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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

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

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

Pebbles reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photographs by Gregory Hicks.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Review: 'Insignificance' at the Arcola Theatre, 23rd October 2017

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Insignificance reviewed by David James

Rating: 3 Stars

Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joe McCarthy walk into a hotel room. Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. First performed in 1982 (and adapted into a 1985 movie), Terry Johnson's Insignificance imagines a fictional encounter between the 20th century's twin ideals of beauty and brains, with the shadow of government persecution, nuclear war and the dehumanising effects of celebrity hanging over them.

We meet Einstein (Simon Rouse) working away at his theories in a New York hotel room. The action kicks off when McCarthy rudely intrudes and begins non-too-subtly grilling him on what his testimony will be. Soon after his departure, Marilyn Monroe (Alice Bailey Johnson) arrives, fresh from filming her iconic skirt blowing in the air scene on the corner of Lexington Avenue. Thousands gathered to get a look at her legs, to the intense displeasure of her then-husband, ballplayer Joe DiMaggio (Oliver Hemborough).

Johnson's play gets its kicks from pairing these people off against one another and continually shuffling them into different configurations. Each character embodies primal forces: intelligence, beauty, power and strength, and each jockeys for a prime position throughout the play's ponderous yet pointed spiels on relativity, celebrity and dignity.

Insignificance is a curiously meandering piece of drama, content to sit back and see what happens when these characters rub up against one another. Some tension is provided by Einstein's impending appearance before HUAC, but for long stretches of the play this fades into the background and (given that we know the real-life history) the conclusion isn't really in doubt.

What remains is a pleasant but light play in which the primary pleasure comes from watching friendly old Einstein dealing with a frayed Monroe with grandfatherly kindness. The obvious highlight comes early on, when Monroe wants to prove to Einstein that she's not just a pretty face and delivers an energetic and accurate explanation of relativity via toy trains, Mickey and Donald and a couple of balloons. 

Other than that, Insignificance is a comedy that gently amuses rather than makes you actually laugh. It feels a bit like something you'd catch on a rainy Sunday afternoon on Channel 4 - untaxing, easy-going and basically good-natured, but not exactly going to set anyone's world on fire.

Don't get me wrong, there is some meat on these bones - the play has quite a lot to say on Einstein's guilt at contributing to nuclear weapons development, Monroe's fractious relationship with her public persona, DiMaggio's masculinity and McCarthy's bizarre self-centred egomania - but these strands never quite bind together into coherence. 

All this makes it hardly a chore to watch, especially when it comes to the cast. Performing Einstein or Monroe is a tough job for any actor; they're both so firmly established in the public consciousness that even an accuracy can feel like caricature. But Bailey Johnson and Rouse both elevate the characters beyond mere mimicry and find their kernel of basic, empathetic humanity.

There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours at the theatre than Insignificance. It's a nicely turned out, well-performed play with a smattering of successful moments and some interesting (but fuzzy) things to say about the world (I guess it has relevance to contemporary events if you squint a bit). Fun, but hardly essential.

Insignificance is at the Arcola until 18 November. Tickets here.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Review: 'Incoming / Exodus' at Camden People's Theatre, 18th October 2017

Thursday, October 19, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Incoming/Exodus reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

It's easy to watch politicians from the sidelines and think you could do better, especially given the shambolic state of the current bunch of bastards. You look at governmental disasters like universal credit, disability means testing or cruel sanctioning of jobseekers and wonder whether those involved are malicious or just incompetent (or both). Yup, if I were in their shoes, I'd definitely do better.

Well, now you're given the chance, courtesy of The Lab Collective's Incoming / Exodus. This interactive show (it bills itself as immersive, but I think this is stretching it a little bit) invites the audience to represent the London Borough of Camden and choose who's to be resident here. We begin by being divided into north, south, east and west districts, then we're asked to nominate a councillor to represent us, and given quick overviews of applicants who want to live in our borough.

These range from a professor of Islamic Studies who cannot teach under a repressive regime, a mother hoping to take advantage of Camden's excellent education reputation, a Russian genderqueer journalist who doesn't feel safe, a young Portuguese mechanic "who'll do anything for his brother" and so on. Each is ranked, Top Trumps style, based on what they can bring to Camden and what Camden will have to do for them. But we can only take so many new residents and the clock is ticking. What do we do?

Performed/wrangled by Matthew Flacks and Amelia Vernede, Incoming / Exodus is a chaotic and lively show that sometimes teeters on the edge of absurdity. The audience is invited to interject at any moment to quiz the cast and councillors on their decisions, the rules under which we must operate and all manner of nitpicking minutia (the oddest being when someone argues that "paedophiles just can't help themselves"). I'll say this though, if you've ever attended a local council meeting or some kind of community forum, you'll recognise that the show does an uncanny job in recreating the febrile, frustrating inertia of group-based decision making.

