Recent Articles

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: 'Last Orders: The Haunting of the Old Red Lion' at the Old Red Lion, 10th October 2019

Friday, October 11, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The Old Red Lion in Islington is one of my favourite London pubs. It's friendly, has a good selection of beers, nice decor and has a cosy upstairs theatre at which I've seen many plays over the years. I also dig the history of the place: there's a mural in the pub explaining that it was founded in 1415 (though rebuilt in 1899) and that over the years many historical figures of note drank here. It was even featured in a 1736 Hogarth painting!

But a building doesn't get this old without some unpleasantness happening within its walls. Staff members report strange, unexplained noises, objects moving without explanation and there are even ghostly apparitions on the stairs. This is where The Knock Knock Club come in. 

The company recently teamed up with professional paranormal investigators to do a full supernatural audit of the building, spending a night in the building exploring each floor. Tonight they present their results in, Last Orders: The Haunting of the Old Red Lion.

The Knock Knock Club are true believer Reece Connolly, sceptic Christopher Keegan and undecided Caroline Buckley. After a quick poll of who in the audience believes in ghosts (at the London Horror Festival it seems silly to say no) we're off. 

The show is part storytelling, part lecture. So, we open with Connolly delivering a spooky story by candlelight about a terrifying incident that took place in the very room we're sitting in. Brrr. All three performers can spin a fantastic yarn, and the ones we hear tonight are suitably creepy. 

With a set composed simply of a hanging pub sign and frantic red scrawls (blood, knife and so on) on the walls, the show relies on darkness to provide the atmosphere. This works beautifully, especially later in the show when they cover up the green glowing fire escape sign in the corner. I love shows that plunge the audience into pitch darkness, and aside from some brief and dramatic flashes of light, it cranks up the volume of the tales they're telling.

Sadly the paranormal investigation side of the show is less engaging. I'm a sucker for local historical tidbits; so while I knew that Lenin and Stalin once drank at this pub, I didn't know there was a legend about Lenin attempting to hide in the dumb waiter to avoid police. But the thing is, the way the show is structured, I've got no idea if this is true or not.

Last Orders has a real problem here. Obviously as part of the London Horror Festival and a show being put on in the run-up to Halloween it's got to be spooky. If the show's conclusion was that there's actually nothing strange going on in this building at all and that ghosts aren't real, it'd be a big let down. So there's a theatrical incentive to bend the truth or, to put it less kindly, make shit up.

There are parts in the show when they tell you a story about something that happened in this pub, only to admit straight afterwards that it actually didn't happen like that. Full credit to them for honesty, but it means that you're constantly second-guessing whether what you're hearing is actual history, actual recordings from their night in the building or just something to spice up the show. 

I can understand why Last Orders is structured like this: it wants to both inform and entertain. But this is ultimately a piece of horror theatre and I wish they'd just leaned firmly towards the latter. 

Throughout the show we hear tales of mysterious noises from within the building and objects moving on their own - why not simulate this on stage at unexpected times to freak us out a bit? Hell, why not go all Ghostwatch on us and have the show turn into a genuine paranormal event that the audience is caught up in? I dunno, have someone get possessed on stage during the Ouiji board sequence or something.

As it is, Last Orders is too dry to be scary and too loose with the facts to be informative. The Knock Knock Club are all engaging and charismatic stage presences, but even they cannot disguise that the paranormal content of the show is very thin. And if you're going to exaggerate some parts, why not exaggerate all of it? 

Last Orders: The Haunting of the Old Red Lion runs until 26th October. Tickets here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Review: 'The Milkman Cometh' at The Pleasance, 8th October 2019

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

I've never liked milk. Even before I was aware of the ethical and environmental implications, milk freaked me out. I still remember being handed a miniature bottle of the stuff every day in primary school, it always smelt more rancid than the stuff you'd get in supermarkets and to get to it you had to carve through a thick plug of cream-like substance (possibly cream) with a straw. It was disgusting.

