Monday, 26 September 2016

'Pilgrims' review or 'How's your pulse?'

Pilgrims, Elinor Cook
The Yard Theatre, 22nd September 2016
Written for Time Out

A tiled mosaic lies atop a raised platform. There are gaps in it; holes through which the actors can fall. Above the stage hangs jagged lattice work – a broken horizon perhaps, or the unfinished edges of a story? ‘Pilgrims’ is a play rich in metaphor. It is about two male mountaineers and the one girl – Rachel – stuck in the middle. But ‘Pilgrims’ is also about men and adventure, and how men might lose sight of themselves. It’s about love, and how we all lose sight of ourselves through that. And it’s about narrative and control, and just whose story is this anyway?
This is a seriously smart new play from Elinor Cook – a restless piece of writing that keeps chipping away at itself, leaving sharp and glittering edges exposed. ‘Pilgrims’ begins at the end, with old friends Will (Steffan Donnelly – brilliant and dangerous) and Dan (Jack Monaghan) stranded at the top of a mountain. They seem like the best of friends. They seem like heroes.  And then Cook weaves and darts backwards – back to the beginning and to Rachel (Amanda Wilkin) – and cracks emerge. The story of these two men, once as solid as packed snow, melts and flows away from us. 
Tamara Harvey directs with a feather-light touch. When Dan has a panic attack – frightened at the safe life he now lives – Will’s shadow looms large. A gasp of breath occasionally blasts out of the speakers; frightening and foreboding, and then gone. The wall between the scenes is wafer thin – broken with a stolen glance, a giggle from an actor, a nod from the wings.  
But there are moments when this forensic play seems a little too self-conscious and controlled.  Rachel just happens to be a PhD student – majoring in folk songs, war and women – and spends a lot of time telling hyper-relevant myths. The metaphors and myths begin to crowd out the characters and, for all its impressive ambition, this mountaineering adventure ultimately feels a little cold. 

Friday, 23 September 2016

'Emily Rising' review or 'Up, up and away...'

'Emily Rising', Dan Rebellato
Little Angel Theatre, 17th September 2016
Written for Guardian online 

Emily Rising is a play about growing up and growing away. It’s a meditative show about the connections we form in life and just how fleeting and potentially limiting those relationships might be. It is funny and beautiful and sad and hopeful and, at the end, my nine-year-old theatre-friend Qeiva clapped with so much force that I started to worry for those little hands.
Oliver Hyman’s production of Dan Rebellato’s play (for audiences aged seven and upwards) is visually dazzling, but this is also a very honest piece about how strange and surprising life can be for an older child such as Emily, who is learning to stand on her own two feet. The play is set in a flat in Islington, north London, where 10-year-old Emily lives with her mother, Sarah, and little brother, Robbie. Emily’s parents are getting a divorce and, one morning, Emily wakes up and discovers that her feet no longer touch the ground. She soars higher and higher, until she can barely make contact with her family, her school or her friends below
Children’s shows can often be quite vague, but Rebellato’s play (co-produced byLittle Angel and Goblin) is poetic and precise. The characters are played by puppets – but the actors’ hands, arms or legs are incorporated into the design so that there’s always a bit of the puppeteers (David Emmings, Yana Penrose and Peyvand Sadeghian), poking around the edges. Emily wears jeans and a hoodie and is a big BeyoncĂ© fan. At one point, If I Were a Boy plays and Qeiva whispers: “I know this!” This is Qeiva’s world on stage.
All the puppets, other than Emily, have a surreal and subjective twist. Emily’s mum has a wooden face, huge, jangling earrings and a dress that tapers down to nothing. She is all head, just as Emily might see her from above while floating. The puppets’ bodies reflect the environment in which they live – such a clever touch from designer Alison Alexander. Emily’s teacher has black binders for hair and a yellow-pencil scarf. The doctor has two stethoscopes for eyes (yet cannot see what is wrong with Emily), and the nosey neighbour’s head is made of fussy flowers. The social worker is constructed from piles of paperwork, with a clipboard for a face.
Rachel Champion’s set shows us the world through Emily’s eyes and includes a warped fence that stretches out towards us and a spindly house. Emily is initially attached to the house by string but – eventually – floats off. Emily drifts away from her family and, the further she drifts, the “more beautiful” the world becomes. It is such a mature and complex ending – but Qeiva knows exactly what it means: “She’s gone off into the universe.”

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

'No Man's Land' review or 'How many skins can you shed?'

