next, but it's still fun to watch. Plus I figure that Lester (or someone backstage) is choosing what suggestions to base the show around so as not to break the atmosphere.

By and large, this succeeds in what it sets out to do and was a meditative reentry to performance after a long hiatus. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the show make it something that theoretically could be staged once society has actually collapsed. I mean, humanity would have to be completely on the ropes before we couldn't cobble together a singer, a single instrument and a dancer. 

Being encouraged to be introspective about our own experiences during lockdown was also surprisingly touching. We're often casually asked how we are, but it just wouldn't be British to respond in any way other than "...fine". Getting quizzed on specific questions on your mood, memories and thoughts felt pleasantly therapeutic. And after months of staring at the walls of my cramped house I'll take whatever emotional probing is on offer.

I have a couple of criticisms. The show's IT set-up isn't great, consisting of switching between a webpage and a Google Spreadsheet. You have a limited time to enter your answers and I had to close my browser down in order to make new links appear. It just about works, though I can see less tech-savvy audience members getting frustrated as there's not much guidance in how to interact with the show once it's begun.

Also, Leo Doulton's dancing fills space but doesn't add anything interesting to the performance. He's something to look at during the singing rather than an integral part of the show and I couldn't connect his costume and choreography with Lester's singing and Gardiner's music. That's not to say I wish he wasn't there, just that all three performers should interact a bit more.

Quibbles aside, We Sing/I Sang is a great show for our mid-apocalyptic times. I'm a sucker for interactive elements in theatre and weaving them into opera kept me engaged throughout the show's concise 35-40 minute runtime. 

It sounds like damning with faint praise that I was simply happy to be somewhere else at night other than my sofa, but this was great food to break a long theatrical fast with.

'We Sing/I Sang' is being broadcast online as part of the Cockpit Theatre's Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival on 17 September. Information here.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Review: 'Nuclear War / Buried / Graceland' at the Old Red Lion, 5th March 2020

Sunday, March 8, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

I'm not a huge fan double or triple bills of short plays. It's not that it's necessarily a bad format, but it's very tricky to write about while doing justice to each individual play. That remains the case, but I walked out of The Old Red Lion's latest triple bill (described, somewhat pretentiously, as a 'triptych') in a great mood. The two-hour show consists of David Spencer's Buried, Max Saunders-Singer's Graceland and Simon Stephens' Nuclear War.

First, a quick overview of this theatrical three-course dinner. 

Buried is a 50-minute long piece about the experiences of the playwright's grandfather during World War II. Played by James Demaine, the story is told from the perspective of a soldier who's been buried alive. What follows is a chronologically tangled and poetic demonstration of the psychological impacts of war.

Graceland is a dark comedy in which Anthony Cozen's teacher settles in to teach his Form 9 class, as represented by the audience. He's obviously stressed and is behaving increasingly strangely. All too soon we discover why today is the worst day of his life.

Finally, we get Nuclear War, which is a fusion of choreography and abstract verse about the end of the world, a personal view of death, the dissolution of the self and the inevitable forces of entropy that will emotionally, physically and scientifically tear us apart. This is performed by Zoe Grain and Freya Sharp.

Buried
The three plays don't share much in common other than a somewhat nihilistic perspective on life. There's a content warning on the way up to the theatre explaining that these plays contain "trauma, PTSD, scenes of a distressing nature, suicide, grief, sexual content & strong language". While I don't want to spoil too many of the twists and turns, the promise of this sign is fulfilled a couple of times over.

There's a lot to like in each of these plays, but while Buried boasts a committed performance from Demaine, and some sparkling writing (especially in the gruesome scenes based around corpse disposal), it eventually feels a little repetitive. The jumbled chronology meant I was concentrating on piecing the story together rather than appreciating the emotions. 

On a more practical note, there are moments where Demaine stands directly in front of the audience and delivers a shouty speech under a spotlight, which allows you to see him inadvertently coating the front row with a fine layer of saliva, to the audience's obvious discomfort. Ordinarily, this would be par for the course in a small theatre, but these are, oh let's say, hygiene-focused times...

