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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review: 'Faces In the Crowd' at the White Bear Theatre, 20th March 2018

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Faces In The Crowd reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

Have you ever heard a blazing row emanating through apartment walls? Muffled yells in various pitches, punctuated by the grinding of furniture and slammed doors. All the while you pray you're not going to hear the leaden thump of a body hitting the floor. Leo Butler's 2008 play Faces In The Crowd takes us into just such a pressure-cooker: showing us an extremely unhappily married couple who spend 80 minutes tearing strips off one another.

Dave (Adam Bone) and Joanne (Bonnie Adair) got married on a teenage whim. For two people in love, the world was their oyster. But things rapidly curdled: easy credit and buy-now-pay-later deals left them sucked into a quicksand of monthly payments. Disillusioned with the incoming future of soul-crushing suburban drabness, Dave left a note on the mantlepiece and fled south to the bright lights of London, abandoning his wife, his family and a mountain of debt.

Ten years later, Dave is living in a studio flat off Old Street, got a job as a recruitment consultant, is nursing a casual coke habit, reads the Guardian and watches Question Time. His northern accent has faded and the past seems like a distant memory. But now a resentful Joanne is back. She doesn't want money, she doesn't even want an apology, she just wants a baby. And the least Dave can do after his abandonment is knock her up.

It's strange watching a play and feeling the most sympathy for a character who hasn't even been born. Both Dave and Joanne are extremely unlikeable characters: petty, small-minded, vain and obsessed with material possessions. They hate one another almost to the point of murder and any child with them as parents has a cast-iron destiny of fuck uppery waiting for them.

In fact, Dave and Joanne are so off-putting that even when they reveal (what is theoretically) their sympathetic sides later in the play it's just not enough to turn me around. What we essentially realise is that they might have been able to have a happy life together if their dreams hadn't been poisoned by consumerist fantasies, realised by unsustainable levels of personal debt. Characters decry easily available credit and falsely promised opportunities and are extremely bitter that the life they thought they were entitled to was an illusion.

Fair enough. But it doesn't stop them from also being complete twats. It makes me unsure how to judge Bone and Adair's performances; if the objective was to accentuate these characters' unattractive qualities then mission accomplished; if we're supposed to care about them then things have gone a bit awry.

Adair manages to create one of the more repellent, hateful characters I've seen in a play of late, nosing about and delivering a constant stream of small-mindedly pissy comments. Joanne's body language is reptilian, her eyes deadened and accusatory, she's got the sexual charisma of a brick wrapped in barbed wire. 

Bone's Dave is slightly more sympathetic, but only because he's so pathetic. He's scrabbling for the last vestiges of his youth: singing the praises of teenage bimbos sucking his cock ("they've got tits like meringues!"), showing off his big plasma TV ("I own that!") and bemoaning that his infantile fantasies of being a rock star never came to pass ("if only I could play a few chords!").

Their complete twattishness makes it difficult to care, which in turn makes spending 80 minutes with them tedious. If you buy into the assertion that macroeconomics has made them the horrible people they are, there might be a kernel of interest. If not (and some of the financial concerns of the play feel a bit dated ten years on) then you're just left with unhappy pricks wallowing in the detritus of their broken lives.

And if I really wanted to see that kind of thing, I'd just switch on Jeremy Kyle.

Faces in the Crowd is at the White Bear until 31st March. Tickets here.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: 'I'd Be Lost Without It' at Stratford Circus Arts Centre, 15th March 2018

Friday, March 16, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I'd Be Lost Without It reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Fashionable Luddites drive me up the wall. You can't go five minutes without hearing about the benefits of 'digital detox', how the kids' brains are apparently melting or seeing a rosy-cheeked Guardian columnist touting the benefits of their 'Year Without Wikipedia' or some shit. 

It's symptomatic of a deep-rooted conservatism that fears change: the age-old chestnut of hearkening back to some dimly forgotten golden age where people handwrote letters to each other and looked up facts in dusty encyclopaedias. If the way we think is indeed changing as a result of almost every human on the globe being networked together, who's to say that whatever humanity ends up as won't be an improvement on the disconnected navel-gazers that shuffled along in decades past?