This dislike and suspicion of milk has extended into adulthood. I like my coffee black and if I have cereal it's sitting in delicious coconut milk. Even the scientific description of the milk sounds disgusting: "an emulsion of butterfat globules within a water-based fluid that contains dissolved carbohydrates and protein aggregates." Blegh.

So, when I was invited to kick off the London Horror Festival with DeadPlant Theatre's bizarre-sounding post-apocalyptic dairy comedy The Milkman Cometh, I jumped at the chance. Even if nothing else will horrify me, milk definitely will. Plus, the show had a live score by a band called 'Fuck Slurry', and if I've learned one thing over the years it's that bands with 'Fuck' in their name are almost always worth seeing.

Written by Alice Bounce, Maxwell Tyler and Owen Jenkins, the show takes place in a dairy-free future. With climate change heating up, the world's government blamed it on cows' farts - and decided to incinerate them en masse. This resulted in a gigantic conflagration that turned the world (and especially the UK) all Mad Max. Enter a Liz (Lydia Hourihan) a mysterious woman warrior. Her bike Deirdre has run out of gas in the vicinity of the mysterious village of Cud.

This proves to be just about the worst place she could have broken down. Despite cows being extinct, Cud has a steady supply of milk. It's provided by a mysterious milkman the town worships - but where can be getting this milk? Our woman warrior is about to discover the horrible truth...

Said horrible truth isn't particularly difficult to figure out, but various revelations are impressively twisted and disgusting. The whole show is satisfyingly gross actually: with the way it takes a deep dive into the concept of milk as a bodily fluid successfully turning my stomach more than once. The precise twists and turns of the narrative (which I won't spoil) mean DeadPlant Theatre easily lives up to their sick and surreal reputation.

They're also a finely honed comedy machine. The five-strong cast (Dominic Allen, James Keningale, Alice Bounce and Owen Jenkins) bounce off one another with the rhythm of people who know each other's timings perfectly. They have a collective talent for the intensely grotesque, with the team neatly capturing a The League of Gentlemen-style camp-but-still-terrifying freakshow of stooped backs, squinty eyes and hungry leers. Next to the villagers, Liz makes for a striking heroine, her body language alone making her appear alien when she's in their midset.

And yeah, Fuck Slurry were awesome. I think most plays would be improved by having a beardy metal band at the rear of the stage. Purposefully silly and surreal comedy like this often comes across as affected, but the metal soundtrack provides much-needed grit and texture. It adds to the post-apocalyptic griminess of the piece and sounds great to boot.

The Milkman Cometh also has brevity on its side. It's just an hour long and is all killer no filler. The plot trots along at a quick pace, Katherine Timms' direction is precise and clear, there isn't a redundant minute and every single character is deftly sketched out. I had a whale of a time, with a big smile plastered over my face for most of the show and pursed lips at some of the more genuinely gross-out moments. 

I just hope that was water I was sprayed with as the lights went out at the end...

The Milkman Cometh is at The Pleasance until 10th October 2019. Tickets here.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Review: 'We Anchor In Hope' at The Bunker, 3rd October 2019

Friday, October 4, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The traditional pub is an endangered species. The price of alcoholic drinks are rising, meaning many prefer to take advantage of supermarket deals and drink at home. Beer Duty in the UK is one of the highest in Europe, with campaigners Long Live the Local explaining that one in every three pounds spent in a pub goes to HMRC. All that, in combination with rising rents, the prime location of many pubs and lack of building space in London mean it's no real surprise that many are torn down to make way for luxury flats.

Anna Jordan's We Anchor In Hope takes place during the final night of The Anchor, a Pimlico pub. Attending the wake are landlord Kenny (Valentine Hanson), bar staff Pearl and Bilbo (Alex Jarrett and Daniel Kendrick) and regulars Shaun and Frank (Alan Turkington and David Killick).