Graceland
For me, the highlights came with Graceland and Nuclear War. Anthony Cozens does a neat job semi-improvising his way through Graceland, knowing precisely when to slacken and tighten the reins on the audience. I really loved the slowly shifting tone and the way the pieces oscillate between comedy and tragedy, sometimes within the space of a few seconds. Plus, it's nice to get some genuine belly-laughs sandwiched in between the other plays. 

But the best of the three is undoubtedly Nuclear War. This has the honour of being one of the few plays I've ever wanted to watch again immediately after it finished just so I could pick up on more of the nuance. Ditching irrelevancies like characters and narrative, Nuclear War is a weirdly musical piece that doesn't actually contain any music. But it's a confrontational, clearly personal bit of writing that speaks to something absolutely vital about being human... but pinning down exactly what that is maddeningly difficult.

Nuclear War
I'm doing a terrible job at describing this, but just trust me that it's ace. Zoe Grain and Freya Sharp are also jaw-droppingly well-rehearsed. The play relies on near-perfect timing and choreography, with no room for error or stumbles. The spell it weaves is so enticing that you almost develop anxiety that one of them will forget their lines and this precious thing will shatter like a snowflake hitting the ground.

I remain on the fence about these triple bill nights. However, shorter plays like these absolutely deserve an audience. Both Graceland and Nuclear War come in at under 30 mins and neither would benefit from being any longer. Where else can you perform these to a paying audience if not during a triple bill? So, while it might be trickier to write about three plays than one, I'll keep coming if the Old Red Lion keeps putting on stuff of this quality.

Nuclear War, Graceland and Buried are at the Old Red Lion until 21 March. Tickets here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Review: 'Closed Lands' at Vault Festival, 3rd March 2020

Wednesday, March 4, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments



Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

You don't have to be a geopolitical expert to see that the next decade is going to bring some drastic and depressing changes to the way we live. Global warming will inevitably result in mass migration from the global south. Arable land in equatorial countries is becoming desert, water sources are drying up, and with a lack of basic resources come the classic four horsemen: war, famine, pestilence and death.

Faced with that, it's hardly surprising that the number of people fleeing their homeland for the economic and political security of stable northern countries is increasing dramatically. Hell, if I were Eritrean, Guatemalan or Sudanese I'd get the hell out of there as soon as feasibly possible. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a massive increase in boats across the Mediterranean as people flee for their lives. Then imagine how European democracies will react to that...

Basically, it's going to be a nightmare for everyone except wealthy right-wing demagogues, who will be happier than a pig in shit. Xenophobia, racism and nationalism will all rise dramatically. There is nothing that any of us can realistically do to stop any of this happening and we're already well into the first act.

All this is the meat of Closed Lands, by Legal Aliens, a company comprised of Luiana Bonfim, Daiva Dominyka, Catharina Conte, Becka McFadden and Lara Parmiani, who are all migrants to the UK. The show is an artistic exploration of the inhumane systems that our countries have established to wriggle through the thin gap between what's legal and what's ethical.

And so, after showing us the celebrations of the Berlin Wall being torn down, we begin picking our way through the modern barriers. Trump's southern border wall is the obvious example, the show combining video footage of the test walls, explanations of the paramilitary 'minutemen' who take the law into their own hands to protect the USA and the misery of attempting to cross the desert over and over.


But Europeans shouldn't feel too smug. Most people haven't even heard of the Ceuta border fence, but the show goes into it in detail. This is the EU's equivalent of Trump's border wall, a fortified barrier in Morocco designed to stop migrants making their way to Spain. While it may not be known to many Europeans, the migrants sure are aware of it - as recently as August 2019 there was a pitched battle where people attempted to storm the wall and cut their skin to ribbons on the razor wire.

We also, of course, touch upon the drowned people in the Mediterranean, through a quick bit of drama in which one of the cast plays a trafficker, who says something along the lines of "sure, it's risky, but how much do you want this?" It should be always remembered that the corpses who end up beached in picturesque Mediterranean resorts were aware of the risks. They judged that the very real danger to their life was worth the chance of escaping to Europe, so throw that back into the face of anyone who describes their choice to leave as the cold and calculated sounding 'economic migration'.

