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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review: 'Original Death Rabbit' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 22nd January 2018

Wednesday, January 23, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

"The Internet Makes You Stupid" is the slogan of 1990s era humour site Back when they coined it, the idea was ridiculous. After all, the early online evangelists explained that the world wide web; would make the entirety of human knowledge accessible to everyone. This democratisation would inevitably cause society to move beyond petty ideologies and onward to a utopia of well-informed 'netizens' with a solid grasp on reality.

What the internet actually turned out to be was a fucked up mental bondage machine designed to reinforce prejudices, calcify bizarre beliefs and imprison us within echo chambers that distort the real world while mysterious algorithms try and figure out what we want to buy next. 

Rose Heiney's Original Death Rabbit gets under the skin of our dystopia, condensing the various online eras through a monologue delivered by an unnamed protagonist (played by Kimberley Nixon - who for the sake of disclosure I know personally). 

In the pre-social media 2000s, this character became a meme after inadvertently crashing a funeral while wearing a fuzzy pink bunny onesie. She explains how her photograph launched a tasteless fad of 'death rabbiting', culminating in her being doorstepped by reporters and exposed to merciless online critics who quickly deemed her an "ugly cunt". But by the time Twitter launches, her notoriety mutates into minor online celebrity and sends her spiralling down into social media addiction, anonymous trolling and a desperate need for validation.

Original Death Rabbit covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes: making time for lengthy discussion of Richard Curtis movies; whether it's possible to separate Philip Larkin's sexism and racism from his poetry; the nature of class and racial privilege; exploiting friends and family's lives for creative work; and, building up to a crescendo towards the end, the difficulties of talking about mental health.

As is repeatedly acknowledged in the play, "Mental health is a really difficult issue". It is, and Heiney treats it with empathy overlaid with a deft wit. We hear how the protagonist's father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his 50s, and we see in the behaviour of Nixon's character how it may be hereditary. One of my favourite things in the play is the chicken/egg conundrum between mental health and the internet: does being extremely online exacerbate (or cause) mental health problems, or do mental health problems cause people to retreat to a virtual existence?

There aren't easy answers to questions like these and Original Death Rabbit rightly doesn't attempt to provide them. What it does do is get under the skin of online life: exploring the layers of pseudonyms and characters people interact as, the endorphin rush of having a bona fide celebrity reply to you, the way that real life gently morphs into a series of potential Instagram opportunities and the rush of being able to tell someone you despise to just fucking kill yourself already jeez.

The early internet utopians never saw the Skinner box of social media and algorithm-driven content coming, but if they could have known how much future generations would be infested with brainworms I bet they'd have taken a crowbar to the ARPANET servers, Skynet-style. Or, as the play puts it,
"Thank you, Tim Berners Lee. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I bow down to you the way a dying alcoholic bows down to whoever the fuck first left grapes in a bottle too long."
So yeah, I really liked Original Death Rabbit. It's smart, funny, touching - and genuinely understands the history and culture of the internet in a way that most theatre doesn't. On top of that, Louie Whitmore's set is impressively detailed and allows you to get to know the character before she's set foot on stage. Plus, Kimberley Nixon is great - and I promise I'd say that even if didn't know her.

Watching the play you get to thinking about all the weirdo online shut-ins who spend their days endlessly shitposting. What would their lives have been like if they weren't getting their validation from numbers ticking up on a website? Did so many people hate so much before there was an online void to project their hate into? Let's face it, the internet was a mistake.

Original Death Rabbit is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 9th February. Tickets here.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review: 'The Daughter-In-Law' at the Arcola Theatre, 21st January 2019

Tuesday, January 22, 2019 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Written in 1913, DH Lawrence's The Daughter-In-Law teeters on the precipice of modernity. Set in a Nottinghamshire mining town, its characters unknowingly look down the barrel of the Great War while being rooted in traditions and languages that feel as if they're hearkening back to the Iron Age.

This working-class domestic drama revolves around newlyweds Luther and Minnie (Matthew Barker and Ellie Nun), Luther's brother Joe (Matthew Biddulph) and their mother (Veronica Roberts). A handful of weeks after he's married, Luther is stunned to find out that a drunken encounter with the daughter of Mrs Purdy (Tessa Bell-Briggs) has resulted in a pregnancy.

This chucks a bomb into their ordered world, blasting right through the firmly established social fabric of the mining community. It throws up questions of proprietary in which Luther must grapple with preserving his marriage and doing right by his impending child, with his mother trying her best to navigate a path through it. Meanwhile, Minnie's expectations of what a husband should be are blown to smithereens, throwing Luther's existing flaws into stark relief.

