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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: 'User Not Found' at The CoffeeWorks Project, 21st May 2019

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

User Not Found reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

If I had realised in advance what User Not Found was about I probably wouldn't have gone. The show, written by Chris Goode and performed by Terry O'Donovan, ponders what how we should handle the digital footprint of a dead loved one - something I have recent and painful experience of. But here we are and I guess I'm going to have to take the bull by the horns.

Both set in and staged in a modern cafe, we meet Terry sipping his peppermint tea and observing the world around him. He ascribes identities to the other patrons, idly fantasising about their miniature dramas. Early on, we learn that Terry's ex-boyfriend Luka has died, an event which propels the next 90 minutes of drama. But there's a wrinkle, prior to his death Luka named Terry as his 'digital executor'. This means that a company called Fidelis is now asking him to sort through years of social media posts to decide what to keep and what to delete.

It's a very relevant topic, amplified in effectiveness by Daphna Attias' excellent direction and her team of audio/video artists and technicians. The audience shares tables in the cafe and hears the production through a set of wireless headphones. These play the live audio of O'Donovan's performance but also mix in various other multimedia elements (music, sound effects and so on). 

In addition, everyone is given a smartphone at the beginning of the show. This displays what Terry is seeing on his phone, as well as showing us abstract video sequences that the monologue refers to. On top of that, each table has a networked lamp and under-lighting allowing the technicians to dramatically light the space. 

For User Not Found to work, all of these systems have to work in concert with one another. If one fails they may as well all have failed. Given that a decent rule of thumb in theatre is not to overcomplicate things, it's a minor miracle that this play functions so smoothly and is a testament to the blood, sweat and tears (and money) poured into it by everyone at production company Dante or Die.

The result is worth the effort. Having a smartphone in your hands and watching it navigate itself through social media feeds is a disconcerting experience, and shows us the world through its character's eyes in a way that other shows can't conceive. A less ambitious company might have simply projected this onto the rear of a stage, but cradling an individual device in your hands builds a connection to the contents that's viscerally real.

Maybe a touch too real for me - but I guess this makes me a particularly well-placed critic to judge this show. I thought the way it dealt with picking through the digital detritus of a dead partner was painfully accurate. Figuring out what to do with a person's online presence after they've died isn't something that previous generations have had to deal with, but as the years tick by the amount of data generated by an individual over the course of their lives will grow exponentially. So what's the right thing to do? Do you consider what their wishes might have been, decide on the naked truth or simply mould the person who their friends and family wanted them to be?

Perhaps sometime soon there'll be an accepted way to approach this conundrum, but right now we're groping in the dark. This curation of a person's life is not easy: pruning away the stuff that should remain private and promoting elements in order to create an idealised reality that (after a hundred small choices) can suddenly seem quite artificial. This process is an emotional minefield that the show captures perfectly.

It also understands the less-considered online aspects of a person: with the show showing data on fitness, banking and other apps that aren't necessarily broadcast to the world. Data like this can be a kind of ticking timebomb - just the other day I turned on an old Xbox to find a personalised 3D avatar of my dead partner smiling and waving back at me. Fun times...

I left the show feeling really goddamned miserable, but I guess that's testament to how well it reflected my own experiences back at me. Intelligent and emotionally resonant theatre like this is the kind of stuff that makes seeing all the less-great stuff worthwhile. Huge credit to Terry O'Donovan for cramming so much into his personable yet scarred performance, and everyone at Dante or Die should be proud of themselves for what they've accomplished here. 

User Not Found is at The CoffeeWorks Project until June 2nd. Tickets here.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Review: 'Witt 'n Camp' at the Soho Theatre, 16th May 2019

Friday, May 17, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars
Quarter past ten at night turns out to be a very good slot for a Soho comedy/cabaret show. The tourists have scuttled back to their hotels, the clubs are yet to kick into gear, and there's enough time to grab a decent dinner and a few laugh-loosening drinks in. All of which works in Witt 'n Camp's favour. 