The wild party for the pub's closure came last night, with the pub flickering to life one last time to bedraggled party streamer festooning the floor, dirty glasses on the tables and dry taps (the one remaining beer on tap is.. ew.. Fosters). Over the course of a long boozy night, secrets are revealed and lies are exposed. It's the end of a chapter in these characters' lives, and who knows what's coming next?

Despite an energetic Madness-soundtracked opening, We Anchor In Hope starts slow. Everyone is hungover, things are wrapping up and the majority of the conversations are wistful small talk between old friends. I will admit, at least in the early stages of the play it felt directionless and banal.

But this establishment of normalcy proves crucial, providing a solid foundation for some seriously impressive characterisation. All too soon you're drawn into these people's lives, feeling their pain, fear and sense of dislocation in time. You couldn't slip a Rizla between the cast when it came to picking the best, but these are all performers on top of their game.

Throughout the play, there's a melancholy sense of time passing, with near-constant musings on past romantic regrets, the transitory nature of youth and a growing awareness of your mortality. The programme explains that Jordan wrote the play two months after her mother died - and it certainly feels like the product of someone in mourning.

We Anchor In Hope isn't a downer play. It comes from a sad place, but most of the dialogue and interactions are upbeat and the story is told through a half-jokey friendly back-and-forth established over years of shared history. These are characters who know (or feel like they know) one another - able to throw out an injoke or an insult and know how it'll be received. The flipside, of course, is that they all know each other's emotional weak points.

And so, by the second act, once everyone is locked in, properly plastered and the firewater has come out, the drama rapidly accelerates. By this point you feel a kinship with these people, making it immensely powerful and moving when they begin to turn against one another. I noted that the woman sat next to me actually had to cover her eyes during one particularly intense sequence - that's got to be a sign that a play is doing something very right.

All that takes place in an absolutely wonderful set. The Bunker has become a pub, recreated down to the smallest detail. You can even go up to the bar before the play and during the interval and buy a pint. I wouldn't be surprised if the fittings on stage come from an actual pub - if not then Zoë Hurwitz has done an unbelievably good job of giving them the scuffs and scrapes that bar furniture develops over years of use.

I'm a sucker for a detailed naturalistic set (fringe theatre understandably tends towards minimalism) and this delivers in spades. Even the tang of the pub carpet seems to have been recreated. My only small regret is that there's limited space to actually set at the pub tables: I would have loved to have seen the traditional theatre seating removed completely and pub tables and chairs put in for everyone, but I suppose there are practical considerations at play.

So yeah, We Anchor In Hope is a model piece of theatre. It looks great, is performed beautifully and is incredibly intelligent without even a smidge of pretension. My kinda show.

We Anchor In Hope is at The Bunker until 19th October. Tickets here.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review: 'Red Palace' at the Vaults, 2nd October 2019

Thursday, October 3, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The chips are stacked in Red Palace's favour. An immersive fairytale inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death? Taking place in the subterranean vaults underneath Waterloo station? And it comes with dinner? If I were trying to sell the show to myself I'd just end the review right here.

But I won't, because I'd like to encourage you to go to Red Palace. It's really quite something. Staged by Shotgun Carousel, you attend a masquerade ball at the invitation of a sinister and egotistical Prince's. You soon learn that there is a dark prophecy scheduled to come true that very night. With that in mind, you explore the tunnels and caverns of The Vaults, encountering twisted versions of classic fairytales in surreal environments (this is the best I've ever seen The Vaults look).

There's also the option of a £50 VIP ticket that includes a pre-show dinner. Considering a regular ticket is £25, a further £25 for a three-course dinner is a pretty good deal. I'm no restaurant critic, but the food was delicious and the portions were generous. The menu caters for vegetarians and vegans, and you get a little pre-show interaction with some of the cast.