You're probably gathering by now that Closed Lands isn't a particularly uplifting hour of theatre. It isn't, and the more you know about the systems the play is talking about the more depressing it is. 

One element I'm assuming is intentionally absent is the refusal to focus on individual stories. The aim here seems to be to present the facts in an engaging, theatrical and journalistic way rather than try to tweak the heartstrings. I'm on the fence about whether this works or not, as the show sometimes feels like a series of loosely connected sketches about various aspects of the immigration crisis.

For example, for all its bombast and energy, the show ends on a confusing metaphor about vegetables. I get why the symbol was chosen, but it's a pretty opaque way to end a show that feels designed to educate rather than entertain. 

Then again, I have seen a number of shows on the same topic like Cargo, Don't Look Away and The Claim, which all tell stories of specific migrants, so perhaps Legal Aliens are simply want to stake out their own territory on the subject.

Whatever the reasoning, Closed Lands is at minimum engaging, though more you think about it what it's showing you, the more sad the world feels. But ultimately (and this is not a criticism of the show), a theatrical production aimed at well-off theatre-going Londoners is probably less effective in actually changing things than pissing into a hurricane. 

But hey, what else is there to do?

Closed Lands is at the Vault Festival until 8th March. Tickets here.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Review: 'Jekyll / Hyde' at the Vault Festival, 25th February 2020

Wednesday, February 26, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Last summer I spent a seriously enjoyable ninety minutes running around Covent Garden during Fire Hazard Games' 80 Days - A Real World Adventure. The show combines technology, puzzle-solving and orienteering, inviting audiences to immerse themselves in a story that plays out on the streets of London. Now they're back with Jekyll / Hyde, so how has their "high energy street game" style been refined over the last six months?

The skeleton of the project remains the same. You register a team before the event, then access a personalised web page on your phone on the night. This, in combination with a paper map, funnels you around a neighbourhood as you solve riddles using the powers of observation. For example, you could head to a location and be asked something like "I have a crown, a sceptre and what else?". You would find an object nearby that fits the bill, examine it and input the answer.

In 80 Days you were competing against other teams to purchase equipment for your trip, with your choices contributing to the eventual success of your journey. In Jekyll / Hyde you're trying to figure out what happened to you last night after you consumed a mysterious serum, following a trail of destruction around the city. So, basically a Victorian gothic take on The Hangover.

Fire Hazard has hit upon a winning formula with the format. I love the way their games encourage you to pay attention to the urban environment, guide you to unfamiliar places and make you see things in a new light. Their attention to detail is astonishing, the quality of the writing is top-notch and they have near-perfectly nailed combining narrative and puzzle-solving.


However, I can only compare this to 80 Days, and it feels like there's been a conscious effort to simplify things. For one, the system of collecting money in order to buy items has been completely ditched. In Jekyll / Hyde you simply answer riddles and then pick a multiple choice answer that contributes to a very simple psychological profile. 

Similarly, you no longer get a summary of how your decisions affected the story. As the show finished I was anticipating an 80 Days style run-down of what happened to me based on what I'd chosen to remember. Instead, you get a collection of newspaper headlines that felt pretty generic.

Finally, the teams are no longer in competition with one another. This isn't clear from the start, but there are no rewards for the team who completes the most riddles and covers the most ground. I'm naturally competitive and knowing that I'm facing off against other people gives me the impetus to solve things as quickly as possible. Realising that I'd been wasting my time dashing everywhere in an effort to maximise my points and beat the clock was disappointing.

Finally (and this is a little more nitpicky), beginning the show in the Leake Street tunnels makes for a bad first impression. For one there's so much visual overload from the graffiti that it makes the opening 'tutorial' riddles much harder to solve than anything that follows. For another, being in a subterranean tunnel meant the phone signal needed to play the game kept dropping out.

It feels like Jekyll / Hyde was put together in response to criticisms that 80 Days was too complicated. But, for me at least, it feels like the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.