Witt 'n Camp are Charlie Howitt and Holly Campbell, who are the full entertainment package: singing, dancing, telling jokes and performing like old school vaudevillians. They serve up a finely tuned hour of entertainment, consisting of songs that are comedy sketches, comedy sketches that are songs and a lot that resists easy categorisation.

The initial impression you get is "what the fuck is going on"? The show opens with the pair in burly policeman costumes stalking around the stage and fighting one another, then mildly antagonising the audience (sit in the front row at your peril). Things only get stranger from there: the pair morphing into sexually unfulfilled Irish chickens, strangely louche hippies and bitchy opera divas.

But though the scope is wide, their talents are consistently (and occasionally jaw-droppingly) impressive. Their opera divas sing with beautiful precision and skill, managing to convert Nicki Minaj's machine-gun pop masterpiece Super Bass into an opera number. These moments and the other numbers in the same vein are some seriously eye-catching work, perfectly showcasing their vocal and creative talents.

Beyond that, things get head-scratchingly odd. There's a multi-part saga about bored and murderous cannibalistic chickens that's set to lilting folk strings, featuring the laconic pair squatting down to squeeze out eggs. One smashes and, staring at the gooey albumen dripping between her fingers, the chicken says "I don't know how I feel about this". Maybe it's the late hour and maybe it's a mildly soused audience, but you just kinda go with it.

At times Witt 'n Camp reminded me of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie's Flight of the Conchords. Like them, they display an almost infuriatingly natural grasp of melody and lyricism, combined with a refreshing absence of cynicism and a willingness to get silly without any ironic winking at the audience. As such they're extremely easy to like, which makes for an hour that goes down very smoothly.

That said, if there were a bit more connective tissue between the various segments the show could really lift off. It seems a bit ungrateful to complain about 'merely' receiving an entertaining show, but Witt 'n Camp come across as if they're searching for a thesis to bring together these disparate ideas and characters. Then again, perhaps the scrappy and rough around the edges style is what makes the audience instinctively like the pair so much.

Howitt and Campbell are working from a solid bedrock of talent - whatever they turn their hands to will be, at bare minimum, barrels of fun. 

Witt 'n Camp is at the Soho Theatre until 18 May. Tickets here.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: 'Little Death Club' at Underbelly Festival, 15th May 2019

Thursday, May 16, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars
Sometimes all you need is fire, sex and alcohol. Bernie Dieter's Little Death Club provides all three in the form of a slick, stylish, satirical and salaciously wonderful 'kabarett' that delights with polished dangerousness.

The core of the show, is Dieter herself, looking every inch the distillation of Weimar style, as if she's wandered off the set of a particularly stylish silent movie. She behaves on stage as if she was born on one, sinuously prowling around on spike-studded heels in a feathered black bodysuit. It's equal parts sexy and scary, and if (to be honest, it's probably when) she turns her gaze to you it's like being frozen in the headlights of an oncoming 18-wheeler.

Though there's a warning on the door about fire being used in the show, the real danger comes as Dieter casts her gaze around the audience and finds unsuspecting men to single out and charm. Ordinarily, I'd say if you're shy and awkward stay away from the front row, but here even hiding in the back rows isn't necessarily a defence (as the guy who ended up with her crotch being ground in his face discovered).

For me, the thrill at being prey to a predatory performer is exciting, fun and has provided some of my favourite experiences in theatre over the years. So when I was inevitably singled out for during a song punctuated by yells of "EAT MY PUSSY!" I enjoyed the hell out of that adrenaline rush. 

But though this is very much Dieter's show, she's also the Professor X to a wonderfully weird collection of misfits. These include wonderfully gloomy mime Josh Glanc, who bemoans the lack of reality inherent to his art, wishing that one day the box he could escape from would be a real one. We enjoy Myra DuBois: "The Songbird of South Yorkshire", a classic drag queen who I don't think it's possible to not find funny.