So I was a teeny bit sceptical of Wet Picnic's I'd Be Lost Without It, which posits that "we are increasingly connected with one another and the world around us through technology, and yet feel a sense of disconnection on a human level with ourselves and with one another". To which my instinctive response was that I certainly don't feel disconnected with myself. And what the hell does that even mean anyway?

It sounds like we're in for an hour of finger-wagging gloom, so it's a nice surprise that I'd Be Lost Without It is an upbeat, funny and extremely personable show. The broad concept is not dissimilar to a silent disco: each audience member wears wireless headphones that pipe through the show's narration and score. This is accompanied by the cast (Graeme Cockburn, Alex Bird, Emma Brand, Jack Goldbourne, Grace Lambert and Ana Mirtha) doing a series of dance and clowning routines, physically realising what we're heading.

The audience is divided into three groups,  each group occasionally receiving commands through their headphones. So a third of the crowd might start walking through the space like prowling lions, or perhaps waving their hands in the air (like they just don't care).

There's so much imagination, energy and skill in the choreography and execution of the show that it's very easy to get swept up in it. Each member of the cast has enviably expressive features and they use them to deliver a very entertaining mime show crammed full of interesting moments. Looking around the room during the show, most of the audience had big smiles plastered on their faces: and rightly so.

However, despite being very enjoyable, the argument it makes is frustratingly fuzzy. The show portrays humanity as a species learning to live in symbiosis with digital technology but doesn't offer any real insight of what this might mean other than some superficial behavioural observations. The show notes explain that this is intended to be an analysis of a 'mental health crisis' - yet there's nothing that feels particularly urgent or scary about the world presented here.

I'd Be Lost Without It is fun, but isn't quite as insightful as it could be. Everyone having a device in their pockets putting them in contact with almost everyone on the planet, giving them access to the sum total of humanity's knowledge and, when all that gets boring, lets us  play Monument Valley 2, is a fantastic development for humanity - the realisation of what were wild science fiction dreams just 30 years ago. 

Perhaps what's tripping up this show is that we can't know how we're being changed, how all this is going to end and we can't put the genie back in the bottle. Like the caterpillar waiting to bust open its chrysalis, all we can do is hope for the best.

I'd Be Lost Without It is currently touring. Dates and locations here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: 'Trap Street' at the New Diorama Theatre, 13th March 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

'Trap Street' reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Britain's post-war housing estates were borne from utopian ideals. The days of mouldy Victorian terraces were over: replacing them would be elevated communities in flats with all mod cons: cosied by central heating, blessed with stunning views and boasting pleasant green spaces in which to socialise. What could possibly go wrong?

Cut to the modern day and the estates that survive are, for the most part, graffiti-covered hellholes with pissy lifts. The scared residents that remain have barricaded themselves behind steel security bars and the social spaces are occupied by bored and hostile kids. Culturally these places are now bywords for neglect and criminality - and make excellent backdrops for low budget horror and gangster movies.

Kandinsky's Trap Street tries to explain why this happened, the effects the transformation had on long-term residents and the consequences of the estate's demolition and redevelopment. The vehicle for this is the story of the first family to move onto the fiction Austen Estate in Bermondsey, whose story we follow from their arrival in the early 1960s to the demolition of the estate in 2017. 

The story centres on Valerie and her daughter Andrea (both played by Amelda Brown). Their story is one of slow disillusionment with the social systems designed to take care of them, with Valerie fighting a Sisphyean battle against the estate's social collapse and, in 2017, the now elderly Andrea struggling to sell up for a reasonable price and remain in the neighbourhood.

Trap Street tells a half-century long, cross-generational saga with impressive ease. But this story is just one facet of an information-dense tapestry that includes dramatisations of how the view of estates shifted in the media, from a bright n' perky Pathé film introducing this wonderful new housing philosophy to a Clockwork Orange parody that shows the increasing suspicion the public had of the estates.