What comes out of this tangle of opinions and egos is fascinating stuff. The applicants are blank canvases - we get just a brief paragraph about who they are and a couple of meaningless numbers - but upon this, the overwhelmingly white, middle-class audience projects a mountain of assumptions and ideas onto them, essentially inventing people whole-cloth to argue over. 

For my money, the best thing about Incoming/Exodus is the way it outlines an immoral system that reduces human beings to a set of stats (almost exactly the tactics of the current Tory government wrt to benefits means testing and immigration criteria) and then shows how, given a sniff of power, a group of London liberals will happily participate in said system without making any serious effort to reform it. Granted, there were some rumblings of breaking away from the system and finding a better procedure, but they're almost immediately silenced by a familiar nod to security.

It adds up to a fine demonstration of people's moral malleability, reminding me a bit of the famous Milgram experiment where authority figures talked 'normal' people into administering (what they thought were) fatal electric shocks to volunteers. The sting in the tail of all this is Flacks ending the show with "you had the opportunity to change things. You missed it. Maybe next time...".

Incoming/Exodus is a bold achievement in political theatre, successful in getting people to behave counter to their beliefs without them ever realising it. But then, the show rests so much on the audience that every single performance has the potential to produce an entirely different result - from bovine conformity right through to full-blown rebellion. Do you see injustice in the world and feel a burning desire to change things? If so, get a ticket to this and see if you really could. 

The answer might surprise you.

Incoming/Exodus is at the Camden People's Theatre until 21 Oct. Tickets here.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Review: 'Ink' at the Duke of York Theatre, 3rd October 2017

Thursday, October 5, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Ink reviewed by David James

Rating: 4 Stars

I hate The Sun. It's a tumour at the heart of British discourse: a lying, hateful and occasionally criminal publication whose mission appears to be to keep the working class under the thumb of their Conservative masters. It absolutely deserves its nickname: The Scum.

So why, in James Graham's Ink, did I find myself occasionally rooting for its success? Set in the late 60s, we begin with Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) eager to expand his British newspaper business. He already owns the Sunday paper, The News of the World and is on the hunt for a daily publication. He finds a promising candidate in The Sun, a failing Labour-backing daily with a dismal circulation.

Murdoch aims to wipe The Sun's slate clean and produce a newspaper that'll blow the doors out of the calcified and deferential British press. His primary partner in this soon-to-be editor Larry Lamb (Richard Coyle), who's nursing a grudge against his former employers at The Daily Mirror. Fuelled both by the freedom to create whatever newspaper he wants and the challenge to make it the most read paper in Britain by the end of the year, Lamb assembles a 'dirty dozen' gang of disgruntled journalists and launches a paper that screams onto newsstands with the headline "HORSE DOPE SCANDAL".

What follows is a multi-levelled dissection of what The Sun really means. It bills itself as reflecting what the British public want, and not what some haughty establishment thinks they should want. So the new Sun is funny, cheeky, sex-obsessed, sporty and is constantly giving away freebies. Both Murdoch and Lamb measure a newspaper's success by its sales figures, and their formula soon pays off gangbusters. But the wrinkle at the core of Ink is the difference between reflecting the existing desires of the readership and creating new and dangerous desires that must be fulfilled.

Ink shows us a newspaper caught in a Red Queen's race: it must keep running as fast as it can in order to stay in the same place, and continually crank up the controversy and excitement in order to sate its increasingly voracious readership. Though set nearly a half-century in the past, we're still actively going through the same process today.

What's especially interesting about Ink is the way it makes the beginning of Murdoch's dominance of the British media exciting. It's incredibly difficult not to sympathise with him when he rails against the closed doors of an establishment that thinks it knows best for the British public - best illustrated by his explanation of the planned military coup against Harold Wilson's government. This network of public schoolboys with a narrow view of the world and parochial moralities presents an inviting target, with Ink's Murdoch wholly righteous in his attempts to demolish it.

Throughout the play, there is much talk of The Sun 'disrupting' Fleet Street, the word foreshadowing of the disruption concept we see all around us emanating from Silicon Valley, and seen in companies like Uber, Netflix, Airbnb and Amazon, all of whom have torn up the rulebooks of existing business structures. Watching the paranoiac and desperate reactions of the competing newspapers to The Sun's brash take-no-prisoners style is what you imagine going on in the boardrooms of dinosauric companies around the world.

This trickles down into a wider overview of free-market capitalism: a creed that runs through the marrow of Rupert Murdoch's bones. He is almost an embodiment of capitalism, constantly seeking to expand into new markets, create new products and expand his powers. Some of Ink's most interesting moments come when Murdoch's economics clash with his morality - finding himself momentarily lost when his disgust at the first Page 3 girl battles against the inarguable fact of boosted readership. Bubbling away in the background is Murdoch's future victory over the printer's union, his full-blooded support of Thatcherism and the cooling of his revolutionary fervour as he supercedes the old establishment with a fresh one of his own creation.

