Category: Londonist

Review | Our Town

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This review was written for the Londonist

“I regard theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being” — Thornton Wilder in the Paris Review, 1956.

Hear, hear. And it’s simply being human that Wilder’s play Our Town explores, gently ranging across the years 1901 to 1913, describing the very ordinary lives of the residents of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.

Actor/director David Cromer’s staging of Wilder’s play has just transferred to London after a long and successful run off-Broadway. In America the play is well known and loved; here, not so much. This run at the Almeida will no doubt change that. It’s a funny and poignant piece of theatre — with strong performances from the entire cast — that’s worth your time and money.

Split into three acts, it deals with daily life, love and marriage, and death. There’s no stage and the space between the actors and the audience is fluid. As Wilder intended, there are no props and lots of thin air. And so there’s room for simple words convincingly delivered to conjure up everything from a terrible moon to the scent of heliotrope; words to make you laugh and cry. And there’s also room for a wonderful twist in the staging of the final act that draws a gasp from the audience.

Not much happens in Grover’s Corners but that’s the point. This is real life, circa the early 1900s, and there’s something deliciously cosy about it. Who needs fictional dramas, when life itself — ordinary life not extraordinary life — is enough of a story in itself.

Review | Clouds

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This review was written for the Londonist

Welcoming the start of the summer holidays in surreal style, Clouds is a swirling, whirling visual treat. Spanish company Aracaladanza use playful dance to bring scenes from Rene Magritte’s paintings to life. The choreography is synchronised, the set simple and the colours bold primaries. Aimed at anyone aged four and over, the performance avoids Magritte’s more risqué work but the artist’s signature black suits and bowler hats, green apples and fluffy white clouds all feature. Solidly positive throughout, Clouds has a sophistication about it, and never feels patronising or twee.

There’s no obvious narrative but each oddball scene feeds smoothly into the next. Highlights include playful shadow work as the dancers experiment between spotlights and a white screen; bulging tutus stuffed with white balloons that transform the women wearing them into clouds; a sequence where all the dancers noisily and joyfully do their thing wearing flippers; and — best of all — a comedic sequence where the dancers are all dressed in elongated suits, with springs for necks and white, featureless heads bobbing around on top. The show ends with a heavy snow shower, which seems a strange thing at this time of year, but also rather refreshing to witness during a heatwave. Clouds doesn’t have a message or a moral, it’s just pure, well-staged fun.

Review | Leviathan

Lononist_leviathan 02©angela_alegria_WEB

This review was written for the Londonist

On a hot evening what could be finer than trip out to sea? A company that focuses on the visual and the physical, Living Structures are currently creating an ocean in a land locked bit of central Hackney. Based on Melville’s epic tome Moby Dick, and using extracts from the book, Leviathan offers just a snapshot of the story, focusing, of course, on the pursuit of the white whale. Ishmael and Ahab are here but their characters are weak and undeveloped in the face of a visual storm.

And what a visual storm it is: huge swathes of canvas, rope, rigging and inflated silk imaginatively whisk us out to sea on a whaling boat. It’s an illusion boosted by atmospheric lighting and eerie chants. Even the audience are attractively uniformed in white plastic macs to protect us from the (gentle) spray. The opening scene – where waves are projected onto a sweep of fabric for a naked Ishmael to swim across – is neatly matched by a closing scene where we find ourselves underwater, the fabric now sweeping over our heads and Ishmael clambering away from us.

Tightly choreographed and visually strong then, the problem is Leviathan is all atmosphere and no depth. Looking at the long credits, no writer or dramaturg is listed and you can tell. Much of what is said here is barely audible, delivered as it is through loud hailers or drowned out by other discordant sounds. Even plays without words benefit from strong dramaturgy. It’s an attractive performance, and the productions values are high, but go for the spectacle rather than anything more substantial.

Review | The Valley of Astonishment

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This review was written for the Londonist

Synaesthesia is a joining of the senses. It’s when you experience sound as colour, say, or numbers as tastes and names as texture. A piece of music might appear as giant puffs of glittering smoke. It sounds wonderful, right? Watch this play and you’ll probably change your mind. Synaesthetes live in a heightened version of the world, which – as the central character in The Valley of Astonishment explains – can be a rich paradise but also a particular kind of hell.

For a play about multi-sensory experiences, where lists of words or numbers are laden with colour, texture and a vivid geography, the set in the Young Vic’s main space is surprisingly sparse: a few light wood chairs, a plain pine table, characters dressed mainly in black and white. It comes to be a great illustration of how things can appear very ordinary, even boring, on the surface while fireworks are exploding underneath. Rather than relying on stage tricks, it’s a funny and poignant script by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, a cast of three excellent, multi-tasking actors and gentle live music that bring The Valley of Astonishment to life.