'No Man's Land', Harold Pinter
20th September 2016
Written for Exeunt 

I have come to a local park – bathed in sunlight and buzzing with life – to write this review. I have come to this park for two reasons. Firstly, No Man’s Land is a truly unsettling affair, with a lingering after-shock that – here in this park – I am attempting to protect myself from. Secondly, this Harold Pinter play (written in 1974) returns, again and again, to the image of an old man peering through leaves and branches to spy on other – bigger and brighter – lives in the distance. So I find myself in this park, both to escape Pinter’s oozing, icy and funny play, and to embrace it.
Sean Mathias and his designer, Stephen Brimson Lewis, have also fixated on this image of rustling leaves; a very large living room, with walls that reach up too high and furniture that feels too big and too sparse, is capped by a ‘ceiling’ – a projected image of trees shivering in the wind. This landscape changes colour with the passing of time and has a weird, fake sheen to it. The room feels like a hazy memory of a house once lived in; a theme that flickers up repeatedly throughout this strange, teasing and jolting work that is about growing old, peaking at life and death through the tree tops, and the firmness and fluidity of writing, memory, and identity.
This spooky living room is home to a rich man of letters, Hirst (Patrick Stewart), who seems darkly distracted (forever peering into a far off place) for the whole of the play. Hirst is dressed in a crisp blue suit and polo shirt, ready to nip off to a fancy club at any moment. He is joined by Spooner (Ian McKellen), a disheveled chap in a crinkled suit with a coat slung over his shoulder, always on the verge of leaving. Hirst and Spooner have met this very afternoon. Supposedly. Perhaps. But as Pinter’s play trips and darts forward (directed with a lovely looseness by Mathias, who isn’t afraid to let the unknowns linger), the nature of Hirst and Spooner’s relationship shifts and simmers. Are these two old men in fact chums from Oxford? Are they, perhaps, taking Briggs (Owen Teale) and Foster (Damien Molony) – two vaguely threatening henchmen who seem to have a vested interest in Hirst – for a ride? Are they trapped in some sort of purgatory – or perhaps two versions of the same person, or even Pinter himself?
None of these questions are answered – as they absolutely shouldn’t be – but it’s awfully weird and fun and stimulating to be teased, prodded and surprised. Sometimes it feels like No Man’s Land is one great dark joke on the audience, as Spooner and Hirst convince us utterly of one scenario – and then take us screeching in the opposite direction. At other times it feels like Pinter is urging us to look back on our own lives – on those women or memories shimmering in the shadows – before it is too late and we find ourselves peering through the branches. In other scenes, No Man’s Land feels like a devastating muse on the purpose of theatre and writing, which Pinter sometimes seems to consider his salvation, at other times his downfall (Spooner alternately saves and undoes himself with his incredible command of the English language).
The four strong-cast juggle these slippery scenes with such skill. Stewart mesmerises as Hirst, with a cold dark stare that seems to understand something awful, and true, that we would be lucky to never fully grasp. Owen Teale’s Briggs – with a wispy moustache and battered leather jacket – is brittle and bruising one minute, and hilarious and harmless the next. But it is Ian McKellen (whose Pinter experience until now was limited to a sketch in 1962) who truly stuns. His ability to transform almost instantly, with just a whispered threat or near-imperceptible shift in tone, is uncanny. Throughout the play McKellen is – absolutely – a tramp who has stumbled off the street, a panto dame, a poet and a painter with great wisdom at his fingertips, an utter cad or a sensitive soul with a faded elegance in every delicate sweep of the wrist.
McKellen’s face softens or hardens – his expression opens out or closes – and, suddenly, he is someone else. Lips pursed and eyes flickering, McKellen’s Spooner instantly glows with pomposity and a barely hidden distaste for the characters around him. Arms spread open and lips set in a watery grin, Spooner is a desperate conman embracing his prey. Sat at the table with a fancy breakfast buffet, McKellen’s Spooner is – and when and how did this happen? – a civilized but condemned gentleman, preparing for death. And just when we think we might have Spooner nailed, McKellen does a totally unexpected and brilliant little skip whilst tying up his shoelaces. Which other character or truth does that skip reveal? Is Spooner on the verge of death, or set to burst into life? Or is he trapped somewhere in between, doomed or perhaps lucky enough to repeat himself, night after night on stage?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

'Paradise of the Assassins' review or 'Can you make it a quick death?'

Paradise of the Assassins, Abdul Halim Sharar
Tara Theatre, 19th September 2016
Written for Time Out

This inaugural production at the elegantly refurbished Tara Theatre is caught at a cross-road. ‘Paradise of the Assassins’ begins – quite literally – at a fork in the road, when lovers Zamarrud and Hussain lose their way en route to Mecca and wife-to-be, Zamarrud, is kidnapped by the Assassins, an extremist Muslim sect. Anthony Clark’s laborious adaptation of Abdul Halim Sharar’s century-old Persian love story is – unfortunately – equally lost. Part-religious treatise, part-bawdy comedy, part-stinging satire and even part-musical, this muddled show forks off in far too many directions.
This is a play largely about how love, both human and religious, can drive one to commit unspeakable sins - but there is precious little love in evidence here. Zamarrud (Skye Hallam – strong and still) and Husssain (Asif Khan) have a brittle opening scene together – and then barely share a glance for the rest of the play. It’s a flimsy relationship on which to hang a heavy play.
Hussain’s religious radicalisation feels shakier still. After Zamarrud is kidnapped by the sect, Hussain promptly renounces his Sunni upbringing and joins the Shia Assassins. There is one weird, shimmering scene between Hussain and an Assassin Sheikh (Naveed Khan), who tells Hussain that behind every overt act is a ‘covert reason’, which only the leaders will understand. But then the interval comes and – following the break – Hussain is radicalised. All the knotty and interesting stuff happens off-stage, which makes the increasingly extreme on-stage actions tough to stomach.
Clark's juddery direction – with light comic scenes one moment and deadly earnest ones the next – does little to settle the audience. Danyal Dhondy’s songs are sweetly melodious but over-simplify things. Matilde Marangoni’s set is one of the few elements that achieves a striking sort of ambiguity. A silver metallic moon and bronze sun rotate, on a pulley system, throughout the play.  Sometimes blood red and at other times oozing orange, the sun and moon bathe the world below in a light that radiates both danger and hope.  

'Dinner at The Twits' review or 'I'm not sure I can stomach this.'

'Dinner at The Twits' - Les Enfants Terribles
15th September 2016
Written for Exeunt

The lust for novel theatrical – or filmic or dining or adventure or any-bloomin-thing – experiences has reached a fairly bonkers level in London. It arguably started with PunchDrunk’s promenade shows and the huge excitement they generated from letting their audience, masked and giddy, roam about the set. That thirst for novel immersive experiences was further stoked byYouMeBumBumTrain, which – again – allowed the spectator to take on a starring role (Christ we’re a narcissistic bunch, aren’t we?). Then there was Secret Cinema and, most recently, Crystal Maze and a whole slew of theatrical ‘adventures’ – all of which merge theatre and some sort of ‘extra’ component and charge very high prices for those keen to be thrust in the middle of these odd, and sometimes awesome, theatrical collisions.
Now we have the merging of the theatrical and dining experience (a genre that has been gaining traction for a while, but which I have never really *got*) withDinner at The Twits, which invites the audience to share canapes and a suitably gruesome dinner – full of bubbling sauces and dodgy pies – with Roald Dahl’s hairy, horrible Twits. It’s quite well done, I guess. But it feels commercially-driven and a tad soul-less to me. This is a solid package deal that has been polished to a shiny and marketable finish by director Emma Earle and her team – but it isn’t brilliant food and it certainly isn’t brilliant theatre. What you’re buying into here is yet another ‘novel’ London experience, which you can post on Facebook and brag to your friends about. But Alice’s Underground Adventure(the last and brilliant immersive show from Les Enfants Terribles) this is not.
This is – also – not a show to experience on your own. Press night at the Vaults was packed with a bunch of seriously awkward looking critics (myself included), with not nearly enough theatre to hide behind. We begin in a loft-like bar, part of a huge set designed with a grand and enjoyably chaotic sweep by Samuel Wyer. We buy cocktails with the currency of ‘worms’ (in reality just quite a lot of money). The cocktails have Twitesque titles – Sting and Tonic etc – but they’re effectively just quite expensive cocktails. Next up is canapes in the Twits’ ghastly garden. So far the Twits are yet to make an appearance. Again, the canapes have funny names – Mouldy Delight and Writhing Spaghetti – but they’re really just a bunch of fairly nice canapes displayed with flair and served by waiters, who (and I don’t quite get this) are dressed like melting clowns. It’s all very hot, very squidged and ever so slightly dull. Curiosity is not rewarded well in this space; a poke around a shed reveals a garlicky dip disguised as paint, and a bunch of snacks hang off a giant tree – but that is about it. Shows like this need more surprises – otherwise the audience stops hunting.
Things pick up when The Twits finally burst into the garden in all their hideous and hairy splendour. Lizzy Dive is a hirsute joy to behold. Her red hair is so huge and spikey it looks like she might lift-off at any moment, her clothes are so grubby you’re scared to get close and her face so weird and warty – her eyes glassy and intense – that she’s genuinely a little bit frightening. Christopher-Robert Barlow is enjoyably grim as Mr Twit, too, though he doesn’t have the same crackle of danger as Dive’s prowling and cackling Mrs Twit.
The scant story line is this: Mr and Mrs Twit are renewing their wedding vows and we are here to join the festivities. Dinner is served in a banquet hall, where we are entertained by the Twits’ pet monkeys and scowled and screamed at by The Twits. The food itself is pretty odd, which is perfectly fine in theory – but it isn’t all that tasty. Everything has a Twit-like twist – so the potatoes have been sprinkled with ‘soil’ (which tastes of WEIRDNESS), the pie has a fowl’s leg poking out of it and the wine – well, probably best not to talk about the wine.
The odd garnishes, the (rightfully) aggressive performances – and the many references to puking and crapping – don’t exactly work up an appetite. It’s hard to care about the food, which strikes me as a tad unfortunate. There are – thankfully – a few brilliant theatrical fireballs in the closing stages, including a particularly gory explosion and the appearance of an enormous puppet bird. The huge bird (part of a storyline which isn’t really worth mentioning) is crazy and beautiful and the whole dining room suddenly tingles as this giant rainbow bird sweeps around the hall, poking at our plates. It all starts to feel a bit magical and a lot more enjoyable: perhaps Dining with Dinosaurs might’ve been a better call?

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

'Jess and Joe Forever' review or 'Character comes first.'

'Jess and Joe Forever', Zoe Cooper
Orange Tree Theatre, 13th September 2016
Written for Time Out

Jess and Joe make a modest entrance in this gorgeous new play, named after them. The two friends shuffle on stage with downcast eyes and smile hesitantly at the audience, as music crackles from a cassette player. Jess and Joe aren’t used to being centre stage. They live in Norfolk and when we first meet them they’re just nine years old. What a delight, then, that playwright Zoe Cooper has chosen to write a play about these two quirky souls, who we watch fall in love – and fall for in return.
This co-production between the Orange Tree and Farnham Maltings is very wise, very funny – and feels utterly authentic. When we first meet Jess (Nicola Coughlan – sparkling), she is in Norfolk for a summer break – before jetting off to her ‘real holiday’ in Italy.  Joe (Rhys Isaac-Jones – still and touching) is a farming lad, born and bred in Norfolk. But a turn in fortunes for Jess and Joe bring the two closer together, as adulthood – with all its complications – seeps into their story.  
Jess and Joe’s secrets gradually rise up around the edges of Derek Bond’s fine production. The two actors (consistently mesmerising) speak directly to the audience – but gaps and tears begin to appear in their story. Scenes are replayed, details are corrected, and roles are switched. The actors also control the set (designed by James Perkins), which is made up of a coloured rug and a pile of earth - and a lighting state that changes only with a click from Jess or Joe. 
As life gets messier still, Cooper’s characters start to take control – despite the tutting judgement exacted by villagers and friends. Jess and Joe rise above tough breaks and cruel twists of fate until one powerful message rings out loud and clear: character is the only thing that matters. 

Friday, 19 August 2016

'Jungle Book' review or 'Awesome trees - but where's the wood?'

Jungle Book (Metta Theatre after Rudyard Kipling)
Southbank Centre - 17th August 2016
Written for Time Out 

I’m lost in the jungle. Metta Theatre have shifted Rudyard Kipling’s classic children’s story onto the streets of London. Baloo is now a beat-boxing bin man, Bagheera a graffiti artist, Shere Khan a street gangster, and jungle-lad Mowgli – a feisty woman and a mean gymnast. They may or may not still be animals; it’s quite hard to tell. There’s such imagination in here, and heaps of brilliant circus and street dancing skills – but it’s also pretty baffling and perhaps a little too edgy (Shere Khan mimics shooting poor Mowgli at one point) for a family crowd. 
Director Poppy Burton-Morgan is trying to push circus into bold new areas – but she hasn’t quite made the leap. Most of the skills on display – trapeze work, pole dancing and beat-boxing – are essentially solo disciplines. That makes it hard for the cast to gel, despite some inspired choreography from ZooNation’s Kendra J Horsburgh.  The styles also clash. Stefan Puxon is a sparky beat boxer but phrases like – ‘To you I’m invisible, a figure derisible’ – fly right over the children’s heads.
There’s a mesmerising pole-dancing routine from Nathalie Alison as sinister snake Kaa – but it doesn’t help the story. After Mowgli (Natalie Nicole James) flees the jungle, she tries to bond with her mother. Endless dance sequences – such as ballroom dancing and ballet - are disrupted as Mowgli struggles to adapt. It’s a neat idea but - once again - goes on for much too long.
The curtain-call is the best ‘scene’ of the night. Freed from having to tell a story, the cast let rip – and tear up the stage with their mad circus and street skills.