So yeah, there's a lot going on in Ink. I loved it: it's funny, informative and bristling with things to say. Performances are uniformly excellent, with Bertie Carvel's three-dimensional and vividly complex Murdoch my highlight. Then you've got Bunny Christie's vertiginous set, an Escher-like mountain of fag-stained desks and tatty office chairs, with the liquid metal industrial printing presses 
Satanically lurking below. What else can I say? It's brill, go check it out.

Ink is booking at the Duke of York Theatre until 6th January. Press tickets provided by

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: 'Toxic Avenger The Musical' at the Arts Theatre, 2nd October 2017

Tuesday, October 3, 2017 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Toxic Avenger the Musical reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Ah Troma, my old friend. For a kid growing up in the 90s Troma Studios films were like crack: gross-out bonkers B-movies with a loveable punky aesthetic. Get hold of one of these videotapes and you felt like you were doing something illicit. I adored their trash classics, having particular soft spots for Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Rabid Grannies, The Class of Nuke 'Em High and, my favourite, Tromeo and Juliet (in which Juliet is accidentally transformed into a hideous cow monster with a three-foot penis).

But you can't talk Troma without talking Toxie. First introduced in 1984's The Toxic Avenger, this environmentally conscious mutant superhero parody gave Troma a rare bona fide hit, launching a film franchise, a children's cartoon series (I had a Toxic Avenger action figure that palled around with my Ninja Turtles) and, in 2008, a stage musical written by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (Bon Jovi's keyboardist).

Now Toxic Avenger The Musical has opened at the Arts Theatre, hot off for last year's production at the Southwark Playhouse, and it's pretty damn great. Hewing pretty closely to the original movie, we meet the twisted inhabitants of Tromaville, New Jersey, where glowing nuclear waste oozes from pipes, the tap water is flammable and the fish are deformed monstrosities. Dorky wimp Melvin (Mark Anderson) and his crush, blind librarian Sarah (Emma Salvo) scratch out a living in his nightmare. In an effort to impress Sarah, Melvin decides to fight the town's pollution, threatening to expose the Mayor's (Natalie Hope) corruption. Instead, she pays some hired goons to dunk him in mutagenic goo, but rather than kill him it merely transforms him into... The Toxic Avenger!

What follows is appropriately Troma-y descent into bad taste, full of gags that dare you to be offended, cranked-up sexuality, ludicrously broad stereotypes and Itchy and Scratchy-esque violence. As the director's note in the programme explains, the West End is a very safe place full of shows that, hoping to appeal to the widest possible audience, are desperate not to offend or challenge. The consequence is bland, safe sludgy theatre loaded with saccharine morals.

Toxic Avenger the Musical certainly isn't that. For example, there's a constant rain of jokes at the expense of a blind character that had me guiltily laughing. That air of 'should I be laughing at this' continues throughout the show - landing pretty much at same tone as the average episode of South Park. But this show gets away with it, partially because it's always 'punching up'.

Troma itself is an underdog movie studio and Toxie is an underdog superhero. The musical runs with this baton, painting itself as an underdog musical and repeatedly contrasting itself against its glossy West End neighbours. It trips itself up a little by being so musically, performatively and aesthetically solid, but by and large, the show still feels like a scrappy, homegrown passion project with a gleefully twisted sensibility. It is after all, rare to see a West End show in which the moral conclusion is that we should decapitate polluting industrialists, not to mention one in which a man's intestines are played like a guitar.

Anyway, it's easy to like a show with such a toe-tapping soundtrack - it's always a good sign when you can't get the songs out of your head the next day. Bryan's Bon Jovi heritage shines through in most of the numbers, ranging from 80s inspired hair metal to demented power ballads, all incredibly dense with lyrical gags. 

The energetic cast also excels. Highlights are Natalie Hope's ultraslutty mayor, forever ready to tear her dress upon in a display of weaponised sexuality, Emma Salvo's hilarious commitment to stage blindness and impressive set of pipes, and the double act of Che Francis and Oscar Conlon-Morrey in a variety of supporting roles. But it's Mark Anderson's Toxie that'll stick in my mind - a winning combo of charisma and costume that perfectly brings the character to life.

By now you can probably tell that I enjoyed the hell out of this show. I often feel out of step when it comes to musical theatre - when other critics praise absolute guff like Braille Legacy or Titanic: The Musical (not a parody) I end up scratching my head - but this is my kinda night out. All hail Troma! All hail Toxie! May Toxic Avenger the Musical play long and loud!

Toxic Avenger the Musical is at the Arts Theatre until 3rd December.

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