For me, the show was most affecting when it dramatised the contemporary housing situation. Andrea is taken on a virtual reality tour of the 'next' utopian ideals in housing, which are priced at about £1 million a flat. Andrea nervously enquires about the 'affordable housing' she's heard about - only to be informed that 'affordable' is defined as 80% of market rates. Do the maths, then wonder to whom that's supposed to be affordable? 

Perhaps the true tragedy of Trap Street is that the decline and criminalisation of these estates was never inevitable. The Barbican Estate was constructed on precisely the same utopian philosophy by architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, working from Le Corbusier's ideas. With its lush green spaces, hanging baskets, fountains and multiple residential/cultural facilities, the Barbican Estate is still very much in demand. 

Meanwhile, down in South-East London, the similarly designed Thamesmead Estate lives up the stereotype: damp-stained and litter-strewn with seriously bad vibes. It's no wonder that Chris Cunningham shot Aphex Twin's iconic Come To Daddy video here.

The difference is that one houses the poor and one the rich - you don't have to think too hard to work out which group have been preyed upon. While the wealthy Barbican Estate residents largely own their flats and happily fork out for an army of caretakers, gardeners and maintenance workers, the Thamesmead residents have suffered the consequences of 35 years of ideological warfare against social housing.

The most effective weapon in the Government's arsenal is that councils are obliged to send half their rents and the vast majority of their profits from house sales directly to Whitehall. This means there simply aren't the resources to improve or maintain conditions: the buildings are left to decay until they're demolished and replaced by glittering (and empty) luxury flats. The developers ensure the right people get a nice wodge of cash in their back pocket, while communities are scattered to the winds.

Just around the corner from the theatre there's a large piece of graffiti scrawled on the Euston Road Underpass which reads "People are living in tents and million pound flats lie empty!" Couldn't have said it better myself. 

And if you want a more visceral look at the consequences of chronic underfunding and social stigmatisation just hop on the tube for twenty minutes, get off at Latimer Road, and take a sobering look at the burnt out husk of Grenfell Tower.

But despite all this misery and horror, and the most viciously targeted policies of successive governments, the dream of utopia still lingers in the imagination. The V&A recently announced that they're taking an eight-tonne fragment of the demolished Robin Hood Gardens estate to the Venice Biennale. This will be displayed on an outdoor scaffold, allowing visitors to stand on the iconic 'streets in the sky' as they look out onto the classical beauty of Venice, intended to make people reconsider how these architectural ideas can “can inform and inspire current thinking”.

So aaaanyway, back to Trap Street, which is great. 

The cast, Amelda Brown, Danusia Samal and Hamish MacDougal are all great. The live score by Zac Gvirtzman is great. Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen's set design is great. And writers/directors/producers James Yeatman and Lauren Mooney have clearly done their homework (for the sake of completeness, they are also great). 

With Trap Street Kandinsky further solidifies its reputation as the go-to theatre company for political and social theatre free of stodge and preachiness. I can't wait to see what they tackle next.

Trap Street is at the New Diorama Theatre until 31st March. Tickets here.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review: 'A Hundred Words For Snow' at Vault Festival, 8th March 2018

Friday, March 9, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A Hundred Words For Snow reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

My advice is to bring a hanky. Tatty Hennessey's A Hundred Words For Snow is one hell of a monologue, transporting us from suburban London to the frozen Arctic and guiding us through the depths of grief. I'm generally suspicious of sentimental shows  - I get annoyed when someones waving an onion at me in an attempt to coax out a tear. But this does things honestly, exploring misery, loss and adolescent uncertainty with sincerity and wit. It's brill.

Our heroine is 15-year-old Rory (Gemma Barnett), who is attempting to process the sudden death of her father. In the wake of his death, everything feels muted: she's alienated by the thoughtless platitudes at his funeral and the jarring return to humdrum domesticity. It's only when she ventures into her Dad's study and sees his never-fulfilled holiday plans that she realises what she must do: steal her Mum's credit card, stuff her Dad's urn into a backpack and head to the North Pole to scatter his ashes.

It's a pretty bonkers ambition, but Hennessey goes out of her way to make Rory's attempt plausible. It sets the stage for a journey that takes her via Tromsø in Norway to the island of Svalbard and to the frozen infinity of the Arctic. Along the way we really get to know Rory, delving deep into her insecurities, mindset and awe at the epic polar scenery. She's one of the more complex and likeable characters I've seen in a long time, and though the show is just an hour long, we understand her.

Laying on top of all this is that the majestic and stark Arctic is a deeply satisfying metaphor for Rory's unresolved grief. Hennessey doesn't treat grief as something unpleasant to be conquered, but something starkly beautiful in its own right: profound sadness shouldn't be swept under the rug, it should be explored and understood. Rory's fearless journey into the ice accomplishes this, it's only when she's stared down the blizzard that she can process her father's death.

All this is making the show sound a bit morose. It is, but the tears are leavened with a tonne of laughs. Hennessey's writing is peppered with very funny insights, borne of Rory's idiosyncratic viewpoint on the world. Though we never completely forget the weight of her Dad's ashes, the load is lightened by some very funny facts about the history of Arctic exploration and some well-observed asides about human behaviour. A particular highlight is a beautifully written segment about a sexual encounter, which manages to be both hilarious and movingly poetic.

Writing this good demands a great performance to do it justice, and Gemma Barnett delivers in spades. She gives Rory a gawky physicality and energy that goes a long way to making her a believable teenager,  frequently locking eyes with people in the audience to make the show, for one brief moment, a two-person dialogue. Barnett has charisma to spare, her delivery seamlessly transitioning from light-hearted sarcasm all to shiver-inducing emotional nakedness.

What else is left to say? A Hundred Words For Snow is a brilliant bit of writing performed to perfection. As I left I passed people dabbing away tears and sniffling into tissues - tears that the show absolutely earns. This is a true highlight of Vault 2018 and shouldn't be missed.

A Hundred Words For Snow is at Vault Festival until March 11th. Tickets here.

Review: 'Unburied' at Vault Festival, 8th March 2018

- by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Unburied reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Even if it were wrong about everything else, Hermetic Arts' Unburied would be dead on in praising 1970s British horror television. I was sceptical about these shows for the longest 0time, associating the era with terrible production values, stagey acting and campy rubber monster costumes. It's all well and good respecting the cultural significance of say, Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, but actually watching it? No chance.

That all changed the first time I saw Nigel Kneale's classic The Stone Tape, which scared the crap out of me. It's a traditional ghost story with a contemporary sheen, showing scientists exploring paranormal phenomenon with modern technology, only to awaken something dark and dormant within ancient stones. 

Unburied is cut from the same cloth,  and similarly interprets the supernatural through technology. Only this time it's not stones psychically recording the past, but a 'living folk story' echoing through history and haunting those who tell it.

The core of the show is 'Unburied', an unbroadcast horror TV show from 1978, whose production and subsequent disappearance is shrouded in mystery. Folk horror enthusiast Carrie Marx has been researching Unburied for the last year and this show is the summation of her work - we're the audience for the recording of a podcast to be uploaded in April. So  boiled back to its bones, the show is essentially a fancy Powerpoint presentation.

But boy howdy what a Powerpoint presentation. Unburied straddles the line between fiction and truth with the grace and precision of a tightrope walker, simultaneously telling a completely believable story about the history of television production and internet research while also subtly spinning a genuinely spooky ghost story.

Much of the show's success is down to Carrie Marx's great delivery. Her enthusiasm about the subject matter is infectious and she drags us into her narrative of discovery with consummate ease. She's also a fantastic performer, slipping between the podcast recording and a series of audience asides skilfully, as well as making the more overtly scary final moments of the show properly spine-chilling.