That leads directly to the show itself. After a short atmospheric introduction to the evening, you're left to explore. What you find are a series of 15-20 minute vignettes: you might sit down at a table with Baba Yaga and have your palm read, see a lascivious mermaid make filthy double-entendres or explore the deep, dark woods with Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. I think I saw most of what was on offer, but the show insists that "curiosity is rewarded", so I'm sure I missed some stuff. 

A warning though: each performance featured direct interaction with the audience. This can range from some mild teasing to being called up on stage and asked what to perform "your party trick". In one room you're invited to play truth or dare, the dare was being asked to breakdance in front of the whole audience - I was intensely relieved I hadn't volunteered.

This means that Red Palace, with its encouragement for the audience to remain glamorous, witty and fancy-free maybe isn't the best show for the shy. At any time you can be accosted by a predatory performer begging you to tell them a secret, or giving you a flirty grilling about your job. Theoretically, the masks should help, but by the mid-way point, many had removed theirs (I'd removed mine because it didn't play well with my glasses).

The performers for each role rotates on each performance. From my perspective, this feels a shame because each was so good on the night I attended that I can't imagine anyone else in the role. Highlights were Emily Essery's Red (whose piercing gaze is intensely intimidating), Steffi Walker's hilariously horny mermaid and Alice Morgan-Richards' fun n' bubbly Snow. 

Red Palace isn't particularly shy about revealing its feminist qualities (I mean, there's a big hint in the title). The cast is composed of female-identifying and queer performers, the narrative revolves around revenge for wronged women and each individual performance highlights some aspect of femininity. 

This feeds into the impressively detailed set design and the venue itself. I'm paging Dr Freud, but the yonic qualities of the Vaults' damp, dark underground spaces feel intentionally amplified to fever-pitch. Shotgun Carousel have created a triumphantly feminine world in this place - and it's no surprise when the show concludes with Beyoncé's Run The World (Girls).

My one real criticism is that the finale is a bit of an anticlimax. Essentially you're told what's going to happen... and then it happens. The night has been building up whether the prophecy is going to be fulfilled, but then it's all wrapped up in a couple of minutes and the narrative just sort of comes to an end. It's nowhere near enough to spoil the show, but after so much anticipation it's a shame to end things on a flat note.

Red Palace is set to run until early January, so I'm sure by then the show will have evolved a bit and the few rough edges will be smoothed out. Until then I suspect that word of mouth is going to make this a top attraction for those with adventurous theatrical tastes. 

Red Palace is at The Vaults until 12th January. Tickets and info here.

Photos by Nic Kane Photography.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Review: 'Danelaw' at the Old Red Lion, 1st October 2019

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The far-right are currently the fastest-growing terrorist threat in the United Kingdom. Decades of anti-immigrant stories in tabloid newspapers, Conservative policies victimising asylum seekers and online echo chambers (among many other factors) have created a fertile ground for violence. The consequences of this are atrocities like the murder of Jo Cox, the June 2017 attack on a mosque in Finsbury Park and many, many failed terror plots (which don't tend to get a huge deal of media coverage).

Things feel close to breaking point in the UK at the moment - just yesterday I saw a man who'd doused himself in petrol outside Parliament and attempted to set himself on fire. This climate means it's a good time to revive Danelaw, Peter Hamilton's 2005 satire that picks apart the political libido of the far right.

We begin in prison, where Cliff (Dan MacLane) is serving a stretch for racially aggravated assault. He's visited by Warboys (Craig Crosbie), a mysterious upper-class man who hints at a big future for Cliff. Warboys' plan is to recreate the titular Danelaw: a white nationalist separatist territory in East Anglia with Chelmsford as its capital. Cliff, a former football hooligan suffering from mental illness, is clearly the prime candidate to revive Viking Britain.

Soon he's sprung from prison, has rechristened himself Olaf and is busy assembling a motley crew consisting of his former cellmates, family on the outside and a threateningly competent gang of dutch Neo-Nazis. With a stash of explosives and weaponry at their disposal, they draw up plans to strike at a mosque in an attempt to kickstart their race war.