Kathryn Hunter, who plays a journalist with an extraordinary memory, is a wonder. Her small frame and elastic face ripple with both torment and joy as she experiments and is experimented on. Don’t get us wrong, this isn’t a play about exploitation. Hunter is a willing patient and the doctors who work with her are full of admiration and respect. She is, in their eyes, a phenomenon. Together they explore her mental capacities, which she puts to the ultimate test after losing her job as a reporter and taking to the stage instead. The moment when her ultimate plight – the inability to forget – is laid bare is when we fully understand that her sparkling brain is as much a curse as a blessing.

Review | Red Forest

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This review was written for the Londonist

What do you know about Belarus, that landlocked state in Eastern Europe that borders Ukraine and Russia, as well as Poland, Latvia and Lithuania? Did you know it ranks as one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom? That it has been called Europe’s last dictatorship? That the government wants to bring back serfdom?

Freedoms in Belarus are so restricted that the Belarus Free Theatre, founded in 2005, was forced to flee in 2011 and has been working with political asylum in London ever since. It’s a compelling back story that loads productions the company makes with a particular potency. Its latest piece — Red Forest, presented during this year’s LIFT festival at the Young Vic – is theatre as documentary, like much of the company’s work before it. It brings narrated first person testimonies to life with great physicality and emotion.

We follow the fortunes of a pregnant woman forced to flee her village, whose symbolic journey allows her to experience refugee-making disasters, both natural and manmade, in Ivory Coast, Algeria, Japan, Brazil and Chernobyl. Moving through an effective set of red sand and water, the choreographed cast enact the devastation without words. The voices we hear — collected first hand during research trips made by the company — are both pre-recorded and read out live by black-clad narrators.

The performance is a blend of joyful scenes that can border on cheesy and others that are utterly brutal. It’s less a story from beginning to middle to end than a relentless repetition of simple happiness crushed, again and again; a repetition shot through with a mother’s screams, finally culminating in a searing gang rape on the Spanish border.

We ventured into the Red Forest and left wondering if happiness will always be such a fragile thing, and if there’s anything much to be hopeful about.

Review | The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean

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This review was written for the Londonist

Did you keep a scrapbook as a kid? An oversized, blank canvas of a book that you filled with ephemera from family holidays and the like? Then you have something in common with Artemis Mood, whose intriguing scrapbook is being prodded, probed and thoroughly analysed in the Spirit Level at the Royal Festival Hall this half term week.

A bona fide doctor of scrapology – played by the utterly brilliant Shona Reppe – is leading proceedings. Clad in a lab coat, and armed with a strong magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers, she is scratching and sniffing her way to some curious conclusions about a bearded Victorian clock maker and his increasingly mysterious beau, Josephine Bean.

Playful, simple and sweet, ‘The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean’ is a small-scale, one woman detective show that uncovers a delightful secret of minute proportions hidden among some dusty pages. It would spoil the surprise if we revealed more. Aimed at everyone over seven, the parents are as enthralled as their offspring, all craning their necks to see what the sparkly eyed Reppe will pull from the scrapbook next.

See for yourself – The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean plays at the Southbank Centre until Sunday 1 June 2014.

Review | The Silver Tassie

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This review was written for the Londonist

A First World War play set in Dublin and France, The Silver Tassie is a bizarre, unsettling song-poem of a production full of sad echoes and slow beating rhythms. It doesn’t make for an easy evening – it’s an odd, experimental mixture of the domestic and the surreal without characters you can fully grasp hold of. But the distance created seems intentional, a way of making us feel the senselessness of war, and the performance has a sustaining wit and lyricism throughout. And pyrotechnics. More about those later.

A precursor for Oh What A Lovely War, Sean O’Casey’s play was famously rejected in 1928 as “a series of unrelated scenes” by none other than William Butler Yeats. Audiences at the National Theatre in 2014 do seem slightly baffled by its mix of kitchen sink drama, comi-tragic operatics and a kind of twisted incantation, though Yeats’ accusation doesn’t stand in this staging. The four distinct acts work as a whole, with threads and themes in each tying them together, building momentum towards an eery final scene, a dance of death, where the women slow dance with dummy soldiers to the cabaret-style croons of the army doctor.

But let’s go back to basics. What exactly is a Tassie? It’s a cup, of the large, polished trophy kind. It appears early on, the reward for the main character Harry’s footballing prowess, and again, loaded with symbolism, in the last act when Harry is home from the war but crippled. And how about those promised pyrotechnics? Warnings about explosions create a (childish, we know) frisson of excitement before entering the theatre, but the reality is pretty brutal, not a party trick but purposefully deafening and relentless. Act Two – set in a ruined monastery where some soldiers are hiding out – closes with a barrage of guns and a huge cannon pointed directly at the audience, which is unnerving to say the least.

Review | Rubbish

Theatre-Rites. "Rubbish".

This review was written for the Londonist

Looking for a treat for a child this Easter that’s not chocolate or egg shaped? How about something sticky, icky and encased in a black bin liner? Rubbish is inspired by the treasures that lurk in our bulging bins. It’s a beautiful blend of human and puppet action, where bin contents come alive as a kooky team of ‘excavators’ rummage through a towering pile of rubbish-stuffed black bags.

Not shy of tackling serious subjects for young audiences – its last one was about the banking crisis – Theatre Rites’ latest show is about the importance of reusing and recycling, though the message is subtle. As the excavators delve into various bin bags, they set a gaggle of characters free. Constructed from some rather attractive rubbish – we would happily take home the brown leather lace-up boots and the Falcon enamel colander if anyone’s offering – the objects are brought to life with some seriously good puppetry.

There’s a lisping, laughing duck made from a jug, a mop of a dog with a bottle nose and tennis ball feet, and a light-headed man, who is as tall as he is mysterious. A highlight is the tiny figure magicked out of a yellow gloved hand. The puppeteer is dextrous, able to shape his hand into a human and keep it like that for some time. The tiny person walks through a tabletop cityscape of suitcases and into a shadowy forest of brooms, where he ice-skates on a silver tray.

Rubbish is enjoyable for grown-ups but how about the kids? Featuring a dash of the obligatory audience participation they so seem to love, some gunky black ooze that makes them squeal, and a lively theme song that gets everyone clapping, this is children’s theatre at its best. Never patronising or sentimental – in fact, decidedly eerie at points – it’s a delicious Easter treat for everyone seven and over.

Review | La Meute

LaMeute_credit BEN HOPPER
This review was written for the Londonist

“Just watch out if you’re in the way of the Russian swing”, warns the man on stage before the lights go out. Russian swing. Sounds like it might be some kind of dance music, or perhaps a parlour game popular with married oligarchs. No? Maybe a military manoeuvre, a new tool for annexation?

It’s actually a type of circus. And it’s a suitable starting sentence, heralding as it does the beginning of Circus Fest’s five week programme of dare devil acts. Circus is, after all, partly about performers taking risks that make audiences squirm, that make them “watch out”.

Take the classic apparatus you’d find in a playground, then imagine something much more solid and able to host six men at once. Sometimes it’s strapped to the floor, sometimes it’s unnervingly loose. In full swing, it’s able to propel a person at high speed some distance into the air.

Compagnie La Meute (The Wolf Pack), dressed in nothing but precariously placed towels, are currently showing audiences how Russian swing is done in the main space at the Roundhouse, London’s very own big-top of bricks.

Their show – also called La Meute – is loose, shifting nonchalantly in pace and mood. Sometimes it’s slow, silent and even comes to a worrying halt (we’re unsure if this was planned or not). At other points it’s frenetic, slapstick, loud. Music is important, with the all-male cast able to sing and play sax and guitar, as well as perform acrobatic feats. Sometimes they do both at once.

The men, in their rather bemusing towel nappies, use the Russian swing to full and comic effect, blending ease with nerves of steel. They are careful to make sure we realise its power, letting it smash cups out of their hands and landing with thumping force when they fly off it.

The swing is, of course, a focal point but only half the action takes place on it. The rest is floor-based tumbling and balancing acts. Clearly a close knit group of friends, the performers enjoy playing tricks on each other, plus inflicting a certain amount of pain – from toying towel slaps to the face, to some eye-watering handstands resting on each other’s groins.

La Meute isn’t breathtaking or flashy; the company lay their effort bare to an extent. A quiet moment towards the end, where one performer carefully applies chalk to his hands under the warm glow of an anglepoise lamp, has a welcome intimacy and honesty. Overall, it’s an interesting start to a festival that promises an exciting array of circus shows over the next few weeks.

Review | Rift Zone

Rift Zone © Richard Davenport

This review was written for the Londonist

A potent performance delivered with thrilling intensity by Night Light Theatre, Rift Zone transports you to Iceland with minimal props but maximum atmosphere. Dubbed ‘a brand new saga from the land of fire and ice’, it’s a burst of energy and magic that progresses over 90 minutes from sweet to searing.

The story, which put simply is a coming-of-age one about misplaced love, is told through a script that ripples with humour and poetry. It features an Icelandic family (mother, sister, brother) who are all, in their own way, obsessed with their country’s legends and folklore. There’s also an American increasingly intent on raping the land’s natural resources, and a wild academic who spends a lot of the time in only his pants and favours speaking in alliterative verse. The boundaries between myth and reality are always blurred.

The young ensemble are all accomplished actors, musicians and movers. It’s not a musical but the live music and songs are essential to the plot, and have an edgy, raw quality. There’s something of the indie rock gig about this performance. With a few bare light bulbs and some rich language, they manage to create a landscape where the breath hangs thick in the icy air (like curling steam from a kettle just before it boils) and the Aurora pulses in the mind’s eye.

Rift Zone is inspired by the emerging company’s own trip to Iceland in search of elves and Vikings, and reflects stories they heard and people they encountered while they were there. Despite the fact we watch it just off the relentless Euston Road (in the tiny New Diorama), and none of the cast are Icelandic, it’s a convincing experience. For the next couple of weeks, Euston offers the chance of an evening in the Rift Zone, a place that has a dark electricity all of its own.