It's a decent story and, after a slightly slow opening scene, keeps the audience engaged. But while the narrative is the engine of the piece, there's an awful lot of interesting stuff going on around it. Most interesting to me was the palpable sense of the modern world struggling to be born. Rumbling away in the background of the story is the miner's discontent, which eventually boils over into a strike. Luther and Joe both participate in this to the point of violence against scabs (or 'blacklegs'), and you sense a burgeoning political consciousness rooted in experience and a sense of injustice rather than dry theory.

Lawrence balances the men's work at the pit with the women's domestic lives at home - each portrayed as strenuous in their own ways. It's a contrast that's neatly conveyed in an early scene in which Luther returns home caked in soot and eats dinner before cleaning up. Face and hands jet black, he looks like a negative image of his wife, who shudders as he breaks bread with his filthy fingers. And yet, for a moment, the pair harmonise with one another - demonstrating an equilibrium between the professional and domestic spheres.

The harmony doesn't last for long. Luther's masculinity comes under threat and Minnie makes a sorta-feminist break for Manchester, from which she returns in an outfit that makes her look like she's arrived from a different century. From this point, the play begins to ponder what men and women truly mean to one another (albeit from a 1913 perspective). Luther and Joe's mother hits the nail on the head when she explains that her love of her sons is balanced against the pain and fear they bring. 

It's a conclusion that feels universal - and despite the play being at a precise point in time and space it appears weirdly ancient. Geoff Hense's low lighting could be dim electric bulbs, gaslights or candles burning in the gloom. Louis Whitmore's set, anchored by a heavy wooden dining table, manages to be both naturalistic and suggestive of vast swathes of historical interior design at a stroke. The costume design, especially of the older women, also feels strangely archaic, with Mrs Purdy's flat leather hat looking like something that could be worn in the medieval era.

And then there's the language. The Daughter-In-Law's programme comes with a glossary helping you decipher the dense dialect. Most of it you can work out from context, but the characters often drop terms like "clunch", "flig" or "clat-fart" into conversation. In addition, they talk quickly and with a precise enunciation that requires you to pay attention to everything they're saying lest you lose the thread. I don't know how prevalent this dialect is now, but it goes a long way towards making the situation alien to a modern audience.

With all this going on it's difficult not to ponder how much the world of these characters has been obliterated. On the plus side, the rigid gender roles that the characters struggle against are now much more flexible, marriage is not a life sentence and we live in a more permissive society. And yet there's a strong sense of identity and community in The Daughter-In-Law that's now a quickly fading memory. 

The characters talk of their pride in the engines of industry moving in their towns, the never-dimming light of the factories and the pride in the quality of their labour. This is just a memory now: coal mining and the communities it supported are extinct in Nottinghamshire. In their place lies a yawning void of zero-hours contracts, social deprivation and political disillusionment. I wouldn't want to live in the world of The Daughter-In-Law, but even so, I mourn its passing.

The Daughter-In-Law is at the Arcola Theatre until 2nd February 2019. Tickets here.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Review: 'Anomaly' at the Old Red Lion, 10th January 2019

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

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

I imagine that having a celebrity in your family is as much a curse as a blessing. Sure, there's someone with a bit of clout to bail you out if things get really bad and probably a couple of neat parties you get to attend, but at the same time your identity is forever in someone else's shadow and your family name is in their hands. 

This is the territory covered by Liv Warden's Anomaly. Taking cues from the #MeToo revelations (and particularly the case of Harvey Weinstein), the play covers the problems of high-profile Preston family. Weinsteinian film producer and entertainment mogul Phillip Preston created 'Preston International' in the 1980s, which has risen to Oscar-winning dominance. Along the way, he fathered three daughters: business heir Piper (Natasha Cowley); A-list actor Penny (Katherine Samuelson); and the reclusive Polly (Alice Handoll) (who begins the show in rehab).

Their lives are thrown into chaos after their father is been arrested for violently attacking their mother, following which a surge of revelations about his predatory treatment of women explode into the media. The three women are torn between loyalty to their family and their own individual reputations - not to mention the growing suspicion that to some degree they were complicit in his actions.

I've always had a fascination for how people deal with their loved ones being suddenly revealed as monsters. How must it feel to be, say, the family of Kevin Spacey? For decades he's been the golden boy and his family and close friends would have basked in his shared glory. When that limelight curdles, what on earth do you do?