Then there's an extraordinary fire show from Kitty Bang Bang. This begins promisingly, with two assistants quietly appearing near the front of the stage with blankets, presumably to put her out if she ignites. I've seen a whole bunch of fire performances before, but what she does here beyond my understanding. I know the basic rules of how these acts work - that heat and flame travel upward and so on. But fire is hot - there is no trick that makes fire not hot. So I have absolutely no idea how she manages to stand with flames flickering from her lips without burning herself. Maybe she really is a mutant?

Similarly mesmeric is Beau Sargent's contortion and acrobatics act. Sargeant has one of the most beautiful bodies I've seen on stage, his fat-free musculature making him appear as a streamlined art deco sculpture. There's a simmering sexual androgyny in the way he writhes and twists, eventually spinning high above us in precise whirls from a hoop. It's breathtaking stuff.

But my fave thing in the night was Fancy Chance's dream-like hair suspension act. I've seen a bunch of these before and while they're impressive, seeing someone simply gracefully enduring pain just isn't enough. But Fancy Chance provides that something else with an outright beautiful routine based around a flowing dress with wings. Here she swoops, glides and soars above the audience, the breeze created by her wings gently buffetting our faces. This is all soundtracked to a bass-heavy song that slaps extremely hard. It also has an incredible final flourish that I will not spoil here. When I look back on this show, I feel it'll be her act that lodges firmly in the mind.

Towards the end of the show we get a moment of insight and perspective. Dieter reminds us that the original Weimar cabaret (and indeed, the Weimar Republic itself) was squashed by the rise of fascists. She talks of the increasingly scary world beyond the confines of this tent - hinting that history may be repeating itself. 

But if the world really is ending, I can't think of any party I'd rather be at than this one. Little Death Club is one hell of an hour's entertainment - worth the price of admission many times over. 

Little Death Club is at Udderbelly Festival until 23 June.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review: 'Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself' at Ovalhouse, 13th May 2019

Tuesday, May 14, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars
Who could resist a title like Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself? Written by Bella Heesom (and performed by her and Sara Alexander) the show is about a woman's relationship with her genitals and finds its subject perched on the intersection of biological urges and societal pressure. 

The basic structure is an (I assume) semi-autobiographical tale which begins with Heesom's earliest sexual awakenings and takes us to the present day, stopping off along the way at key moments that shaped her sexuality. That's overlaid with a dialogue between her brain and her clitoris, through which we observe how societal conditioning has messed up her capacity to experience true pleasure.

The show wears its heart on its sleeve, at times preaching directly to the audience about feminine empowerment, anger at patriarchal expectations and an often incandescent sense of fury that the centre of a woman's sexual pleasure is stigmatised, mocked and belittled. The rear of the stage is taken up by a gradually evolving projection that sums up the status quo they're battling against, showing slogans like "Female Genitals are Gross", "You Are A Sex Object" and "The Female Orgasm Is A Bonus"

The show is aimed squarely at cis women (at straight Western cis women if you wanted to get precise), with the majority female audience cheering and clapping at the more insightful lines of dialogue. But, and I cannot stress this enough, Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva... is so good that audiences of all genders and sexual preferences can and should check this out. 

The quality of the writing is superb, the structure of the show is tuned to perfection, the production values are well above average. Best of all, it's absolutely hilarious. Heesom's cerebral and nervy character is in a classic straight-man/comic partnership with Alexander's innocently and (adorably) upbeat clitoris. The show is funny to a level that the pair often have to wait for the audience to finish laughing before they continue - always a good sign.

Beyond the laughs, the show has an emotional core which transcends a simple polemic against the miseries of the patriarchy and becomes something more universally uplifting. I don't want to diminish the show's laser-precise focus on female sexuality, but no matter who you are you'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel a rush of emotions at the show's remarkable climactic scenes. 