Don't get me wrong, I (and my plus one) had a great time traipsing around Waterloo solving riddles, but surely there's a satisfying middle ground between the complexity and competition of 80 Days and this?

Jekyll / Hyde is at Vault Festival until 22nd March. Tickets here.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Review: 'House of Commons' at the White Bear Theatre, 21st February 2020

Saturday, February 22, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Titling a play House of Commons gives the audience a pretty hard nudge into reading it as a political allegory. So, with Boris Johnson set to be Prime Minister for a large chunk of the next decade and all the fun of Brexit to look forward to, what's the play about?

Set in a high-security psychiatric treatment facility, we follow a series of deeply damaged individuals who have been convicted of heinous crimes. Over the course of the play the spend a lot of time yelling at one another, detailing the horrors they're accused of and miserably laying out their lot in life. At times the only thing stopping their interactions from spilling over into gruesome violence are the electrodes implanted in their necks, which shock them if they get too far out of line.

So yeah, House of Commons it is.

This gang of patients has spent so much time together that familiarity has curdled into contempt, with everyone able to push each other's buttons whenever they please. But tonight there's something new to focus on. Lana (Sarah Collins Walters) is a new inmate, assigned to the facility for one night as she awaits the verdict of her trial. The inmates circle her like vultures, wondering whether she'll get away or become a permanent addition to their lives.

It's a decent set-up and the inquisitorial style works well in giving each character a moment in the spotlight. Throughout the play, most of the characters reveal the traumatic experiences that placed them here, which usually reveal them to be as much victim as perpetrator. Thing is, it's the ones we don't learn much about that prove to be the most intriguing.


Nomi Bailey's Peta is particularly sphinx-like. Despite not saying much she dominates the room from her wheelchair, regarding the others with predatory gazes from her glittering yet cold blue eyes. Then there's Luke Culloty's Andre, who is blind (wearing just creepy looking white contact lens), and just sits at the rear of the stage regarding the action.

But the enigmatic characters being the most interesting perhaps speaks to the play's occasionally frustrating narrative elements. These are characters who spend a lot of time talking over each other, heading down conversational cul-de-sacs and turning on emotional dimes. Consequentially, it's often tricky to figure out what's actually going on.

That feeds into an overall lack of narrative thrust. The tension in the show feels like it should be Lana's fear over her verdict and facing up to a potential future in this facility. This feels like it falls by the wayside early on in favour of exploring the other characters. 

It leaves the play feeling more like a series of loosely connected sketches than a sustained narrative, which slowly drains away your engagement. In a similar vein, while I could mentally wrestle it into a basic political allegory, the show itself doesn't seem to have any interest in exploring why it's called House of Commons.

It's probably telling that I brought someone along to the play who doesn't often visit the theatre. Their reaction was "Well, it was interesting, but I couldn't work out what the story was." 

House of Commons is at the White Bear Theatre until 22nd February 2020. Tickets here.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Review: 'Thank You and Goodnight' at the Popular Union, 20th February 2020

Friday, February 21, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Shows where a performer bemoans their crappy love life and dating experiences are a dime a dozen. Honestly, there are some nights out at the theatre where I wish the maxim 'write what you know' had never been invented. However, if the London fringe theatre scene is a soup of overly intimate confessionals, Emilia Stawicki's Thank You and Goodnight floats to the top like a particularly crunchy crouton. 

This one-woman show traces Stawicki's love life back to her school days: mapping out the Catholic guilt that stunted her sexual development, the series of disappointing men who flitted through her life and her own feelings of inadequacy.

Ordinarily, I feel a bit short-changed when a performer hits upon the novel idea of charging people to attend their group therapy session, but Stawicki is more than entertaining enough to make it work. I probably don't need to go into too much more detail than pointing out that she's very funny and charismatic.

Those are two qualities that are rarer than you'd imagine in comedy and theatre, but every inch of her performance feels calculated to draw laughs. It's the way she manages to lock eyes with everyone in the audience during the show and the conspiratorial way she draws us into her mindset. My usual barometer for this kind of thing working is whether the show can actually draw a couple of laughs from me. Well, mission: accomplished. In spades.