Anomaly makes an attempt to answer this. Various reactions include a call for family unity and a warning on making judgments before the facts are clear, a violent separation from the family via publicly disowning them and a PR led hedging of bets - trying miserably to take no position at all. On top of that Piper and Penny have careers of their own to consider and must quickly decide how this is going to affect them - if they cut and run and their father survives this it's going to make for some awkward family get-togethers.

Anomaly is at its best when picking at this knotty situation. Unfortunately, there's a whole bunch of structural flaws that prevent it being half the play it could be. First and foremost there's the very strange decision to geographically separate the characters from one another and have them interact solely by phone. It means the drama stays cold-blooded and that we never see the conflicts between the characters boil over into catharsis. It also affects the performances, denying the actors the chance to feed off each other's emotions and results in what feels like a series of stitched together monologues rather than dialogues.

Along the same lines, it's a little confusing as to what's going on with the voice-over dialogue from various media presences - who seem to have supernatural powers of insight as to what's going on. I'm all for a bit of surreal blurring of reality, but in a play that's already far from straightforward them being perpetually undefined. Plus, the play's treatment of media is just a bit off, with lines that refer to the characters being together on "international radio" sounding weirdly archaic.

Then there's the theoretically simple plot becoming bogged down with needless twists. As it transpires, Philip Preston isn't just a predatory misogynist, he's an increasing number of other awful things as well. Throwing out melodramatic revelations towards the end of the play just felt like empty drama and added nothing to the core ideas about the ripples created by a #MeToo scandal.

Anomaly is striding across some incredibly fertile dramatic land, but somewhere along the line a number of bad decisions were made about how the piece should be structured and the finished product simply doesn't engage.

Anomaly is at the Old Red Lion until 2nd February. Tickets here.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Review: 'Really Want To Hurt Me' at the Soho Theatre, 13th December 2018

Friday, December 14, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Really Want To Hurt Me walks a well-worn path. The "write what you know" maxim, in combination with young queer men and women escaping their shitty towns for cosmopolitan London, inevitably results in a lot of theatre about just that. These are performances about growing up LGTBQ in bigoted towns that can't ever understand; being tortured emotionally and physically by lunk-headed brutes; the paranoia that comes with knowing you're different; and finding an escape through art.

The above is writer/director Ben SantaMaria's Really Want To Hurt Me in a nutshell. Performed by Ryan Price, the show is a semi-autobiographical monologue about what it's like to grow up gay in 1980s Devon. It doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs.

Told in a confessional, semi-jokey style, we follow our hero from his early schooldays, where a teacher takes him aside and tells him to stop playing with the girls and kick a football - or people might think he's 'strange'. As he progresses through adolescence this feeling of alienation from his peers grows and grows: his classmates bully him, his overbearing father is openly disappointed in him, and his only solace is new wave pop music. It's a foregone conclusion that the moment he hears The Smiths he is smitten.

SantaMaria quickly proves a dab hand at vivid imagery. There's a particularly fantastic scene that comes just after the protagonist has heard Meat is Murder and is instantly converted to vegetarianism. At the family dinner table he's presented with a plate of meat and with Morrissey's lyrics about "the unholy stench of murder" ringing in his ears, promptly vomits all over it. What follows is described with an almost lascivious grossness - a plate overflowing with vomit, a father sweeping the tablecloth away, a full gravy boat flying through the air - feeling like a snapshot of Mike Leighish domestic misery.

But it's in the play's exploration of culturally induced self-loathing that it's most interesting - our hero not even wanting to say the word "gay", let alone admit that he might be it. From a modern perspective, it's easy to forget the sheer lack of information available to a teenager worried that he's gay. He has no-one to talk to (he comes out to his 'girlfriend', who promptly vows to convert him), nothing to read except Freud and the mid-1980s media is caught up in the HIV/AIDS panic. When the only references you have for being gay are abuse, hatred and mockery, it's no wonder that Boy George, Annie Lennox and Morrissey loom so large in the mind.

This is good stuff, but while I appreciated Really Want To Hurt Me, I never got emotionally involved. I think this is because there's this thin patina of jokey irony ladled over the whole thing which erodes the sincerity that a story like this needs. The writing tends to undercut moments of emotion with jokes or witty asides to the audience, which results in a tonal flatness. Even though this is a confessional piece that touches on suicide, the show never properly grapples with the misery throbbing away at the core of this story.

Plus, harsh as it is to say about someone's semi-autobiographical experience, the play could really use a few more things happening in it. The plot trundles along without any shocks or surprises as just a parade of small-scale domestic miseries, and every other person mentioned is sketched very thinly. This means we focus on our hero - but though I feel bad for his pain - there's nothing dramatically unique about it.