Though Danelaw comes with warnings about violent content and racist imagery, it's so broadly written and performed that the play is basically a cartoon. With the exception of Warboys (and perhaps the Dutch Neo-Nazis), every character is monumentally stupid and gullible. On top of that, most of them don't have any particularly strong racist convictions and have essentially been peer-pressured into fascism.

It's an interesting (and I suspect accurate) perspective. People want to be part of a community and many members of terrorist groups are sucked in because that's what their friends are doing - and once you're in, you're in. The script touches on this ideological malleability many times, characters claiming that they see fascism as a role or phase, with many only involved because they just want to fit in.

Sadly, while Danelaw has a decent amount of insight, it's not a particularly good play. The cast has clearly been directed to go big with their performances - and while Dan MacLane, Craig Crosbie and Evelyn Craven manage it while remaining believable, many members of the cast don't. For example, Will Henry's Jason is just a collection of tics and overly mannered body language - and despite getting a decent chunk of the play to himself I had no idea what the character was supposed to be about.

Then there's the flabby second half. Without wanting to spoil the plot, the play comes a natural conclusion about 15 minutes after the interval. It then proceeds to spin its tyres through a series of lengthy, meandering epilogues that kill all sense of momentum. Even besides that, there's a lot that could (and should) be cut from the play - with many of its 11-strong cast of characters just not contributing much to the overall themes.

Danelaw never quite becomes boring, but it's frustrating that the skeleton of an excellent piece of drama is so clearly present yet is mired in dramatic dead-ends. That said, I appreciated its perspective and with nationalism on the rise (encouraged by a Conservative Party accelerating rightwards) audiences should be reminded that this trajectory always ends with blood on the streets.

Danelaw is at the Old Red Lion until 5 October. Tickets here.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Review: 'The Elixir of Love' at the King's Head Theatre, 30th September 2019

Tuesday, October 1, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

I had a bad case of the Monday blues yesterday. I got soaked cycling to work in the rain and soaked cycling home afterwards. So when it came time to leave my warm house to head up to the King's Head Theatre in the rain, I was downright miserable. By the time I got there (you guessed it, soaked), I was sullen and glum - and wishing I was wrapped up in a blanket at home watching Netflix and eating pizza.

But then Opera’r Ddraig's The Elixir of Love began, and all that damp misery immediately washed away. From minute one I had a big smile on my face that persisted throughout the show (and through most of the still wet ride home).

Adapted from Donizetti's 1832 opera L'elisir d'amore, Opera’r Ddraig swaps the Basque village setting for Barry Island, South Wales in 1982 - and retranslates the work to fit the South Walian dialect. It's a smart decision - with hilarious friction generated from the highfalutin' poshness of opera incongruously clashing with working-class characters calling each other twats and telling their enemies to "fuck off already". Plus, as someone from South Wales, I got a kick out of hearing my home town of Pontypridd mentioned in an opera staged in Islington.

The plot finds lonely sadsack Nicky (David Powton) admiring cafe owner Adira (Alys Roberts) from afar. He wishes he cuold work up the courage to ask her out, only for quack salesman Dr Dulcamara (Matthew Kellett) to arrive offering a selection of love potions. Nicky enthusiastically purchases them, only for his romantic rival, soldier Brandon (Themba Mvula) to gazump him with a marriage proposal.

Matthew Kellett and Alys Roberts
None of this is taken particularly seriously, with the show establishing a light-hearted, gently self-satirising tone early on and sticking with it. But, in an impressive feat of casting and performance, everyone is funny. There are moments where most of the cast is on stage, each providing enough entertainment to carry a show on their own. You don't know where to look for fear of missing out.