These theoretically are sex-positive times. Open a glossy lifestyle magazine or Sunday broadsheet and you're likely to find columnists espousing sexual freedom and female emancipation. But though things are undeniably an improvement on the past, there's still a huge culture of prudishness and shame caked on top of the ways we approach sex and specifically female genitalia - I mean, why is a "cunt" the absolute worst thing you can call someone?

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva... (and other similarly inclined cultural objects) are gradually chipping away at all this. Late in the show, the title is explained: it's a line from a poem about 4000-year-old Mesopotamian sex goddess Inanna, whose vulva was widely revered as a holy place. It's a story reminds us that the stigma we see all around us isn't inevitable. Changes like this don't happen overnight, but this production is contributing to a slow shift in perception for the better.

Perhaps there's an argument that shows like this are preaching to the converted. Judging from the audience when I was there, people attending this will be politically switched on and smart women. The people actively promoting the status quo wouldn't go near a fringe show with a name like Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself in a million years. But, Heesom argues that women must not just defeat the misogynist leering at them from a building site, they must also evict the one society has lodged in their own heads.

I had a great time. Heesom is a genuinely insightful writer (I similarly enjoyed her previous show My World Has Exploded A Little Bit), her partnership with Sara Alexander fizzes with comic chemistry and Donnacadh O’Briain’s direction is fantastic. It's the full package and is a show destined to go far. 

Rejoicing At Her Wondrous Vulva the Young Woman Applauded Herself is at Ovalhouse until 25 May. Tickets here.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Review: 'Fuck You Pay Me' at The Bunker Theatre, 9th May 2019

Friday, May 10, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Fuck You Pay Me can quite easily be summarised with the placards held aloft at the end of the show: "NO SHAME" and "SEX WORK IS REAL WORK". The two (entirely correct) statements finish off an energetic and exhilarating night of theatre - a barbed and punky manifesto that makes the argument that sex workers of all stripes deserve respect, provides a guide for customers on how to behave around them, and a rebuttal to the argument that this is an inherently degrading job.

The main course is a lengthy monologue written and performed by Joana Nastari, but the stage is set by two guest performances. First up is Esmeralda, a stripper from San Diego who talks about her most embarrassing moment on stage before launching into a very touching explanation that stripping is the only thing she has found that can reliably alleviate her anxiety, depression and PTSD. She's a charismatic stage presence, making her proclamation that her work has made her into a strong woman a simple statement of fact. 

Then there's a neat performance set to Prince, which was fun.

After that we're into Fuck You Pay Me proper. This monologue spans the Saturday night of stripper Holly/Bea (Joana Nastari). The night begins with her arriving early at the club and preparing for her shift and concludes with the church bells ringing on Sunday morning. Sandwiched between this is a woozy cocktail of hedonism, drugs, booze, horrible men, cynicism, brief joy and paranoia. It's scored by a fantastic live mix by Kitt Proudfoot (who also plays Holly's phone).

Nastari's writing is impressively vivid from start to finish. She's got a fantastic gift for capturing the full sensory experience: be it the intensely gross 'shoe graveyard' in the changing rooms, the confectionary tang of Britney Spears' brand perfume or the sensation of a man's fat fingers creeping up your inner thigh. 

Holly's night proceeds in peaks and troughs, filled with descriptions of the clientele that come in through the doors. None of these men come off particularly well, with most of them apparently being posh city traders who spout patronising garbage like "you're too pretty to work in a place like this?" or "you're far too intelligent to work here". 

There's also a common thread of men who simply don't understand the transactive nature of their interactions with Holly. She will politely engage with whatever rubbish they're spouting in the hope of getting them to agree to a private dance (where she makes most of her money), but in the end, they casually say they're just happy to chat. Here she rolls her eyes and scoots off to find someone more generous with deeper pockets.

Much of Fuck You Pay Me is about revealing the reality behind this variety of sex work and the show proves as educational as it is entertaining. We sense the camaraderie between the women working there, each bringing their own personality and style to their stage personas. This supportive sisterhood alters the balance of power within the club. The male patrons feel powerful and in control, whereas in actuality they're stuck in a flesh and alcohol powered machine designed to empty their pockets.

If women find working in places like this empowering, then I'll take that at face value. I'm not going to pretend to be an authority on strip clubs and the people that work there, and even after this show (and reading the excellent zine-style programme) I still don't quite get it. 

My reaction to Nastari's monologue was to conclude that strip clubs (or at least the one in this monologue) are deeply, deeply depressing places where horrible men congregate to treat the women working there like shit. It looks like an unpleasant environment where men can pay to regress into 1950s-era sexism - or as the show views it a 'babysitting service for grown men'. And while I guess the idea of paying for someone to act interested in you isn't a million miles away from a customer service job, it's still a bit sad.

But hey, though these clubs are not for me they aren't going away anytime soon, so the show's call for the women working there to be treated with respect and without stigma is entirely correct. Throughout the show we hear how negative stereotypes affect these women: mainly that only the most desperate and lowly of women would consider this as a job, combined with a Puritan sensibility that this work makes you inherently 'unclean'.

As this night demonstrates, defeating that stigma is a long way off. But if fizzingly exciting, imaginative and deeply likeable shows like Fuck You Pay Me are anything to go by, the momentum is with them. 

Fuck You Pay Me is at the Bunker Theatre until May 19th. Tickets here.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Review: 'Don't Look Away' at The Pleasance, 8th May 2019

Thursday, May 9, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

The consensus is in: everything is terrible. The headlines on any given day talk of environmental catastrophe, political paralysis, the rise of the far right and technology having broken our brains. What can an individual do in the face of all that? 

That's the question at the heart of Grace Chapman's Don't Look Away. Set in 2015, the play is about the complex relationship between Syrian asylum seeker Adnan (Robert Hannouch), middle-aged cleaner Cath (Julia Barrie) and her student son Jamie (Brian Fletcher). 

We open with Adnan's first moments in the UK, walking into a Bradford community centre to try and claim asylum. He encounters Cath and, after a mutually suspicious exchange, she offers him a bed at hers for the night. This soon turns into a permanent arrangement, with Adnan occupying Cath's absent son Jamie's bedroom as the Home Office processes his asylum claim. But things become complicated when Jamie unexpectedly returns from university.

Each character then spends the play wobbling along individual moral tightropes. Cath must juggle her responsibilities as a mother against a moral compass telling her to help Adnan much as she can. Adnan is stuck in legal limbo until his claim is processed and fears he is a freeloader, while becoming increasingly paranoid about family members left behind in Calais. Jamie is peeved that Adnan is usurping his mother's affections and is selfishly concerned about his financial drain on the family.

Cath's cramped flat ends up as a political microcosm of the country. We know the moral thing is to help those fleeing their destroyed country, but what (if any) are the limits to which we can assist? Could said help end up stoking resentment and potentially make the situation worse? These aren't questions with easy answers, and Don't Look Away's choice to leave its narrative open-ended is probably a smart one. The heart of all this is summarised by Jamie's rant that his mother's help is like:
"Throwing a punch at a tidal wave. It's not going to make it stop or slow down. It's just going to engulf you and me until there's nothing left."
But while Don't Look Away provides a lot of political and moral fat to chew on, there are a number of deficiencies that cause it to stumble. Prime among them is that Adnan isn't particularly plausible, particularly in the early scenes when he's just arrived in the country. Here he's presented as a goofy slapstick moron, bizarrely attempting to claim asylum from a woman cleaning a community centre. He's a refugee, not an idiot.

This is compounded by Hannouch's performance, which pinballs between emotions so rapidly it's difficult to get a read on the character. That the play can't quite get Adnan right leaves the character as a mere catalyst for the mother/son conflict between Cath and Jamie. This is unfortunate, and while I can understand why the story is told from Cath's perspective it'd have been far more powerful seeing all this through Adnan's eyes.

On top of that, it's a fairly straightforwardly staged and naturalistic play on an abstract set. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but more realistic set design could have helped amplify the claustrophobia that the script seems to want to create.

Don't Look Away has its heart in the right place and is only going to get more relevant. As the effects of climate change ramp up we're going to see an increasing number of refugees fleeing countries that have descended into chaos due to famines and drought. The issues presented here are ones that we should all grapple with. But sadly, as a play, it's lacking.

Don't Look Away is at The Pleasance until 18 May. Tickets here.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Review: 'Neck or Nothing' at The Pleasance, 1st May 2019

Thursday, May 2, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Who would have thought a play about an eccentric inventor constructing a bear-proof suit would be so depressing? Fledgling Theatre's Neck or Nothing (co-written and directed by Christopher Neels and Callum Cameron) is loosely based on the life of Canadian inventor Troy Hurtubise, most famous for his appearance in Peter Lynch's 1996 documentary Project Grizzly. That film followed Hurtubise as he constructed his "Ursus Mark VI", an impregnable suit of armour that would allow him to research wild bears up close without them being able to harm him.

Neck or Nothing transplants this story to England, where Hurtubise analogue Jens (James Murfitt) lives in a village with his wife Martha (Katy Daghorn) and brother Frank (David North). Martha and Frank believe in Jens' talent and support his inventing, sure that one day all his tinkering will pay off. The play commences with the family finances becoming strained, with Frank informing Jens that if he's going to make it big now is the time.

And so, with a declaration that he works best under pressure, Jens launches into a project to make an invulnerable bear-proof suit of armour. Sure, it's pointed out that there are no wild bears in England, but who can really say for sure? Meanwhile, he continues to bleed money, with the pressure beginning to stack up on his wife and brother.

It's a curious tale of ambition, talent and delusion - a man obsessed with a task that everyone around him can see is completely pointless. But who wants to be the person to step on someone's dreams? 

Neck or Nothing quickly defies expectations that it's going to be a screwball tale about a mad inventor. Instead, we get a fairly complex take on modern masculinity. Throughout the play there's an impressive digital video display by Rachel Sampley that edits together footage from 80s action films, with clips from RoboCop and The Terminator mirroring Jens' desire to become an invincible metal man. We also repeatedly see footage from Rocky from the iconic training sequence of his run through Philadelphia, which demonstrates how Jens wants to be thought of by his small community.

Bubbling underneath all this is that growing realisation that something very bad happened to Jens as a child. He claims to have been menaced by a bear in the woods as a child, but as there are no bears in the UK it seems depressingly logical that something extremely traumatising happened to him at a young age that he cannot process. As the play points out: you can build a suit that renders you impervious to physical harm, but there's no armour that stops existential dread getting in.

Jens' (and by extension Troy Hurtubise's) story makes for an interesting lens to view masculinity through: men who believe they can engineer their way out of their psychological problems rather than confront them. It's notable that the play is supporting men's mental health charity CALMzone, which if nothing else it demonstrates their sincerity. 

But the core story of Jens trying and failing to work through his trauma is so effective that when the focus shifts to the other characters the play suffers. Katy Daghorn is very good as Martha, showing off her talents in an excellent job interview scene that nicely summarises that sinking feeling when you realise you've set your expectations too high. But as good as this scene is, it and her story don't add a huge amount to the play. Cutting a scene as well written performed as the job interview would be a tough call, but the play suffers when the subject of the scene isn't Jens and his invention.

Similarly, there are moments where the comedy and sincerity don't gel together as well as they should. I've got no problem with a bit of tonal whiplash, but occasionally thoughtful moments are punctured by a joke that doesn't quite land (and vice versa).

But Neck or Nothing is a nicely turned out and engaging show. Special credit must go to Sophia Pardon's bear-proof suit of armour, which has a wonderful silhouette and a neat Blue-Peterish design aesthetic. Perhaps it could stand to be trimmed down to a neat festival-pleasing hour rather than the 85-90 minutes it currently runs at, but what's here is good stuff.

Neck or Nothing is at The Pleasance until 4th May. Tickets here.

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