It's a nicely written, well-performed bit of writing. But Really Want To Hurt Me is far from essential.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Review: 'Burke and Hare' at the Jermyn Street Theatre, 11th December 2018

Wednesday, December 12, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Burke and Hare have slipped neatly into the British popular consciousness as a byword for graverobbers. However, they weren't sneaking around in graveyards in the thick 19th-century fog with spades and burlap sacks over their shoulders - they were cold-blooded murderers who discovered that fresh corpses were worth a lot of money and decided that if there was a demand, they would supply.

On paper it's a grim tale, though substantially enlivened by Tom Wentworth's horror/comedy adaptation. Set primarily in the grubby bowels of Mrs Hare's boarding house, the show is populated by a quietly desperate cast of characters, all played by Katy Daghorn, Alex Parry and Hayden Wood. They are almost all indebted or impoverished, their clothes ragged, nursing worrying coughs with their only salvation coming at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey.

When one of the tenants of the boarding house dies of influenza, Burke, Hare and Mrs Hare decide to flog the body to the anatomists on Surgeon's Square, who are hungry for corpses due to constrictive laws about dissection. They pay a princely sum, which gives the trio a grisly incentive to keep a close eye on the more sickly residents of the boarding house... and if they were to 'help' some of the worse off along, that'd almost be like doing them a favour, right?

Though Burke and Hare is a comedy, it also deftly sketches the economic incentives for the crimes and acts a neat Freakonomics style indictment of the free market (the shadow of Edinburgh's own Adam Smith looms large over the play). Burke and Hare (and Mrs Hare) aren't driven to murder because of some innate bloodlust, but by market forces that they feel almost duty-bound to serve. You can almost see the cogs turning in their head as they figure that someone must profit from this scarcity and it may as well be them - as their profits begin to grow they resort to ever more gruesome and murderous tactics to stay in business. 

While all this is whirring away in the background, the foreground is a nicely-paced and energetically performed tale in which the fourth wall is never far from breaking. Taking advantage of the framing device that we're watching a company retell the story, we get neat moments like the three cast members all being on stage at once and realising they have nobody left in the cast to play the corpse - an audience member is dutifully (and hilariously) recruited from the front row).

Though each of the three performers plays many roles, the play doesn't want for strong characterisation. The titular pair are nicely sketched, with Wood's Burke threading a particularly nice line between goofy and sinister. Parry also excels, particularly in an exhausting-looking scene where he's called on to play an entire family at once, with the cast tossing in new family members to torment him further. But the most curiously chameleonic is Daghorn, who somehow manages to look like a completely different person depending on which hat she's wearing - her dippily romantic Fergus is a highlight of the night.

My only minor criticism is that I'd have liked to have seen a more graphic representation of the bodies piling up. Due to the constraints of the cast, these are generally portrayed as small sacks, perhaps with a hat on top to signify who it is. It gives the play a slight feeling of bloodlessness where a more grand guignol tack might have cranked up the horror and cemented the grisly aspects of their trade. 

Still, Burke and Hare is a fine antidote for anyone that craves something with a darker edge amidst the Christmas cheer. It's stylish, entertaining, well-performed and conceived with obvious intelligence. 

Burke and Hare is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 21 December. Tickets here.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Review: 'Aisha' at the Old Red Lion, 6th December 2018

Friday, December 7, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

Don't go to Aisha if you want a chilled out night at the theatre. This is 75 minutes of pain, misery and rage, condensed through the small yet powerful form of Alex Jarratt. She plays the titular Aisha, a 17-year-old girl who has been purchased from her parents by her uncle, married against her will, imprisoned, enslaved and raped almost every day for three years.

And, without wanting to give too much away, you shouldn't hold out hopes of this being some kind of emancipatory feel-good drama of someone triumphing over adversity. There is a battle at the heart of Aisha, but it's the equivalent of a person screaming into a hurricane. 

Written by "AJ", the show has an impressively streamlined purity and sense of focus to it: it's a one-woman monologue; Aisha is on stage pretty much the entire time and; while other characters do feature in it, they're left to the audience's imagination. 

Zeroing our focus onto Aisha rather than distracting us with other performers is a smart decision - if, for example, her rapist husband was actually played on stage then it would diminish the monster that we visualise in our heads. It also makes the painful and traumatising rape scenes in the play that much more powerful, her absent husband standing for oppressive patriarchy as a whole rather than as an individual we can collectively hate.