I hesitate to name many highlights because I enjoyed the whole damn thing. I'm smiling now when I think of Alys Roberts' trying to work out what that awful stink in her cafe is, or when Caroline Taylor suddenly becomes infatuated with Nicky, David Powton enthusiastically spraying himself down with piss, or pretty much every moment that Themba Mvula is strutting about the stage,

But, even within all this, Matthew Kellett's Dr Dulcamara crushes it. He gets the showiest songs, with his salesman's patter mapping perfectly onto Donizetti's music. He gets to subtly break the fourth wall, both singing to Nicky about how amazing his products are while confiding in us how incredibly stupid he thinks these people are. He's far from a villain though, eventually proving to be as gullible and dim-wittted as his various customers.

They're ably supported by careful direction, a fine musical score and a set that's evocative of Barry Island without getting in the way of the performances. I don't have a great deal more to say about The Elixir of Love without getting into hyperbole. It's the opera I'd take someone sceptical about opera to - and it singlehandedly eradicated my Monday blues.

The Elixir of Love is at the King's Head Theatre until 26 October. Tickets here.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Review: 'Madam Butterfly' at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, 26th September 2019

Friday, September 27, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 1 Stars

Though I've reviewed a whole bunch of opera over the years I'm still a neophyte. I love smaller-scale comedies as performed by Pop-Up Opera, I check out the occasional large experimental piece at the ENO and, on a basic level, I just like the music and singing. So, Puccini's Madam Butterfly, performed above The Gatehouse Pub in Highgate by a small but talented company, should be very much my bag.

And it would be, if it weren't for the yellowface.

This is the bit where I stroll blithely into a decades-long debate about racism in opera. Hold onto your hats. Going in and taking my seat I had no idea what I was in for: I only knew the vaguest plot outline of Madam Butterfly (mainly that it is set in Japan) and with the programme cover and show posters featuring a Japanese woman in geisha makeup I naturally assumed that the show would feature this performer and other Japanese cast members.

So when white British actor Olympia Hetherington walked onto the stage as Suzuki, wearing a kimono, her face tanned and her eyes made up to look slanted my jaw dropped. What the hell kind of show have I come to? I sensed my plus one tense up next to me (later confirmed when, during the interval, we both immediately began talking about it).  

I can anticipate the defences. Yes, it's probably very difficult to find opera singers of Japanese origin to play these parts, especially for a small-scale fringe production. Or that Madam Butterfly has a long tradition of being cast and performed in this manner. Maybe it's not right to deprive audiences of the beauty of Puccini simply because contemporary politics have shifted. And, of course, demanding that all casting be accurate to the role's race is going to limit the amount of plays featuring characters of colour that are staged.

I thought about all this at length during and after the show. After all, the rest of the audience didn't seem to have a problem with it: perhaps this is just the way opera is done and I should just go with the flow.

But I can't deny what my conscience was screaming at me throughout: "this is wrong!

If it's a choice between not staging Madam Butterfly vs doing it in yellowface - then you don't stage it. This shit just doesn't fly in 2019. 

By this point, it seems academic to get into the iffy politics of the narrative, which features stereotypically servile Japanese women and concludes with a noble white woman swooping in to rescue a mixed-race child and transport him back to the West. But believe me, that's not great either.

Thing is, aside from the racism, this production is full of pretty good stuff. I enjoyed Taylor-Stokes' singing in the lead role, Thomas Birch makes an enjoyably monstrous Pinkerton and the puppeteering of Butterfly's son is effective and technically inspired.

But quality doesn't mean much when it's rooted in a foundation this rotten. Surely at some point during the production of this show, someone queried whether performing Madam Butterfly in this way was a good idea. Based on some research it's not as if casting white performers in Madam Butterfly is a new debate, with most companies at pains to address this elephant in the room. That Opera Loki doesn't seem to have considered it at all reeks of privilege.

What on Earth were they thinking?

Madam Butterfly is at The Gatehouse until 29th September.

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights