Thursday, 13 June 2013

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall ****

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall ****

First of all, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Birch’s play has one of the best titles I’ve ever seen. The question is whether it lives up to expectations.

Brad Birch’s one act play shows how the monotony of daily life can kill you. Sure some people in a warzone somewhere are just happy to be alive, but for the modern metropolitan professional the reality we live in, a routine revolving around going to work to pay the bills and having no time left for ourselves, can be crushing.

Birch’s script is slow to start but, once we begin to see the cracks in actors Joe Dempsie and Lara Rossi’s façade, the tension builds. The repetitive strain of silence Even Stillness sits upon is a brave directorial move from Nadia Latif; a device that could make the play drag is charged with a painful sense of nothingness by this subtle cast. Dempsie’s descent into baseness is excruciating to watch, and Rossi balances the volatile and vulnerable aspects of a character that is evidently being pulled in two directions at once. As Dempsie and Rossi realise that all they want in the world is one another, the chemistry between them fizzles and the play really begins to move forward.

So Dempsie and Rossi stop going into work, they stop paying the bills, and in a sexually charged moment of madness they destroy all their pointless belongings and begin to live in a pit. Forced to eat paper. This very normal play takes a very surreal turn, and you believe in it. There is something terrible which rings true about Birch’s play, it’s almost like a modern day Waiting for Godot – although the similarities lie more in the silence, than in the average dialogue which makes the occasionally inappropriate advance into the world of poetics. In a similar vein, Simon Slater’s sound is constantly playing beneath the action, and adding very little it simply becomes an irritating drone in the background.

The characters of Even Stillness float in a little world of their own which we’re all familiar with, but which is very much their territory. Birch’s script and Latif’s direction occupy something of a sacred space together in the Soho Theatre upstairs, and it’s worth peering in from the fringes before they disappear.

Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall runs at the Soho Theatre until 14 June. For tickets and more information:

Friday, 8 March 2013

I'm Spilling My Heart Out Here ****

I'm Spilling My Heart Out Here is a production from the Lincoln Young Company, a part of the National Theatre Connections Festival which commissions new writing for 13-19 year olds. LYC however come across more like professionals than a young company, handling Stacey Gregg's mature text with balanced shades of humour and angst - and not the skull printed, black clad emo school of angst; the believable sort that audiences young and old alike can relate back to.

Being like professionals, and having their performance at the Sheffield Crucible to come, I’ll be more nitpicky than I might usually be in a professional review. Gregg has written an ensemble piece here, most of the roles have an equal amount of stage time, and mostly the cast work together and are extremely self aware, spatially aware, and the relationships between characters evident, developed and above all, natural - but at times, the opening for example, they're thinking as characters, not as a unit. That being said, the blocking for so many in such a small space, and in the round at that, is thoughtfully achieved.

I want to say, Sweep (Sophie Grayson), Linford Butler (Osh) and Oliver Parkes (Ciaran), get it just right; their characters have brilliant comedic timing, but equally isolate their more vulnerable moments, coming across as familiar, well-rounded figures. Vicky Spencer's character is impulsive, obviously a hormone cocktail, but I’d like to see more of the thought process behind some of her actions. Similarly, Wilson’s (Chrissie Ellinas) blunt and upfront delivery is enjoyable but not always entirely natural. Their relationship is particularly interesting to watch, and even more time could be spent on moments when hormones are acting particularly rampant. Lauren Walker delivers her moving monologue well, but she could afford to go even further with it physically and vocally. There are too many hiccoughs in her teariness which interrupt her brilliant speech. And equally, although teenage boys who wouldn't dare show emotion, a little more could be had from the boys.

I personally think it's great to see young people working with such gruesome material, I mean when you're a teenager it really is "awkward when you're internal organs just fall out". The play dough hearts look good, hitting the floor with a splat they have the element of surprise over the audience. Admittedly there could be more blood, and the handling of hearts could be smoother. But the concept of a white stage gradually becoming smothered in colour as hearts spill out, colourful elements of clothing discarded in moments of character vulnerability, is a brilliant one, adding layers of emotion to the performance. If anything, more could be made of the idea, those moments marked more. When you're a teenager your heart's all over the place, and I just want to see more of a mess.  

Like I said, I’m being nitpicky. Usually I'd have just said the cast is impressive and competent although they could all afford to project more, director Martyn Horner-Glister's ideas behind the piece are sophisticated, and ISMHOH could benefit from more of the Tarantino treatment. But altogether LYC's production is funny, moving, accessible, professional - they're bloody good. But I guess the devil's in the detail if you want to get to the National.

I'm Spilling My Heart Out Here is playing at the Sheffield Crucible on the 25 March alongside other participating companies. For further information see:

Connections Festival performances are taking place all over the UK this Spring. For further information see:

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Coming Storm **

Forced Entertainment is an experimental theatre company that has been going for 28 years. Their devised show The Coming Storm at Battersea Arts Centre celebrates the energy which has kept this company strong, but isn’t matched by invigorating ideas.

In their attempt to reinvent the traditional forms of storytelling, they fail to replace it with something substantial. The actors take turns telling stories which barely get past the opening before another actor intervenes, then another, and so on in this repetitive manner. The Coming Storm is constantly moving and yet remains static, never developing into something more. The performance not just runs away with itself, dissolving into pure, but supposedly intended chaos. Deliberate or not, this lack of any structure or control can only be described as: messy.

The Coming Storm opens with Terry (Terry O’Connor) relating, in her thrilling monotone, the essential elements which should make up a story. This speech is far too long, and exemplifies The Coming Storm’s ironic tone as her ‘story’ doesn’t possess any of the qualities she describes, and extends into the ‘play’ as whole (these cannot be called stories nor this production, a play, it’s altogether something so entirely different that I can only approximate with the nearest concepts framed by inverted commas).

Photo Credit: Hugo Glendinning
After a while, I realise that the company has been playing with us. I’ve been grappling for links between these tales which aren’t there, and therefore it’s difficult to consider any of the production values seriously (and which were bare minimum besides). Mirroring their incomplete anecdotes, they slip in an out of random costumes which don’t fit, and aren’t done up, from the two costume rails on stage. Beside these are some instruments, chairs, a machine which creates a sound like the wind blowing…everything is there to be used at some point to little effect, and highlights the invention which goes into fiction by focusing on the fact that we’re in a theatre. Forced Entertainment’s ideas are inventive, and challenge the conventions of storytelling that have become the norm; but this doesn’t make the show insightful. I do remember a dragon in a hospital ward, a dying mother, a motorcyclist named Killer, but little else. Unfortunately, everything Terry says in the opening is right; without any real storytelling – it’s difficult to follow wholeheartedly. Richard Lowdon’s story about his mother – whether it’s true or false – verges upon a tender moment, before being cut off by Cathy Naden. The Coming Storm is a series of disappointments. Even the absurd decorations which make this production funny – most notably, Lowdon and Claire Marhsall’s awful dancing – is repeated until it’s dull.

Their use of music should revitalise this show, but barely adds entertainment value, let alone significance. Since none of the players were instrumentalists till taught by Phil Hayes, their simple tunes and inconstant rhythms are lost in the pandemonium of this production. It’s all well and good that they’ve learnt some instruments and are developing the layers of their production – but no one pays to see a Grade One pianist, do they?

The cast are referred to by their real names; the acting itself is incorporated in their acting out the stories they tell. It’s difficult to call this acting, when it’s more like playtime.  When the focus is not upon the person holding the microphone, the others bang things and instruments, vying for attention like absolute children. These distractions are far better constructed than the actual speeches, and I’d happily watch a crocodile chew a man’s leg off, over a pretentious interpretive dance.  Forced Entertainment is an appropriate name for all the wrong reasons in this production.  For a long time, Lowdon wanders about with a sack on his head, and hangman’s rope on his hand, trying futilely to kill himself. This was undoubtedly the funniest moment in the production because I finally I felt an affinity with a character.

Beyond this grand vision fragmented narratives, the company themselves have little charisma. I’m not compelled to care about what I’m watching, so despite the ideas behind this show, the last word I can use to describe it is stimulating, when my brain had drifted off to an altogether saner reality. I’m all for innovative performance, but in this case, found it was more worthwhile to wonder what to have for dinner. (I had a stew if you’re interested – that, at least, went down a storm.)

The Coming Storm plays at BAC until 23 June. It will return on tour in the Autumn.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Tender Napalm

There’s a moment in Tender Napalm – one of many – when your stomach clenches, and the friend I came along with drops all male pretensions and has to clutch my hand for support. This is the typical effect of Ridley’s writing, but this play especially is an exquisite example of poetry in motion.

Photo credit: Evening Standard
Tender Napalm returns to the Southwark Playhouse after its premiere last year, a triumphant example of this wordsmith’s uniquely compelling style. Ridley’s oxymoronic title embodies his play perfectly. Visceral descriptions conjure a colourful world at war that his characters have created, in order to escape reality and its pain. This bittersweet contrast takes you upon a rollercoaster ride (the only way to travel in Ridley’s world) until the cast can take no more and must face the truth. The audience teeter upon the glittering knife’s edge which is the weapon of truth. The characters throw these knives – and themselves – back and forth in an elliptical battle. Ridley reveals the layers of this man and woman’s relationship as if delicately peeling back their raw skin, but never mentioning the unspoken trauma which haunts their every word.

Lara Rossi and Tom Byam Shaw play this couple to every extreme: like the most intimate of lovers, and hateful of enemies. They attack Tender Napalm like Olympic athletes, until sweat drips like tears on the floor.  William Reynold’s set is a bare, traverse stage; exposing that the kaleidoscopic setting the actors lead us through only exists in their minds. But boy, do they believe in it, exploring it with every inch of their being. Through Tom Godwin’s movement direction, imagination becomes a tactile space. Hurtling around the stage, I can see Shaw is soaked in blood, battling his way out of the belly of a serpent, or riding a unicorn through the wilderness. Tender Napalm is dependent on the actors investing everything into their characters, and Rossi and Shaw do this and more. The stories they tell with just their exaggerated bodies and subtle reactions showcases them to be energised, sensational actors.

Their chemistry is electric in the warzone. Man opens: ‘Your mouth…It’s such a…wet thing. I could squeeze a bullet between those lips,’ and Woman gives as good as she gets all the way to the climax. Ridley’s vocabulary is the fuel for this fiery relationship, and director, David Mercatali, takes this momentum and kicks it up a gear. But every vehicle has to stop to refuel, and it is the tender moments which complete this piece. Forty fathoms beneath the sea is a safe place where Man and Woman don’t fight. They ‘float and fade’ as they forget, punctuated by a particularly haunting song from Nick Bicât. And haunting is the best way to describe Tender Napalm.

Mercatali’s direction strips the production, and Ridley strips the characters, creating an intensely revealing and consequently poignant play. The explosive and sexual physicality of Tender Napalm ingeniously focuses upon the tacit, as much as what’s going on onstage, charging the relationship between Man and Woman with an unknown force that makes you tremble.

Tender Napalm plays at the Southwark Playhouse until 23 June.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

A More General Review

I considered today, that despite the privelage of seeing a numerous amount of shows a month to review, I still spend considerable time and money trying to make it to those special shows. I'm not ashamed to admit, Jekyll and Hyde is in my top 5 musicals (along with Phantom, Beauty and the Beast and...well anyway) and would have done anything to see it again at the Southwark Playhouse before it closes. I went to buy tickets only to discover that of course, it's sold out. And so it should be. But althought I've already seen it, it absolutely crushed me that I couldn't see it again. And this has prompted this blog post: what are those few shows that have stayed with me? And why?

MAY 2012: Jekyll and Hyde
This was just such a brave production, Morphic Graffiti absolutely pulled off an update and you know what? The little things which may have gone wrong here and there just didn't matter because this cast and crew finally did this stupendous musical justice!

MAY 2012: Misterman
There are few words I could use that could really evoke the brilliance of this production. After Ivanov, I'd say it's the best thing I've seen in the theatre to date. Rarely have I seen such astounding acting or compelling direction. I honestly cared for the protagonist in this production.

JAN 2012: 13
I didn't give this 5 stars. But this was such an important production for me. I have never ever ever been so politically moved by a play as this, I NEEDED to stand up and shout yes, agree with the character of John and hopefully lead a revolution, take the audience out into the streets preaching Bartlett's play. Now that's something.

There is a gap here between when I started reviewing, then found school required a little more of my attention than theatre, and then found theatre was my life and couldn't be more important than uni. And... my days were mostly filled by the Lord Of The Rings Musical which I never reviewed. There would be too much to say, I thought this was spectacular, I know a lot of people don't, especially purists, but it touched every heartstring, was beautiful, sounded beautiful. It was something otherworldly I doubt I'll find again.

FEB 2009: Three Days of Rain
This was another example of ACTING. When I write a play, I have to imagine the acting because the acting is half of the play. My words are nothing without the likes of actors like these.

JAN 2009: The Frontline
It's around this time I was beginning to see plays and realised dammit I loved them. The Frontline spoke to me as a Londoner, even as a newcomer to theatreland I could tell Walker was innovative with his speech, I was drawn into every character, every story, listened to every word like a willing puppet. That's storytelling. That was relative.

JAN 2009: Ivanov
It all began here. I'm adamant my review of this got me through GCSE and into drama school by making me look intellectual. The thing with Chekhov is it isn't about being intellectual, some of the conditions remain topical, some don't, but with this, my first heady clash with naturalism I learnt to believe. To this day, I've yet to cry so much in a theatre as during this, and this is because Branagh WAS Ivanov. THE most stupendous acting I've seen to date.

An interesting fact (a fact for companies to fear about this reviewer): I very, very, rarely give a standing ovation. It has to be out. of. this. world. for me to do this. It's not a case of being frigid about showing companies praise for their productions, I can see why shows that I'd consider four star deserve a standing ovation a lot of the time. It's simply my method of separating the men from the boys as it were.If I look back and think of the shows which I stood for I think of the shows which truly touched me. It's important I do this so that I can remember those stellar examples of why I do what I do, and what makes theatre magical for me.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Misterman *****

Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Cillian Murphy is best known for his performances in films like Batman Begins and Breakfast on Pluto, his popularity demonstrated by the gushing fan girls sat next to me. I’m not ashamed to admit that following his performance in Misterman, I can’t help but feel a bit of a fan girl too. This 90 minute monologue showcases his virtuoso talent as self-styled preacher, Thomas Magill, is dragged through his version of living hell, whilst simultaneously multi-roling for his life.

Thomas has no doubts about his mission on earth: he surreptitiously records the sinful activities of the townsfolk of Innisfree, determined to make his hometown righteous again. The townsfolk are heard both on tape and played by Murphy.  From jittery old Mrs O’Leary to macho man Charlie McAnerny, Murphy attacks every role with incredible versatility, playing against himself with perfect comic timing. But as the play progresses, the recorded voices fill a more dominant space in his psyche and can’t be controlled by him; the schizophrenic frenzy of his character is heart-wrenching to watch.

This monologue (which owes a nod to Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape) is a brave and insightful form of characterisation from writer Enda Walsh. Walsh champions writing about Ireland and couldn’t have found a more appropriate Thomas than Irish actor, Cillian Murphy (whom Walsh worked with before on his play Disco Pigs, winning Murphy his first taste of stage acclaim). Murphy’s famously blue eyes shine angelically from the stage, inspiring immense sympathy for this pathetic disciple – a dilemma for the audience since his own sins actually make him the anti-hero of Innisfree.
Photo Credit: Catherin Ashmore
Walsh’s play explores the potential repercussions of dogged faith. Like an omen of these ramifications, the O’ Donnell’s agitating dog – which Thomas doesn’t have a healthy relationship with to say the least – continues to haunt him after its death. The re-enactment of a day in the life of Thomas Magill is played out within a vast, industrial space, like an abandoned factory. Shut up in here, his make-believe is jolted by the dog’s barking and the trembling walls as it tries to get in – or perhaps, as the animal inside Thomas struggles to get out, repressed by his stoical piety. Indeed, Murphy throws himself about the stage recklessly; a smaller space couldn’t contain his boundless energy. Jamie Vartan’s set is a conceptual masterpiece: a playground for Thomas’ singular mind (and a nightmare for whoever has to clean it after Murphy has thrown all his props left, right and centre like a baby in a pram). The animal presence turns this liberating set on its head as Gregory Clarke’s tumultuous soundscape swells into the space, and the lights flicker and fall. Adam Silverman makes no obvious allusions between the lighting and heaven, instead using the soft, surrounding darkness to isolate episodes in Magill’s life. It’s the most disturbing lighting effect that I’ve endured as an audience member, as the auditorium seems to swallow you up.

Under Enda Walsh’s direction, all the production values blend seamlessly together, as if they were a living, breathing monster. Most impressive is the layering of Murphy’s speech with the tape recordings – a risky structure, but impeccably timed. Walsh’s intelligently balanced script carries the audience through Magill’s life without the need for naturalistic devices. The poetry of Magill’s monologue paints Innisfree as a town both beautiful and ugly, so that the audience can visualise it for themselves. This poetic vision exemplifies Magill’s idealistic character; Walsh builds him a heavenly pedestal, so like a tragic hero, the greater is his fall.

Misterman is undoubtedly the best thing I’ve seen all year. An absolute triumph for Enda Walsh, whose vast vision only Thomas Magill could believe in, and only Cillian Murphy could channel. It is Magill’s belief and the audience’s shared belief in the production, which makes this production all the more raw to watch.

Stories Before Bedtime ****

Sitting back in the comfy, cosy Criterion Theatre as the lights go down, I can’t help but already feel a sense of contentment wash over me. Through these late night staged readings, Stories Before Bedtime aims to revive the tradition of reading aloud, and it definitely recalls those childhood memories of a bedtime story so many of us used to enjoy.

This evening’s set of stories/extracts were all chosen as they evoke the events of a hot summer’s day, and formed a complimentary, well-balanced programme that was both funny and moving. I hadn’t read any of the selected stories but am determined to read them all now. Dodie Smith’s, ‘I Capture The Castle’, was read by Sonya Cassidy (wonderfully childlike expression, but her projection also quite small), and although a slow starter, was a perfect example of the quality stories have to transport you. Smith’s poetic descriptions demonstrate the power of words to lure you into another world where you’re so much more aware of the beauty in it. Director Samuel Hodges took note of this with his simple staging, respecting that novels possess their own sense of ‘theatre’.

It would be an ambitious parent that reads a Virginia Woolf’s ‘The New Dress’ to their child at bedtime. But Miranda Richardson’s warm tone and subtle inflections manage to make Woolf accessible and compelling. It’s possible some of Woolf’s biting social commentary was lost on a weary audience at midnight, but Richardson’s delivery captured her witty literary voice. These two weightier stories were balanced by Matthew Horne’s reading of ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ by George Grossmith. More than the other two actors, Horne acts his reading with comical animation, that the novel couldn’t portray without Horne giving Nobody legs.

Horne’s performance pinpoints the difference between reading in your head, and reading aloud, and how some people may engage more enthusiastically with the oral form of storytelling. Recently I was shocked to discover that my partner has never actually read the Harry Potter series, but listened to it on audio as a child. Stories at Bedtime is an especially active form of storytelling which arguably responds to a technology fuelled generation that’s bored of books, and is the perfect way to rekindle our love affair with them. I’d go so far to suggest Hodges’ use of visual stimuli like smoke machines, and lighting disrupts the audience’s state of enchantment more than increases it, as the audience are reminded they’re sat in a theatre. I found the production values occasionally distracting as they weren’t smoothly integrated into the readings (with the exception of the comically timed bell in The Diary of a Nobody).

Stories at Bedtime is spectacular as it shares an experience which was so personal between parent and child all those years ago, communally, with the whole audience. Onstage, the readings could be compared to a series of monologues, if it weren’t for the authors’ use of immersive detail and freedom to imagine another world where theatrical productions impose one. It’s similar to how a child conjures a limitless dreamland after their bedtime story. This show revitalises reading, reminding us of their magic by bringing them to life.