Category: performance

The Sick of the Fringe

imageThis August I went to Edinburgh as a writer for a project called The Sick of the Fringe. Commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and conceived by artist Brian Lobel, it’s a month-long programme that aims to inspire collaboration between science and the arts. I was writing ‘diagnoses’ of the festival performances I went to see, not straightforward reviews, but more issues-based articles exploring how things like human health, the brain, the body and medicine permeate our cultural consciousness. There’s a great article about last year’s programme on the Contemporary Theatre Review, and one about this year’s project on the British Medical Journal blog.

It was a fantastic, if intense, experience. I absolutely loved being at the Fringe, the wide-ranging types of performance I got to see, and the issues each show pushed me to consider. Our brief was to write about what we saw in a completely objective way, not to judge it on whether it was an artistic success, but to consider the issues it was trying to start conversations about. I found myself writing on all kinds of topics, including ageing, alcoholism, anxiety, childhood trauma, criminality, consumerism, climate change, dementia, depression, even why women fall in love with men on death row.

I was one of a team of writers, all of us with the shared mission to see and diagnose as many performances that were tackling health-related issues as we could. Links to my diagnoses on The Sick of the Fringe website are below, and my fellow writers’ diagnoses can also be found on The Sick of the Fringe website, under the ‘Diagnoses’ tab.

Bubble Revolution
Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka
Doubting Thomas
Empty Beds
Finding Joy
Perhaps Hope
The Magnetic Diaries
The Marked
The Road to Huntsville
This is Your Future

Review | Plexus

imageThis review was written for Animations Online

A collaboration between director Aurelien Bory and dancer Kaori Ito, ‘Plexus’ sees Compagnie 111 wowing a London International Mime Festival audience once again. Bory presented his portrait of flamenco dancer Stephanie Fuster at the Barbican in 2014; this year he seeks to portray something of the life of Ito.

It’s a performance that is epic and yet confined, personal but impersonal. The stage is occupied by a huge cube formed of tightly strung, flexible wires, which Ito moves within. The structure has microphones embedded in it so it is both a set and an instrument. Swathes of fabric move inside the space like creatures, some manipulated by Ito and others independent of her. The lighting is architectural and the deep shadows geometric. Combined, the light and sound design have a powerful effect – obscuring, transforming, pixellating. Both are incredibly tactile.

Trapped inside this landscape, Ito writhes. Her physical prowess, her frustration, her pain are all laid bare within this box. Her movements speak of conflict, mastery and power. By the performance’s end I think we are all in awe of Ito. So yes we learn about her – the way her muscles rip and her mind ripples – but we also remain distant. She is shadowy, an enigma; sometimes huge, sometimes small, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes mighty. Always hard to grasp hold of.

Bory explains in his director’s note that the word plexus has several relevant meanings: originally it meant intertwining, then networks of nerves or blood vessels, and now it is used in anatomy to refer to the muscles’ inner mechanics. He says that, in portraying Ito, he wanted to explore the “innermost marks her art has carved into her living body” and how the “external entity of dance has entered her”. He achieves his vision, creating a piece of physical theatre that is both muscular and cerebral. For those of us watching, the effect of Ito suspended inside this strange stringed space is fascinating, hypnotic and visually stunning.

Review | Light


This review was written for Animations Online

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s pacy new show takes us on a journey into a dark, dystopian future where we have gone beyond the smart phone and embraced the implant. Using no set and barely any props, the company cleverly uses brights lights and deep darkness to construct a terrifying future where everything we ever think of is collected as data.

The invasive new implant technology will apparently free people from terror, crime, any evil you like. Except torture by the authorities of course. The implant isn’t optional but if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. Sounds strangely familiar… ‘Light’ was inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowden and starkly explores a possible outcome of our willingness, or otherwise, to give up our personal information.

The show is technically brilliant. The actors use torches and LED strip lights to create the futuristic landscape they move through. Little red lights cleverly show thought data being sent and captured; green lights represent freedom from being watched. A dirty red light indicates we are in someone’s ‘mind space’. The humble torch becomes a star here, casting fantastically atmospheric beams of light that pick up every dust particle swirling on stage.

The sound design (by Chris Bartholomew) is equally powerful and incredibly effective – both the sound effects and the music. The actors are completely in sync with the sound, which adds the essential extra layer to bring their world to life. The cast are brilliant mimes, convincingly occupying the light and sound space they create, and communicating without spoken words. There are voiceless shouts, sometimes deciphered by surtitles, but most of the meaning comes from their stellar movements.

The enveloping darkness that hides the hands behind the moving lights is a vehicle for a kind of puppetry – the actors manipulate the beams and tiny handheld lights in way that gives them independent life and new meaning. A torture scene behind a white sheet uses shadow play to powerful effect, illustrating psychological torture especially well and recalling the catalogue of techniques used by the CIA and recently made public. This is a vision of the future but it is very much rooted in the present, a present where David Cameron is currently pushing for the police and secret services to have even more access to our data.

Within all this is the story of a relationship breakdown and a soap-opera style revelation about who an agent’s mother is. In itself the story isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but as a piece of visual, physical theatre you will be gripped. Director George Mann says he was “filled with a sense of urgency to make the play”, describing it as a way for him to “express his deep concern about the kind of society we are sleepwalking into.” He does a good job. I recommend watching ‘Light’ in conjunction with 1927’s ‘Golem’ (the delivery is completely different but the message strikingly similar) and ‘Citizenfour’, Laura Poitras’ Oscar nominated documentary. It would be a triple bill of viewing pleasure but one that would really make you think.

Review | The Greatest Liar in All the World


This review was written for Animations Online

Not a puppet show but one of many performances with puppets in it at this year’s Mimetic Festival, ‘The Greatest Liar in All the World’ is a darkly comic riff on the Pinocchio story for adults. Sporting heavy eyeliner, scruffy black tie and crushed velvet capes, Familia de la Noche‘s five person ensemble set a gothic mood for our “prince of porkies” to embark on a spot of cathartic truth telling. He is solidly human but we delve into his more wooden past.

The first shocking truth about Pinocchio is that he was born not carved. The unwanted result of a tryst between a woman and a stick, he is born in secret and abandoned immediately. Our protagonist begins life as a skinny wooden puppet with a light, papier mache head. He has a fixed quizzical expression and pursed lips. Pinocchio is briefly adopted by an Italian with a whittling problem (Geppetto), who helpfully swaps one of his legs for a wooden spoon dooming him to walk in circles.

This disability leads to a rescue and the beginning of an ill-fated romance between the wooden boy and a brilliant, tiny clown in a powder blue dress. The story that unwinds from here features a particularly well performed fox and cat who both have a decidedly nasty streak; some gruesome hessian masks that transform the wearers into a pig, a chicken and a donkey; a military caper and a great escape; plus some fast but attractive shadow puppetry.

There’s suicide, abandonment, lost love and broken hearts. The puppetry is necessary for the story – and the three-person puppeteering of Pinocchio is perfectly good – but it’s the humans that are most engaging to watch, with their exaggerated expressions, clowning about and, ultimately, their touching loyalty to the human Pinocchio. This is a piece of macabre and energetic storytelling for grown-ups that has some surprisingly poignant parts amongst the humour and the horror.

Review | Our Town


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


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


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

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


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.