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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

'Kenny Morgan' at the Arcola Theatre, 30th May 2016

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

A pallid body lies in front of a hissing gas fire. It's impossible to know whether it's dead or alive. It's an image equal parts striking and miserable; the famous perfect opening to Terrence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea. It's precisely echoed in Mike Poulton's latest play, yet in place of the desperately lonely Hester Collyer, we find the slowly asphyxiating Kenny Morgan.

Kenny Morgan (Paul Keating) was the real-life lover of Terrence Rattigan, who gasped his last in a crappy Camden bedsit in 1949. Poulton imagines his last day alive, exploring how a promising, handsome and talented young man reaches the point of no return. 

Kenny Morgan is essentially a reverse engineering of The Deep Blue Sea, Poulton performing a kind of psychological autopsy on Terrence Rattigan and imagining the events that might have inspired his fiction (though the play works just as well for audiences with no knowledge of his work). The occupants of Hester Collyer's tenement are reimagined as dowdily kindhearted clerk Dafydd Lloyd (Matthew Bulgo), fussy landlady Mrs Simpson (Marlene Sidaway) and struck-off doctor Mr Ritter (George Irving). In the first act these characters discover the prone form of Kenneth after an initial suicide attempt and revive him, trying to puzzle out the whys, whos and whats of the situation.

Their amateur detective work quickly leads to a visit from the esteemed Mr Rattigan (Simon Dutton), whose presence begins to fill in the blanks of Kenny's past and state of mind. Later we meet Alec Lennox (Pierro Niel-Mee), Kenny's current lover. As we learn more about the situation, the squalor of the tenement grows increasingly oppressive - a pressure cooker of emotions, betrayal and dashed hopes. 

Kenny Morgan is painfully straightforward in how it treats suicide. Each character does their utmost to drag Kenny back from the brink; treating him with sincere kindness, attention, empathy, intelligence and offering multiple solutions that might save him from death's embrace. Each character experiences their own guilt that they aren't doing enough to assist him, though understands that, ultimately, Kenny's life lies in his own hands. Rattigan's own guilt would manifest in The Deep Blue Sea, his most lauded work and a painfully straightforward example of transmuting your most painful experiences into art.

Lucy Bailey's production does a remarkably job of supporting Poulton's powerful writing, settling for a straightforward naturalism and refreshing lack of theatrical gimmickry. It's fun to puzzle your way through minimalist or chronologically jumbled abstract set-ups, but there's something reassuring and solid about a talented cast bringing their characters to life in a detailed period setting.

The room, created by Robert Innes Hopkins, is a masterpiece of subtly miserable set design. Glance upwards and you can see the cheaply stippled ceiling, each panel in the process of being invaded by Rorschach blossoms of damp. Look down and you see the threadbare carpet stretching to cover the bare floorboards. The one concession to symbolism are the walls, which are composed of a skeleton of gas pipes that ominously cage the action, neatly mirroring the events of the play.

Within this you get a bevy of remarkable performances; ranging from the faintly tragic yet reassuringly (and sonorously) Welsh presence of Matthew Bulgo, to Marlene Sidaways simultaneously comic and realistic landlady, right through to George Irving's struck off doctor, through whom seem to leak a wider historical context of a civilisation dealing with the reverberations of World War II and the holocaust.

Centre stage are Simon Dutton's Rattigan and Keating's Kenny. Dutton is an impossibly solid stage presence, his body language, composed features and measured delivery starkly contrasting with the fretfulness of everyone else. The way he navigates the set underlines its squalor, representing a wider world of luxury and success that we (and the rest of the cast) can only dream of. The performance makes it all too obvious how painful his internal rift is; caught between his public reputation and his then forbidden love.

Keating's performance begins guarded and withdrawn, but really comes to life around Dutton. It's an abject lesson in self-loathing, tiptoeing at the border of audience sympathies. The character spends so long being a miserable sadsack, apparently hungry for abuse, that in the hands of a lesser actor we could be urging him to get the hell on with it. Yet Keating makes Morgan's personal tragedy resonate; particularly excelling when the character descends into histrionics.

Poulton, without being too explicit about it, underlines the tragic homophobia of the era and encourages the audience to imagine how straightforward and socially acceptable these relationships would be today. I doubt even the stuffiest 'disgusted in Tunbridge Wells' could summon up any shock at a prominent playwright being in a gay relationship.

That's the silver lining in an intrinsically sad play bookended by death; these characters may have been suffocated by social bondage; consumed by self-loathing; and fear of being discovered. But things did get better. In dramatising Kenny Morgan's sadly curtailed life, Poulton not only reminds us how good we've got it, but how far we've come.


Kenny Morgan is at the Arcola Theatre until 18th June. Tickets here. 

Friday, May 27, 2016

'Dea' at the Secombe Theatre, 26th May 2016

Friday, May 27, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It's always reassuring when a production feels the need to remind its audience that what they're about to see is fiction. So it is with Edward Bond's incredibly violent and deeply surreal journey through the British psyche, Dea. In the first couple of minutes twin babies are beaten to death with high heels. Soon we're watching a mother giving a blowjob to her adult son ("you knew I was your mother and you came in my mouth!"). Then comes three hours of rape, necrophilia, torture, decapitation and a general carnage.

By the time it wrapped up, Dea was all over the place like a madwoman's shit and pretty much everyone there appeared to hate it.

They are all wrong. 

Dea is great, each scene filled with the precise kind of darkly vicious lyricism and big spurting gouts of misanthropic violence that does it for me. It reminded me of my favourite directors Lars von Triers and Michael Haneke, storytellers who, like Bond, are not constrained by social delicacies, who're willing to lift the rock of society and expose the insects scurrying in the rot.

Structurally the night is a triptych, each portion divided by an interval. The first is a seamy saga of familial self-destruction that spans the interwar period and climaxes in World War II. The second finds the contemporary British military in some anony-desert, losing their marbles and their morality in an orgy of death. Finally we journey to post apocalyptic future Britain, where the insane survivors of some undefined catastrophe try to piece together meaning from the shattered fragments of society.

Though chronologically separated, the play as a whole has a clear narrative and thematic thread. At the core is the eponymous Dea (Helen Bang), a kind of 20th century 'wandering jew' cursed to spend eternity searching for her dead son. A loose analogue of the mythological Medea, Bond's Dea is an eternal victim, bearing the burden of our society's collective guilt on her bony shoulders, as she's molested, shot and beaten by a series of burly men.

Another element common to all three parts is the British military as a vehicle for evil:. They're portrayed here as a vicious gang of sexual sadists who shroud their crimes with the veneer of duty, exposing the lie of 'soldier's honour'. Whether Dea is a depressed housewife, a nomad in the Middle East or a lunatic future hermit, she's the victim of masculine oppression. Eventually we realise that the apparently random double infanticide that starts the play with a bang is a symptom of her realising the horror that her husband represents and resolving that the world does not need more growing up in his image.

But Bond's takedown of the military mindset isn't just a shot in their eye, but of the fabric of British way of life. Our 'green and pleasant land' rests on tissue paper spread over a gaping abyss. Britain's past, present and future is steeped in blood; our clothes, food, gadgets etc constructed by third-world economic slaves in collapse-prone factories where suicide nets festoon the walkways; our economy is reliant in exporting instruments of death for oppressive regimes to use on protesting civilians; and even within our relative paradise we collectively couldn't care less about drowning refugees that would, if circumstances were slightly different, be us.

Meanwhile the British theatre is largely steeped in mindless frivolity and bad metaphors. One of the most dismal things I've seen of late was a production that explored the plight of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean via a skinny hipster crawling across the stage dressed as a turtle - I mean come on people is that the best we can do? There is good stuff out there, but faced with this avalanche of banality who can blame Bond for wanting to stub his cigarette out in theatreland's eye? I'm with him when he writes "I write of the rape of a corpse with a beer bottle to bring back some dignity to our theatre".

Though the reviews aren't all in yet, they'll say that the violence in Dea is gratuitous and just there for shock value (the snootier critics will be quick to point out that they weren't shocked at all). Firstly, there's nothing inherently wrong with setting out to shock people out of their complacency, secondly, the violence in Dea must be outrageous in order to reflect our fucked up world. Then again, I guess it's appropriate to react with blase blankness to soldiers threatening to gangrape a female prisoner when this very crime has been carried out in our name countless times and nobody gave a toss then either.

Dea is, ultimately, a ragged, chaotic and entirely appropriate reaction to a world gone mad. Bond cuts through the bullshit manners and taste that restricts most theatrical writing and delves deep into the mire of modern life. In the nihilistic closing scenes, two characters desperately pick over the bones (figurative and literal) of civilisation. This is where we're heading, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

On top of all that it's a cleverly executed and pacy piece of drama, with the second part in particular displaying a great eye for blocking and set design. Helen Bang excels amongst the cast and makes for a compelling central, St Sebastian-esque figure, her desperate eyes looking like snooker balls rolling around in her skull as she absorbs the horrors surrounding her. There's a couple of rough-edged performances scattered through the show; but by and large this is a brave cast displaying an overwhelming commitment to the text.

I don't expect Dea will do particularly well, financially or critically. For one it's in Sutton, a pain to get to at the best of times. For another it's three hours long and the curtainfall comes dangerously close to missing the last train back to central London. For one more thing, maybe audiences just aren't up for three hours of insane people waving severed heads about, murdering babies and fucking their sons.

But I very much am. Dea is a hurricane of rancorous air in a theatreland that seeks to mollify, swaddle and infantilise rather than challenge audiences. Edward Bond is 82 this year, but he's still got that crucial "fuck you" factor. This play deserves to be seen.


Dea is at the Secombe Theatre until 11th June. Tickets here.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

'Knife Edge' at POND Dalston, 25th May 2016

Thursday, May 26, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

First off, I want to state for the record that I'd have given this show a good review even if it didn't end with a bountiful Hawaiian dinner. But it did and goddamn it was good. I've always had a soft spot for events that come with food; things are much more memorable when you can associate things with a spritz of lemon on the tongue or the crunch of veg between your teeth. 

Conceived and produced by production company The Big House, Knife Edge tells the tale of 'The Girl With No Name' (Tezlym Senior Sakutu), an angry young 17 year old on the edge. She's spent her life bouncing between foster homes and hostels, ending up with a gargantuan chip on her shoulder and a deep rooted desire to "fuck shit up!". The only permanent thing in her life is her father Delroy (Dymond Allen), himself just out of a stretch in HMP Pentonville.

As the chorus (James Hogarth) repeatedly reminds us, our heroine is teetering on the blade of a knife. One rash decision and she'll start slowly spiralling life's plughole: first prison, then the madhouse, then the grave. But, off in the distance, distant and flickering, are rays of hope. Can a story like hers really have a happy ending?

You'd like to hope it can, particularly because the cast can find much to relate in her problems. The Big House, established by Maggie Norris, supports young people leaving care, with the cast selected on the basis of need after being referred by Leaving Care teams, the Probation service, Youth Offending Teams and Single Homeless Hostels. For most of this cast, Knife Edge is the first time they've ever acted.

Reviewing a charity run show is often a tricky prospect - you feel like a right arsehole criticising something designed to raise awareness and provide opportunities. Fortunate I don't have to worry about that here: Knife Edge is an absolutely fantastic play and a hugely enjoyable to watch. The tone is anarchic and unruly: characters hilariously bicker with the narrator about their names, break freezes to react to upcoming developments and engage in a kind of auto-critique about the unfairness of mining their lives and experiences to entertain an audience.

Tezlym Senior Sakutu and Dymond Allen (photo by Catherine Ashmore)
At the core of this is an astonishing performance from first-time performer Tezlym Senior Sakutu, who's got more charisma in her little finger than most actors have in their entire bodies. She fizzes with angry energy, yet subtly works intense, soulful vulnerability into every single scene (she also has enviable comic timing, especially when she emerges ominously clutching a spade...). With characters like this, the show walks its own knife edge - its success reliant on pitching them sympathetic enough for the audience to relate to while still having the 'fuck you' attitude that makes them believable. The show as a whole achieve this, but it's Sakutu that embodies it fullest. Mark my words, this girl is going places.

The rest of the cast are no slouches either. Dymond Allen's Delroy is a warmly paternal presence, responsible for the biggest laughs in the piece. He's an impressive physical performer with a dab hand at broad comedy - it's difficult to keep a smile off your face as he plays out a scene with a toilet seat hung around his neck. Also impressive is Taurean Steele as restaurant owner Ralph (pronounced Rafe) - responsible for tying the social drama and restaurant setting together with a lyrically performed explanation of balance in cookery - as well as playing a brilliant straight man to countless unhappy visitors.

After the drama is wrapped up the dinner begins. Heaping plates of pulled pork, grilled fish and barbecue chicken are served up and table space quickly shrinks under the burden of this yummy goodness. This all smells so mouth-watering that, even as a vegetarian, I had pangs of envy. Still, the veggie option was no slouch - rice, salad and grilled vegetables leaving me unable to take another bite. Ordinarily I'd be a bit iffy about a play being used as a promotional tool for a restaurant, but when the play and food are both this great how could I complain.

Really, Knife Edge is a complete no-brainer. For £20 you get a fantastic play and delicious dinner - each of which is easily worth the ticket price alone. It's a deal like few else in theatre right now, and I'd recommend snapping up a ticket fast before this run sells out. This was one of those nights out in London that make the whole reviewing thing worthwhile - a warm-hearted and excessively talented company brimming over with talent, an audience full of friendly, chatty people and food to die for. What's not to love?


Knife Edge is at POND, Dalston until 12th June. Tickets here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

'Warcraft: The Beginning' (2016) directed by Duncan Jones

Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

I can't believe that the best videogame movie is still Paul W.S. Anderson's 1995 schlock B-flick Mortal Kombat. Undisputed colossi of the medium: Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Prince of Persia, Doom, Tomb Raider, all have stumbled when it comes a cinematic adaptation, the end products ranging from just-plain-bad to mindblowing terribleness.

Despite its hot young director, its $100 million budget and impressive CGI characters, Warcraft does nothing to change this.

Based on Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft franchise, which incorporates a real-time strategy series and a hugely successful online roleplaying game, the film (ominously subtitled 'The Beginning') introduces us to the troubled world of Azeroth, where fantasy creatures of all stripes mingle in a hard-won peace. Meanwhile, on a dying planet, a race of tusked, green and muscular orcs makes a desperate plan for survival. Constructing a dark magic portal, they transport a war party to Azeroth. Their mission is to take control of this world, construct another portal and bring their entire race over for general death and destruction.

Caught up all this drama are perpetua-smirking human warrior Anduin (Travis Fimmel), Orc Chieftain-with-a-conscience Durotan (Toby Kebbell), half-Orc sex warrior Garona (Paula Patton), wizard Medivh (Ben Foster) and evil Orc mage Gul'dan (Daniel Wu). Bringing up the rear are countless more characters with silly names and sillier outfits, most of whom end up fodder for the film's climactic fights.

So, Warcraft the movie is pretty crap. I'm sorry but there it is. My main problem (above the cliched script and flat performances) is that Azeroth is both dull and incredibly kitsch. No doubt that's heresy to those who've happily immersed themselves for thousands of hours in its virtual towns, forests and dungeons, but creating your own avatar, making friends setting out to explore together is a very different prospect to settling down and passively observing the place.

It's basically 'yer average sub-Tolkien ripoff: a melange of elves, wizards and dwarves and stock fantasy creatures. Aesthetically it's an off-putting combo of primary coloured neon and tacky Donald Trumpian armour; all gleaming gold filigree and gigantic shoulder pauldrons. The result is an off-puttingly plastic universe, one that's largely clean, ordered and artificial. The inevitable comparison is to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy - where (for just one example) if you saw a guy in a suit of armour you could generally understand it as a practical thing a person might conceive, design and wear. In Warcraft the armour looks like it popped out of a chest as a reward for defeating a particularly difficult boss. Which I suppose makes sense.

"So what?" you might think. Well, subtle things like having practical and aesthetic grounding (or even just a bit of dirt on them) makes the big fantastical elements much easier to swallow. In Warcraft it's all neon-glowy-magic, fantastic beasts and portals across time from the get-go, but without the grounding it is impossible to take it seriously, particular when the film insists on being so crushingly po-faced.

On top of this is the (no doubt commercially minded) decision to cast young. Warcraft is a film really crying out for a stagey English actor with gravitas to sell us on stuff like 'fell magic' or whatever. Instead you get a cast that looks more like as if they're to ComicCon than off to war. So. the feared 'Guardian' wizard looks like he could play bass in a college band, a warrior in his early 30s mourns the death of his 23 year old son and the King of all the land looks maybe 35. 

But these all pale into comparison next to the disaster that's Paula Patton's Garona. Painted green like some Captain Kirk conquest, she's saddled with joke-shop quality fangs and a cringeworthy and uncomfortable looking 'battle bikini'. Maybe, maybe a top-tier actor could have powered through that stuff, but Paula Patton (who has my deepest sympathy) isn't that. She's got kind of character design decision where you wish someone on set had whispered "Dunc.. this really isn't working..." in the director's ear.

Of course, there is one element that isn't fresh-faced: the orcs. They are a triumph of technology and animation and, for 8 foot tall green warriormen, believable. They're the film's one unambiguously great thing, even if just to marvel at how far CGI has come. Things fall apart a bit when they have to interact with humans, but so long as it's just them on the screen you can at least appreciate top quality animation.

It's depressing to see Duncan Jones, a genuinely promising director come a cropper so badly. Moon and Source Code had a singular visual style, melding faintly Kubrickian geometry with icky body horror elements. There's none of that here; the direction is largely anonymous, aping the more generic elements of Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott and those who've dabbled in big budget fantasy.

I suspect part of the problem is that Jones is a self-professed fan of Warcraft. With a property like this you need a fresh pair of eyes - someone who will mercilessly slice away the flabby, ridiculous and fanservice-y stuff.

Warcraft is not an entertaining experience. It's a boring, ugly and deeply naff film that has flop written all over it. I hope Jones can bounce back from this.

Warcraft is on general release May 30th.

Monday, May 23, 2016

'Squirm' at the Bread and Roses, 21st May 2016

Monday, May 23, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

It’s a balmy Saturday night in London, the perfect time for barbecues and tossing back cold n' cheap beer. Instead I’m trapped in a bathroom with a suicidal paedophile as he pukes his guts out. This is Squirm, a brief n’ breezy one hander written by Serafina Cusack starring Nathaniel Fairnington.

In an hour long fit of introspection, the 25 year old Rory tells us how he fell for a fifteen year old girl. What follows is a seamy cocktail of self justification (“She was so mature for her age!”) and gross self loathing. Rory takes us through his three year relationship with the teenager, their eventual breakup leaving Rory generally miserable. But he's specifically miserable this morning - riddled with guilt and paranoia after having lured a drunken 14 year old back to his flat and had his way with her.

The contradiction between knowing you’re doing wrong and just not caring provides Squirm’s dramatic gristle. Rory has spent years in denial, silently telling himself that his last teenage squeeze was some kind of true love affair, perhaps thinking of that notorious Woody Allen quote: “the heart wants what it wants”. Now, after waking up next to the skinny, immature body of someone who swore that they’re turning fifteen really really soon, the reality of his actions catches up to him. The slow realisation dawns: "oh my god, I'm a paedo!".

Of course, this is obvious to everyone but him. In creepily detailed recollections he fetishises teenager's sexual awkwardness, innocence and underdeveloped bodies, in one memorable portion practically drooling as he looks down at the child sleeping in his bed and delights that she’s “all mine!”.

In the popular imagination the paedophile is a creepy old man: a hunchback in a dirty raincoat peering at the kids through thick, smudged glasses. This quintessential pervert can that can be quickly identified and shunned, a very visible monster. Rory doesn't fit this stereotype, he's handsome, physically fit and charming, with a hint of boyishness to him even in his mid 20s. 

I’ve spent a decent portion of my working life working with sex offenders of all stripes, and while lots of them are obviously creepy motherfuckers, there’s a lot of Rorys out there. These are predatory men who skirt the edges of social acceptance, able to convince themselves (and often others) that their sexual attraction to children doesn't cause anyone any harm and anyway, it's a small minded society that has the real problem. Inevitably that train of thought reaches the end of the line and, like Rory, these people must face the consequences of their actions and who they are.

Throughout this blistering self-excoriation, the word ‘squirm’ is repeated like a mantra. Rory is constantly squirming with disgust, his heart squirms in his chest and we meet him physically squirming in a bathtub of tepid water at the show’s start. It becomes quickly apparent that Appetite Theatre, who explain that their strength is dealing with “uncomfortable subjects”, wants us in the audience to squirm in our seats.

But Squirm didn’t get me squirming. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an effective bit of writing (I detected the influence of Chuck Palahnuik), doling out juicy revelations, accurately capturing the blinders of masculine lust and with a fantastic ear for descriptive language. Simiarly, Nathaniel Fairnington proves to be a versatile performer, initially defining Rory as an average guy in his twenties before exposing his curdled soul (he having a nice line in mimicry. 

The crux is, for all that's interesting in Squirm it’s difficult to get past that Rory just isn't particularly compelling: an hour in his company is about thirty minutes too long. He’s just about three dimensional but after about halfway through I was wishing he’d just get on with killing himself so we could skip the repetitive cycle of "woe is me! *pukes in toilet*". Ultimately, peeking into the mind of a somewhat repetent paedophile is kind of interesting, but not that interesting.

Squirm is far from the worst thing I’ve seen lately, but it’s far from the best. I respect a company and production that strikes out into uncomfortable territory, but this is a piece that could use a a refit and a rejiggle. For example, it'd screw with the dramatic purity of the monologue, but I found myself wanting to hear the Rory's victim's side of the story. 

The seeds of something good are here, but the end product, like it’s paedo subject, is a little off.


Saturday, May 21, 2016

'We Wait In Joyful Hope' at Theatre503, 20th May 2016

Saturday, May 21, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

What comes to mind when you think about the Catholic Church? Corrupt old men in golden robes preaching humility? Homophobes falsifying information about birth control? Vicious n’ violent anti abortion campaigners? Creepy old priests fucking kids and the church covering it up? Actually, scratch the rest, you probably just thought about the kid fucking.

Difficult to get over that one.

But We Wait in Joyful Hope does its damndest, showing us a rare vision of the Catholic Church as a force for good rather than evil. It does this via the 70 year old Franciscan nun Sister Bernie D’Amato (Maggie McCarthy), a Che Guevera tshirt wearing, dope smoking, leftie radical who runs a women’s shelter in a deprived New Jersey city,

Bernie demolishes all expectations of what a nun should be, playwright Brian Mullin explaining that she’s a product of Pope John XXIII’s 19x2 Second Vatican Council, which resolved to ‘throw open the windows’ of the stuffy Catholic Church and engage in a still controversial modernisation. Most notably affected were nuns, some of whom, emboldened by the spirit of 1960s radicalism, ditched their habits and dug deep into the communities they were assigned to help.

We meet Bernie in the mission she’s singlehandedly run for the last 40 years. Over this time she’s seen generations of young men and women pass through, some going on to better things, most remaining mired in poverty. Still, buoyed up by her social conscience and absolute certainty that she’s doing good in the world, Bernie remains upbeat.

But trouble is on the horizon. The Harley Davidson riding, leather jacket and jeans wearing Father Grady (James Tucker) is in town with a headful of hip new ideas about turning the refuge into a “Values Centre” where deprived young women can learn to become entrepreneurs (together with a swish cafe to raise revenue). All Bernie’s hard fought progress is on the verge of being wiped away, and on top of that her kidneys are failing, requiring dialysis four times a week.

She’s aided in her fight by Felicia (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), an angry and vulnerable young woman that Bernie’s trying her damndest to get to college, and Joanne (Deirdra Morris) an old friend and former nun who’s back to assist following the death of her husband.

We Wait In Joyful Sorrow is a damn great show from top to bottom. The story is affecting and inspiring, the set design is detailed without being cluttered and it’s just generally a great example of thoughtful, warm hearted stagewriting.

But above all that there’s Maggie McCarthy’s Bernie, one of the most charming, personable and pleasant to be around characters I’ve seen in ages. The play is entirely set in Bernie’s living room/kitchen above the shelter, meaning that for the most part the play feels like we’re hanging out with her and enjoying her company.

Even before she speaks it’s pretty easy to get a handle on who she is. The walls behind her are haphazardly papered with old protest posters, commanding us “DON’T BUY GRAPES AND LETTUCE!” to support farmworker’s unions, advertising a Martin Luthor King speech, an antinuclear protest or commemorating the martyrdom of the heroic Father Romero. In fact, with her penchant for hiding bags of weed inside Catholic poetry books, iconoclastic behaviour and avoidance of Mass you might wonder why on earth she became a nun in the first place.

What you eventually understand is that Bernie is far more Christian than any number of rigidly dogmatic priests and repressive nuns. Her God is out there in the world, in the way she personally tends to the most needy and desperate of her flock. Regarding the sacarments she explains “I don’t believe I need a man to access them.” and that her personal form of worship comes behind the wheel of a van; “Cutting through the darkness I ask God to drive with me. And night after night he’s carried me through til morning”.

Eventually we understand Bernie as a firm example of what a Christian should be, rather than what they often seem to be. It’s difficult to look at, say, prominent American evangelical and former Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, with his monomaniacal crusade to ban trans people from public bathrooms, fight for the rights for businesses to discriminate against gay people and call for “carpet bombing” of the Middle East and see anything in common with Jesus Christ. In Bernie you can, this unassuming and modestly living woman going through her own mini-martyrdom for the community and people she adores.

She’s played with energy and gravitas by McCarthy, who smartly teases out the tragic elements in Bernie’s generally upbeat personality. Bernie is a woman that thinks she can do anything by sheer force of will alone, yet is clearly dismayed by her body beginning to give up on her and worried about what'll happen after she's not around to take care of things. You can see Bernie’s zest for life in McCarthy, who makes it easy to imagine the young and fiery radical she once was. It’s a solidly three dimensional performance and a character I found myself missing her the moment the curtain fell.

Exactly one year before We Wait in Joyful Hope I saw a similarly excellent play about nuns in Theatre503, Sense Of An Ending, dealing the church complicity in the Rwandan genocide. That was great and so was this, both precisely the kind of focused, intelligent and carefully performed productions that make the London fringe so exciting. If this place ever puts another nun production on I’ll be there opening night! In the meantime, go check this out, you won’t be disappointed.


We Wait in Joyful Hope is at Theatre503 until 11th June

Picture by Martin Sharpe.

Friday, May 20, 2016

'This Is Living' at Trafalgar Studios, 19th May 2016

Friday, May 20, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

"This has been a shit week. I died." Life is so unfair. One minute you're a happy-go-lucky young woman in a loving relationship with a young daughter, the next you're a freezing lump of decomposing meat trapped in a soggy limbo. That is Alice (Tamia Kari), newly dead, and This Is Living.

Fortunately 'life' isn't completely lonely six feet under. She's visited by her husband Michael (Michael Socha), a decent yet vulnerable man riddled with equal parts grief and guilt, facing up to the prospect of raising their daughter alone. Over the course of the play the two pick their way through their past and future to decide what Michael does next and Alice... well who knows what lies beyond the veil?

Cleverly, playwright Liam Borrett (also directing) never defines precisely what form his afterlife takes. Alice could be anything from a literal ghost, the dream/nightmare of a mourning partner or simply his conscience eating away at him as he contemplates suicide. Whatever she is, it ain't sunshine and roses.

Borrett and designer Sarah Beaton stage the play on a large raised oblong, upon which a thick black tarp is fixed. Water puddles on wrinkled service, creating pools that ebb and flow as the characters move about the stage. It's immediately striking: the water both evoking tears and implying a cold fluidity of motion that fits in perfectly with these wanderings between life and death. 

On a purely practical level, full credit to everyone involved for making this wet production work. Splashing about in tepid water for two hours can't be much fun for the actors, and I can just imagine the nonplussed reaction of a lighting designer being informed that they have to place underlighting mere inches from a puddle. But the water really pays off; Tamia Kari appears to be gently rotting the wetter she gets; it accentuates the atmosphere of misery and grief; and the physical moments are that much more visceral when accompanied by arcs of glittering spray.

On top of that, Jackie Shemesh is responsible for one of the most intelligent lighting designs I've seen in a good while. When the play switches gear from afterlife to flashback, the lighting shifts appropriately, seesawing the play between a warm summer's glow and shivering midnight. Most impressive is a moment when the couple stand facing one another. Michael stands with a spotlight that casts a clear silhouette against the back wall, while Alice (despite being lit) casts no shadow at all. It's subtle, striking and spooky in all the best ways.

All that's impressive enough - though these delights would amount to nothing without two sturdy performances at the centre. Kari and Socha more than provide, constantly underlining their characters' normality in the face of the play's surreal supernatural elements. Who can't fall in love with a character who - upon awakening as a magically animated corpse in a gloomy nightmare world - exclaims "Oh god... have I been on the Blue Nun again?"

Both are more than easy to like, and it's obvious they like each other. Kari and Socha's first flirts and romantic encounters have a ring of truth about them, as well as the way they gradually opening up to one another as their lives intertwine. They're also both very funny, and given the grim themes that This Is Living grapples with, some belly laughs are sorely needed to prevent us getting dragged down in the doldrums.

My only real criticism is that the play ends, then it doesn't. No, seriously - the story reaches a satisfying emotional and thematic climax, the lights go out and everyone wholeheartedly applauds what we've seen. Then the lights come back up and we sit through a confusing and entirely unnecessary epilogue. This vestigial scene is narratively extraneous, not to mention that it's aesthetically tone deaf. The play gets its proper round of applause soon after, but this final scene is so obviously surplus to requirements that I can't imagine it'll stay beyond the first couple of nights.

Aside from that, this is great stuff. Borrett, Kari, Socha and Beaton take the audience somewhere that feels theatrically unique - a place of damp, blurred and fuzzy gloom so slick and slippery that its slide between your fingers as you grip it. While some plays flit in and out of memory as passing diversions - This Is Living, with its powerful visuals and emotive storytelling, will stay.


This is Living is at Trafalgar Studios until 11 June. Tickets here.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

'The Quentin Dentin Show' at the Arts Theatre, 18th May 2016

Thursday, May 19, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

My motto is 'never look back'. There's too much exciting new stuff out there to dwell on the past. Best to enjoy a performance, rattle out a review the next morning and consign it to the memory hole. But last night I made an exception.

I last saw The Quentin Dentin Show in January 2015. I liked well enough, but concluded that "A touch more development and this would be something to really write home about." Now, with about a year and half of work done on it, this is show worthy of popping down the Post Office and getting that letter written.

In its current form it's like a high-spec race car: the chassis remains the same but everything else has been tuned up, fiddled with and polished to a mirror sheen. The core of the show is still the relationship difficulties of Nat (Shauna Riley) and Keith (Jamie Tibke). She's a humanitarian pharmacist, he's a promising writer struggling with a novel. We meet them in the midst of a low-level bicker which concludes with Keith being sentenced to sleep on the sofa. We sense that this isn't the first time he's buried his lonely head in these cushions.

Nat and Keith have just sailed beyond the affection event horizon: breakup now all but inevitable. Enter Quentin Dentin (Luke Lane), he's equal parts therapist and game show host, quickly asserting himself as the unhappy couple's only hope. The stage is set for a series of increasingly surreal interventions, in the form of dangerously sexy musical numbers accompanied by Dentin's 'friends' (Felix Denton and Lydia Costello).

The refits, recasting and rejiggles that the show's gone through are all beneficial. Now, the original cast were no slouches, but the sheer amount of talent now stuffed into this show mildly boggles the mind. Shauna Riley and Jamie Tibke play Nat and Keith more broadly than their predecessors, but this amps up the laughs and maintains dramatic tempo. Riley in particular is downright hilarious, her moon-eyed reactions to the supernatural intrusion into her world nearly worth the price of admission alone.

But the star is undoubtedly Luke Lane's Quentin: some unholy fusion of Thin White Duke era Bowie and Dr. Frank-N-Furter. He stalks the stage with a demented grimace carved on his face and some crazy electricity coursing through his veins. Lane really pushes the boat out with this performance: everything from his comic timing to his body language to his audience interaction down to the way he wears a damn suit is top notch. Special praise must go to a later scene when he's losing it: his eye manically twitches and his lip jerks, making him look like a sweatily malfunctioning Terminator.

The tunes also benefit from being beefed up. In the previous version they felt more like interludes in a comedy show. Now this a proper musical, and a pretty banging one at that. Ragged, loose and loud, the style is scruffy garage rock played by a sunglasses wearing band with genuine stage presence and charisma. It's a huge improvement on some accompanying bands I've seen lately - less treble heavy easy-listening and more like a cool gig with a great front-man.

Perhaps the only criticism I can muster is that the ending didn't quite make sense to me, but that's small potatoes considering the amount of fun I had. Writer Henry Carpenter has made some brave decision (not least stepping back from the lead role and letting Lane take over). The choices made are all the right ones: what was already good has been accentuated and what was bad has been pruned away. It pays off gangbusters. Go see it.


The Quentin Dentin Show is at the Arts Theatre until 28 May. Tickets here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

'Words, Words, Words' at the Leicester Square Theatre, 16th May 2016

Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Lowri Amies has had a hard couple of years, losing her mother, grandfather and (as the programme informs us) recently her grandmother. Words Words Words is a one woman show that doesn't so much explore as rugby tackle grief. Faced with being a "half orphan", Amies explains how she "lost her voice and the old words failed to fit the new story". Now we watch her attempting to rediscover it, via her dramatic training and more specifically through Shakespeare.

Half biography and half confessional, Words Words Words begins with Amies explaining her grandfather's slide into dementia, before moving onto the guilt, misery and self-hatred she experienced after her Mum died. Right now you're probably thinking that this doesn't exactly sound like a fun night out in the West End. You'd be right, but trust me, it's an emotionally and intellectually rewarding one.

In emotional terms you really get to see an intense personal self-autopsy. Doing a show like this has got to be tough - having to dredge up the most painful moments in your life over and over again before an ever shifting crowd of strangers. You'd fear that this repetition might dull the edge of the show, but every fragment of misery is keenly felt. It's genuinely heartbreaking to hear Amies' self-loathing at blaming her mother for keeping her in the dark as to the seriousness of her condition, or the way she was able to keep from crying when her beloved grandfather died.

Intellectually there's real meat about the meaning and power of words. The show brought to mind a favourite quote from Aldous Huxley:
In spite of language, in spite of intelligence and intuition and sympathy, one can never really communicate anything to anybody. The essential substance of every thought and feeling remains incommunicable, locked up in the impenetrable strong-room of the individual soul and body. Our life is a sentence of perpetual solitary confinement.
I think Huxley's on the ball here, Words Words Words is an attempt to communicate something so immensely powerful that it runs into the limits of language. Amies' workaround is to delve deep into Shakespeare - after all, if the greatest playwright ever can't convey loss, guilt and depression who can? Incidentally, Amies' delivery is pitch-perfect, effortlessly conjuring up everyone from big hitters like Hamlet to minor characters like the Nurse from Romeo + Juliet.

Shakespeare's lines meld with Amies poetry, blurring the lines between where the bard ends and she begins. The combination serves to elevate both - the raw personal nature of Amies story accentuating the universal humanity in Shakespeare, and providing gravity to her own writing. This also makes the moments of levity more effective - at one point she says she feels "cut in two like..", you expect to her to follow up with some flowery Elizabethan metaphor, but you get "like that guy was in Kingsman".

The idea of the power of words keeps simmering in the background, Amies explaining feels them caught in throat like a billiard ball stuck in a pocket. Gradually a mosaic is constructed from her grandfather's delusions that his hospital room was filling with water, to the ominous "DNR" commandment issued by her mother, to a syllabic dissection of the word "metastasised". She also has a powerful grasp of imagery, my favourite being a description of her family as a pyramid with her at the pinnacle, only it's upended and all the pressure is on her.

Can words ever truly encompass the misery that Amies felt (and continues to feel)? Perhaps the only appropriate vocalisation is a ragged howl into the abyss. As someone who's never experienced loss like this I can only sympathise deeply with Amies and fear the day something like this happens to me (as it will everyone). 

I hope Words Words Words provides the catharsis, but either way it's one of the more memorable nights I've had at the theatre in some time and has given me a hell of a lot to think about.


Words Words Words is at the Leicester Square Theatre until 21 May. Tickets Here.

Monday, May 16, 2016

'A Secret Life' at Theatre503, 13th May 2016

Monday, May 16, 2016 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Being privy to someone's innermost thoughts is the ultimate in voyeurism. What strangeness would you could peer inside the head of random strangers. Degrading sexual fantasies? Manic religious bliss? Deep seated misanthropy or simply an idle pondering on whether to order pizza or curry for dinner?

A Secret Life by Baseless Fabric attempts to simulate this most intimate of insights. Before the show you download an app onto your smart phone, which allows the theatre to play audio files through your headphones. Once that's set up you hit the streets of Battersea and meet Audrey (Maggie Turner), a septuagenarian grandmother and lifetime resident of the neighbourhood.

The app provides a window into her internal monologue as she ambles through the parks and streets. Places she passes conjure up memories: walking through Battersea Park she talks about the heavy snow in 1947, or the first place she kissed a boy or had a miserable job. The tone is melancholic and we quickly surmise that Audrey is not a particularly happy person.

Combining promenade theatre and technology like this is a fantastic idea for a production and, as someone who craves new experiences, I’d been looking forward to immensely. To me the dramatic possibilities of using an app to hear a character’s inner thoughts are obvious and exciting. Imagine watching an on stage dramatised marital argument and instantly being able to find out the neuroses, secrets and lies that're fuelling it. 

The show started promisingly. In a group of 15 we filed out to the junction outside the theatre, waiting for the show to begin. An old man in eccentric cod-military dress and a Chairman Mao cap wandered past us - was he part of the show? Was everyone? Soon enough Audrey showed up and we began silently following her at a slight distance as she began her perambulation.

The uniqueness of the situation carries the show quite a long way. Audrey munches on a Mars bar and rebelliously thinks that no-one can stop her doing this now, gazes into a churchyard and remembers that it was once full of flowers and cynically judges the 'yummy Mummies' sweatily emerging from Battersea Yoga. 

But predictably, the novelty soon wears off  and you're faced with an experience that feels pretty much like you're taking a stroll while listening to a Radio 4 afternoon drama. Maggie Turner gets a couple of moments where she wistfully stares at something, but due to the fact that we're usually directly behind her we can't see her emoting, which somewhat disconnects the audio we're hearing from the person we're watching.

Worse, while I can't argue that Tamara Micner's script is evocative and detailed, it doesn't really go anywhere, is firmly stuck in a downer gear and (though I hate to use this word) is a teensy bit boring. Given that we're hearing the character's thoughts it's easy to relate to Audrey, but frankly there are times where the show is doing a strikingly accurate simulation of being stuck in conversation with a nice old lady on the bus. She's personable enough, but the cycle of "of course, we didn’t have X in those days..." gets a bit repetitive.

The show eventually leads us into a pub, where where we observe Audrey and her granddaughter Ruby (Phoebe McIntosh), where they chat about exam pressure and her parent’s alcoholic bickering. Perhaps compounded by the onset of technical issues due to a sudden lack of mobile signal, the finale confused the hell out of me. During this conversation the audio switches between the conversation the two are having and Audrey's thoughts; it's difficult to follow and feels like a breach of 'rules' of the play. McIntosh and Turner do an impressive job of lipsyncing to this dialogue, but it's difficult to follow the thread of the scene or characters, which terminates abruptly and confusingly (marking the end of the play)

By the time that happened I was pretty nonplussed with the whole affair. Essentially A Secret Life feels more like a prototype for a future show than a complete performance. But even beyond that, it's just not a hugely compelling piece of drama. I can't fault the performers or the assistants that guide the audience through parks or over roads, but I found myself wanting something a little more dynamic rather than a largely humourless trudge with a depressed 71 year old.

Experiences like A Secret Life  are going to be the future of theatre. Immersive theatre doesn't look like it's going to abate anytime soon, and combining fleet-footed responsiveness, personalised dramatic experiences and new(ish) technology will create a bold new world of plays that are as much influenced by Skyrim as they are Shakespeare.

The future is bright, but in the present A Secret Life is sadly more a great idea than a great play. 


A Secret Life was part of the Wandsworth Fringe.

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