I don't want to spoil exactly what happens, but the writing understands one of the golden rules of horror: less is more. It's not until quite a way in that the show reveals its hand, and you suddenly recontextualise what we've been told about, say, the minutia of obscure Victorian authors. Even better, Marx trusts in the audience's intelligence to put the jigsaw together, resulting in moments where you realise something before she does

It's also unusually thoughtful, dwelling on the Brexit/Trump impulses to "destroy the present and bring back an imagined past". This is a show about delving into the past, presented with more than a twinge of nostalgia for what seem to be more innocent times. The show repeatedly underlines that navel-gazing through rose-coloured glasses is deeply unhealthy: a truth that soon supernaturally manifests itself.

This show is a textbook example of how true horror isn't a product of big budgets and complex pyrotechnics. For example, I saw the West End production of The Exorcist recently. That show also has its roots in 70s horror, yet ended up being more campy than scary. Unburied knocks The Exorcist into a cocked hat - achieving more with a couple of Powerpoint slides and a talented performer than that show does with an Ian McKellen voiceover and the latest in digital projection-mapping.

Unburied is a modest marvel, and I'm incredibly glad I got the opportunity to check it out. I'll be there opening night for whatever Hermetic Arts does next.

Unburied is at Vault Festival until 11 March. Tickets here.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review: 'Electra' at The Bunker, 6th March 2018

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Electra reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Murder, betrayal and revenge never go out of fashion. These universal themes are what makes plays like Sophocles' Electra, first performed 2,400 years ago, continue to vibrate like a tautly pulled guitar string. Who can't sympathise with rage at a father unjustly killed, children abandoned by their mother and a metastasising cancer at the heart of government?

Dumb Wise Theatre's adaptation, written and directed by John Ward, keeps the poetic meter but updates the language, peppering the lyricism with "fuck you"s and a patchwork of contemporary references. Though the play nominally takes place in the ancient city of Argos, we immediately understand it to be a placeholder for a modern political patchwork that encompasses elements from the Arab Spring, Blairism and a PR conscious media landscape.

Underneath the modern elements, the core of the Electra is what Sophocles wrote: Queen Clytemnestra (Sian Martin) and her lover Aegisthus (Matt Brewer) have murdered the heroic King Agamemnon and assumed the throne. Agamemnon's son and rightful heir Orestes (Dario Coates) was exiled as a child and raised by rebels seeking to place him on the throne and his daughter Electra (Lydia Larson) rages against the injustices of her mother's court, praying for the day when her long-lost brother will return.

All this is played out on a dusty bare-knuckle boxing pit of a stage. It's bordered by a forest of glowing tubes and instruments on which the impressively multi-talented cast play the show's pumping score. As the performers move about they kick up billowing clouds of choking dirt, squeeze fistfuls of dirt and press their faces into it as if trying to commune with the land they're battling over. Underneath the soil is the eroded, abandoned tomb of the murdered King, a constant reminder of the guilt of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and the fury of Electra and Orestes.

It's great stage design, and the gripping drama played out on it does it justice. Obvious highlights are Sian Martin's villainous Queen, portrayed as a public relations expert as she subtly weaves her personal story into the national narrative. Williams is amazing at showing the microseconds of emotional truth when her cool mask slips, revealing the paranoia bubbling up inside her. Matt Brewer's eloquent politician gradually sliding towards corruption also impresses - not an outright villain but corrupted by power and the decisions he made to seize it.

Best of all is Lydia Larson's Electra, who sets the stage alight. Larson is one of my favourite actors at the moment (brilliant in both Skin A Cat and Brutal Cessation) and knocks it out of the park. There's a lot of Hamlet in her Electra, she does a great line in rebellious seething and viciously worded denunciations of her mother and stepfather. She powers through the play like a guided missile, her arc taking her from angry, to very angry, to incandescently furious, ending up at cracked murderous joy. The only downside is that next to her tour-de-force, Dario Coates' Orestes is a bit anaemic.

The only real flaw is that Aegisthus' villainy is outdated. The era of the shinily suited PR-led centrist politician ended with Cameron's post-Brexit resignation in 2016. It's difficult to equate the id-driven chaos of Trump, the incompetent incoherence of May or the tweed honesty of Corbyn with Aegisthus' character. That the target of the show's fury is yesterday's news slackens its grip, and though there are attempts to keep things relevant for 2018 they don't quite work -  for example, I have no idea what statement is trying to be made by having the diabolical scheming authoritarian quoting Jeremy Corbyn's "for the many, not the few" slogan.