Another clever choice is Jarrett's interacts with the audience, a technique that sets us on edge and cranks up the tension. The most excruciatingly awkward moment was when she singled out some middle-aged guy in the audience as her father and repeatedly implored him to come on stage and dance with her. Understandably he remained rooted to his seat (which I think was the point - though if I was chosen I probably would have gotten on stage...). Other examples are Aisha handing props to audience members in the front row to look at or, in my case, being asked to hold her dress as she washes herself.

It's a simple and straightforward dramatic technique that reminds us that this story isn't some hypothetical fantasy, but rather something that invisibly happens all around and that (at least on some level) we're all implicated in Aisha and other child brides' plight. After all, what do you do if you see a girl with suspicious bruises standing in front of you at the supermarket till? Would you step in and ask her if she's okay or look the other way?

And then there's Alex Jarrett's performance. I'm not one for lists of superlatives, so I'll just say she's fearless and brilliant. There's a palpable intelligence to the way she interrogates the audience, half mourning the loss of her potential, half eager to show off that even after all she's suffered she's still herself. And yet, you sense a deadening of feeling within her, a gradual dimming in her eyes as she realises that even if she were to escape through a tantalisingly unlocked door, 'normal life' is now a fantasy.

So yeah. This isn't drama for the lighthearted but it's drama that deserves an audience. You might feel bad for looking away when you see something uncomfortable in real life, so sooth your conscience by at least confronting it through art. Kudos to everyone involved, they've knocked this out of the park.

Aisha is at the Old Red Lion under Saturday 8th December. Tickets here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Review: 'Jailbirds' at the Etcetera Theatre, 4th December 2018

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - by londoncitynights · - 0 Comments

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

I've got a real soft spot for science fiction theatre. It takes a certain amount of gumption to realise a believable technologically advanced world on stage, even one that's broadly adjacent to our own. Split Note Theatre's Jailbirds manages this - and it does it with a few pieces of white tape and faith in the audience's imagination.

The setting is a subterranean women's prison in a dystopic future. The most feared and notorious inmate is Heath Dane (Molly Jones). Her crimes are never precisely defined, but she's a violent serial killer with a sadistic streak a mile long with genius level intellect. 

As we start the play, she has a new neighbour: the prim and apparently sheltered Moira (Stella Richt). Moira is quickly revealed to be the observer in a scientific study of Dane by Bheur (Kirsty Marie Terry) and Officer Oml (Evangelina Burton) - a psychological tool designed to get the perceptive yet egotistical killer to reveal her secrets. Overseeing this is a long-suffering prison guard (Fred Woodley Evans).

It's an interesting set-up but partially hamstrung by the fact that (at least as far as I could see) there didn't seem to be any pressing need to find out what was going on in the killer's mind. Quizzing an imprisoned serial killer immediately brings Silence of the Lambs to mind. The tension in that story comes from knowing that Buffalo Bill's victim is doomed unless Clarice Starling can convince Hannibal Lector to help. By comparison, the objectives of what the 'study' eventually proves to be in Jailbirds felt more like curiosity than an urgent need.

Another aspect that doesn't work is the Brechtian appearance of director Luke Culloty on stage. He exists outside the text, pausing a scene, rearranging the characters within it and setting them on their way. I love a bit of fourth wall breaking as much as the next person, but its use here doesn't add anything. Distancing techniques like this force the audience to consider the artifice of what they're watching, but I'm at a loss as to how doing this in Jailbirds adds to the play's message (which itself is rather fuzzy).

Fortunately, the play is buoyed up by two effective performances from Molly Jones and Stella Richt. Richt initially seems a bit flat and affectless, but as events proceed you begin to understand that this is a deliberate decision. As the play winds towards a conclusion the dramatic focus begins to shift from Heath to Moira, and Richt delivers a couple of powerful speeches that work brilliantly.

But, as in the text, all eyes are on Molly Jones for the majority of the play. Most of the time she's operating in a different league to the rest of the cast, simultaneously scheming, physically intimidating and weirdly vulnerable. Jones manages to underly her outwardly sadistic dangerous exterior with some weird vulnerability. The character is missing an eye (neatly conveyed with an opaque contact lens), and you sense that she knows her powers are gradually diminishing the longer she languishes in her cell. 

So it's a mixed bag. Split Note Theatre clearly have the talent - and they also clearly have an admirable sense of narrative ambition. I suspect a couple of rewrites, a hard think on what message they want to convey and how the story could be tweaked to do that would pay off gangbusters.

Jailbirds is at the Etcetera Theatre until 8 December. Tickets here.

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