In addition, though this is a small, low-budget, hand-made sort of affair, it feels very professional. There's a lot of quick music cues and lighting changes throughout the show, and reliably hitting all them gives the show a confidence and slickness that goes a long way. So credit to whoever's on tech, as it's nice to see a small-scale show that's clearly been well-drilled.

In addition, Stawicki is such a pleasant person to spend an hour with that the interactive portions of the show aren't remotely intimidating. There are often moments where she interacts with us - and I was probably asking for it when I chose to sit in the front row centre in the seat with a banana taped to the bottom.

No matter what, you'll find something to identify with in Thank You and Goodnight. It is neither groundbreaking nor particularly ambitious, but it's funny, warm-hearted, well-performed and concise. I can think of many worse ways to spend an hour.

Thank You and Goodnight is next on at the Camden People's Theatre, March 8th. Tickets here.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Review: 'Crooks 1926' at the King William IV, 13th February 2020

Friday, February 14, 2020 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments


Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars


I'd love to be a fly on the wall when COLAB Theatre is planning out a new production. An astonishing amount of work must go into this: writing a central plot, writing secondary plots that a fraction of the audience will see, producing reams of written material to use in the show and mapping out how to best exploit the space. And then there's the wild card: us.

The audience is an element of chaos in a carefully calibrated system, the actors figuring out on the fly how to keep us entertained, provide us with goals, maintain the fiction and contain any troublemakers. I've adored the last two COLAB show I've seen, For King and Country and its sequel For King and Country: 1944. These two shows tasked audiences with battling the Nazis in an alternative history scenario. Last night I saw their latest, Crooks 1926.

I was a little nervous about this as this show is clearly heavily inspired by the TV show Peaky Blinders. I've never watched a single episode and have only the vaguest idea what it's about. Fortunately, I very quickly realised that though this might be designed to attract fans of the show, it isn't actually set within its world (at least, as far as I could tell).


Soon after entering the audience quickly becomes part of an up and coming London street gang. Its patriarch is dead and his sons have taken over and have ambitions for expansion. But there are rivals who would rather strangle this in the crib: with villainous boss Sabini arriving and demanding £10,000 by the end of the day. It's our job to con, steal, cheat and blackmail our way to victory, all the while fending off the old bob and solving various mysteries.

As was the case with the previous productions I've seen, the audience is managed by splitting them off into different teams and then further subdividing those into two or three-person tasks. One smart thing that I appreciate is that the show caters for both introverts and extroverts by providing tasks that appeal to both. So those less willing to interact with the cast can pore over documents and strategise and those who want to show off a bit can improvise scenes with the cast. 

The cast warns the audience not to spoil too many details so I'll stop there, but COLAB more than achieves their goal of immersing the audience in this knockabout world. The final moments of the play are absolutely gripping, with the room so tense you could hear a pin drop.


And yet, compared to the taut and focused For King and Country shows, there were several very unfocused moments. I should preface any criticism by saying that every who attends will have a different experience and maybe I just had bad luck. But throughout the night I kept running into narrative loose ends. Packages I was supposed to collect never arrived, I was given the wrong clues when I asked for codenames at the bar (very confusing), a locked room puzzle included multiple versions of the same key and, worst of all, there were frequent moments where I had nothing at all to do and just kinda milled around.

Maybe this was just a rough night, but I asked the cast members for a couple of pointers and they said they'd get back to me with something to do. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't. It's a looseness I hadn't experienced at a COLAB show before - maybe it's a function of the show taking place over multiple rooms of a building rather than one large room?

I know that putting together a show like this is an insanely complex process, and I know the generally the more an audience member puts into immersive theatre the more they get out of it, but things felt a little more rough and chaotic than usual here. 

Still, COLAB remains a cut above pretty much every theatre company working in London today. I'm going to chalk this up as just an unfortunate evening rather than any serious problems with the show. Still, as I left I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed.

Crooks 1926 is booking until March 29th. Tickets here.

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