Quibbles aside, Electra kicks ass. It's Greek drama firing on all cylinders: exciting, involving and exhilarating - and Lydia Larson gives what I can already tell is going to be one of my favourite performances of the year. Go see it.

Electra is at The Bunker until 24 March. Tickets here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review: 'Version 2.0' at the Leicester Square Theatre, 27th February 2018

Wednesday, February 28, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Version 2.0 reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Version 2.0 is a very, very strange play. Ostensibly a story about a writer and his robot girlfriend, it quickly proves to be almost entirely concerned with the show's playwright, Kashyap Raja.

Our hero is nano-thinly fictionalised Kashyap 'Kash' Raja (Tim Atkinson), a playwright convinced of his own genius yet struggling with the realities of critics and audiences hating everything he turns out. His creative partner/muse is Karen (Tracey Pickup), who Kash loves yet is too riddled with insecurity to ever make it work. Eventually, she's freaked out by his intense neediness and bails.

Luckily for Kash, there's a company that provides sadsack loners with lifelike female robots that can be shaped into an exact replica of an existing person. Enter Karen 'Version 2.0': a chirpy and compliant pet girlfriend, albeit with a decidedly unsexy childlike personality. But what happens when she grows more perceptive about her lovelorn master's motivations?

A science fiction story about a robot gradually losing its innocence and realising that humans are monsters is fertile (if well-trodden) dramatic territory. But, as stated above, that's not what Version 2.0 is about. Despite stating: "Even when it’s about him, it’s about her"this play is definitely about 'him' i.e. the playwright and his many hangups.

Writing a play about yourself is textbook narcissism and generally leads to very bad theatre. Despite that (and to my surprise) I didn't hate Version 2.0. That's not because it's any good ind you, but because it's transcendentally weird. The show essentially adds up to a furious ninety-minute bout of self-loathing from the writer as he fixates on why he's such a creepy loser scumbag, painstakingly outlining everything ugly and repellent about him.

The end result feels like a script forced out under a dominatrix's riding crop. "Slave, say you're a shitty writer" *WHAP* "Urgh, I'm a shitty writer!" "Slave, tell the audience you spend all day wanking." *WHAP* "Oh god it's true I do wank a lot!" *WHAP* "Slave, crawl on the ground like the degenerate worm you are!" *crawls pathetically* *WHAP* *WHAP* *WHAP* *WHAP* *guttural mewling noises*.

By the time this wrapped up (incidentally without even a glimmer of a happy ending or any kind of redemption) I was bewildered. What kind of grotesque monsters must be squatting inside Raja's head for him to first write this play, then stage it before a paying audience? 

My best guess is that this is theatre as therapy - spilling his guts all over the stage in an attempt to purge all that he despises within himself. Perhaps by externalising everything he hates into a fictional 'Kashyap Raja' he can exorcise himself, moving forward with a clean slate. 

As I left, I was seriously wondering whether 'Kashyap Raja' was some obscure theatrical joke to which I'd missed the punchline. The play is so freakin' odd that it could easily work as a satire on self-obsessed, navel-gazing writers. However, after checking, I have been assured that Raja is indeed a genuine flesh and blood human being who actually wrote this play. God help him.

I should also say that Tim Atkinson and Tracey Pickup acquit themselves very well within this masochistic-torture-device-as-theatre, hurling themselves with giddy abandon into Raja's manic hurricane of looping dialogue and janky iambic pentameter. 

Version 2.0 is definitely not good theatre. But fortunately, it's an acceptable freakshow. Arguably this kind of thing should be done behind the closed doors of a therapist's office rather than in front of a paying audience, but hey, if a guy wants to psychologically self-harm on stage for an hour and a half for my amusement who am I to argue? I hesitate to outright recommend this, but it's safe to say you won't see anything else quite this bonkers anytime soon.

Version 2.0 is at the Leicester Square Theatre until 3rd March. Tickets here.

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