Category: performance

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.

The play’s the thing | exploring the V&A’s puppetry collection

V&A archive 01

This feature was written for Animations Online

Allison Ouvry is nervous and excited. After winning access to the V&A’s puppet archive last year, she and a crack team of creatives have been charged with breathing new life into the collection while, at the same time, celebrating the Bard’s 450th birthday. This Easter, The Puppet Story theatre collective, of which Allison is part, will perform ‘Shakespeare: The Puppet Show‘ to young V&A visitors during the museum’s Shakespeare festival. Until then, there’s a lot to do. A freshly written script to learn, a set to build and a mass of old puppets to recreate.

I meet Allison on a sunshine-and-showers early spring day. Even when the drizzle turns into driving rain, her enthusiasm for the project doesn’t dwindle. It turns out she is near neighbours with Blythe House, the V&A’s imposing archival building in Olympia. The proximity of the puppetry collection to Allison’s home gives the collaboration a feeling of fate. She’s booked us a couple of hours in the archive so she can introduce some of the characters that have shaped the show.

The imposing red brick Blythe House – the former headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank – has the aura of a dignified Edwardian hospital, a place where great artefacts are sent for rest and restoration. After signing in and stowing our bags in lockers, we are shown down long, echoing corridors and up a set stairs to a locked room full of tall white cabinets.

V&A archive 02

The cabinets have windows and inside, filed away in neat rows, lie a multitude of puppets. Mainly marionettes carved from wood – although some glove, rod and shadow too – there are characters and creatures here of all shapes and sizes. Wandering down the room’s hushed aisles, you will catch the eye of musicians, kings, playwrights and princesses; an owl, a camel, a frog and a fox; genies, monsters, Punch and Judy. An archive viewed by appointment only, the puppets don’t get out much and for Allison it is both an honour and a responsibility to have access to this unique world. It’s a quiet place but one gently pulsing with potential life; these now silent puppets must once have led colourful lives.

There are over 250 puppets stored in the V&A archive. When Allison and her collaborator (and husband) Martin Ouvry first visited last year, it was an overwhelming experience. They had limited time and rushed through the shelves, trying to meet as many puppets as possible and garner ideas for a show.

Impossible to use everything on offer in the archive, Allison and Martin honed in on a few puppets that really grabbed their attention. A three headed puppet known as the Scaramouche, a dainty young woman with a determined look in her eye called Pimpinella, a cheeky shadow Karaghoz, a skeleton and a ruddy, long nosed Punch. And the star of the show will be the Martinek Giant, a green hued Robin Hood esque fellow, with felt hair and a beautifully carved face that gives him a rugged, serious look.

V&A archive 03

Their initial ideas have developed into a final story that’s set in the modern day. The puppets, each grappling with his or her sense of identity, are offered the chance to break free from the archive by auditioning to be in a Shakespeare play. It sounds like it might be a wild cross between Toy Story and The X Factor, with as many puppets and Shakespearean allusions as possible thrown in. Youngsters will be educated and amused; adults will no doubt try and identify quotes from as many plays as they can.

Because of the delicate state of the puppets – some are over a hundred years old –The Puppet Story collective are recreating them rather than using the originals. This means they can swap strings for rods in most instances, making convincing manipulation much easier to achieve. Max Humphries, recently resident at The National Theatre, is making the majority of the rod puppets, while Emma Powell is devoting her paper engineering talents to numerous shadow characters. The collective also includes composer and foley artist Andrew Sleightholme; set designer and metal artist Norrie Steele; director Jessica Fox; plus puppeteers/singers, Allison, Martin and Darren East.

Review | The A-Z of Mrs P

THE A TO Z OF MRS P, Southwark Playhouse, London, UK.

This review was written for the Londonist

How many people walk about wielding an A-Z these days? Pre Google maps it was normal for even hardened Londoners to have one about their person when they ventured into unknown parts of town. Do you even know where your battered, once-essential street guide is any more? Find it and you’ll probably discover you harbour a surprising amount of feeling for its well-thumbed pages – it will take you back to your earliest days in the capital – which is why a musical about the humble A-Z might prove popular. That and the fact Isy Suttie from Peep Show is the show’s star, her first ever venture into musical theatre.

The A-Z of Mrs P is a “fable” based on the autobiographies of Phyllis Pearsall, the woman responsible for the first ever A-Z street map of London. Intensely sweet – occasionally sickly saccharine – it shows how Mrs P transformed herself from whimsical painter to master map maker. There is only so much you can say about the A-Z in this context and the musical focuses increasingly intently on Mrs P’s family, especially her relationship with her overbearing father. It’s this that adds a welcome dash of darkness and pathos, and makes the musical a less glossy but much more engaging production.

The A-Z of Mrs P - Su Blackwell sculpture

In the spirit of Mrs P’s endless lists, here’s my (slightly dubious) A-Z of The A-Z of Mrs P:

Art – the play gently explores the clash between artistic tendencies and hard nosed business
Best foot forward” – one of Mrs P’s relentlessly cheery mottoes
Ceiling – the theatre is strung with an explosion of suitcases, street signs, miniature houses, furniture and postcards
Drawing – being a good draughtsman, we learn, is one of the keys to good map making
Elastic – as Mrs P, Isy Suttie’s expressive face often speaks a thousand words
Family – ostensibly about maps, the musical is more of a family portrait
Geography – who knew a musical could be made about it?
Hungarian – Michael Matus plays Mrs P’s demanding father, an ambitious but adulterous immigrant who drives Mrs P and her mother to distraction
Indexing – another key to good map making
Jumps in time – we zip back in time to the understand more about the family’s past, then rush forward through a world war, a crippling plane crash and into old age
King – context and insight is offered by cabbies, bus drivers and hawkers. We learn of the king’s abdication, and Mrs P’s loneliness, from a newspaperman
Lovely London Town – Mrs P’s greatest love is the city and The A-Z… pays due homage
Maps – obviously
Nostalgia – there’s oodles of it here
On we go!” – another stoic Mrs P motto
Mrs P – she’s an enigmatic character, her more recent past glimpsed only in tantalising snatches, including a period sleeping rough in Paris and a husband she leaves with apparently little consequence, no mean feat in the 1930s
Quickstep – Mrs P literally walks the whole of London in order to plot out her first map
RP – Mrs P is deliciously well spoken in a 1930s Chelsea sort of way
Southwark Playhouse – the musical is on here until 29 March
Telegrams. Stop. Lots of them. Stop. Used cleverly to allow transatlantic conversations.
Upset – the second half is darker and more dramatic, as Mrs P’s mother is driven mad and her bullish father shows his true colours
Venice – we first meet Mrs P as she steals away from Venice, leaving behind a life we learn nothing about
Women – the frustrations of being female in the 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond are keenly felt
eXtraordinary memory – Isy Suttie sings long, tongue twisting lists of street names with aplomb
Yellow trousers – Mrs P’s wardrobe of wide trousers, brogues and head scarves is a vintage loving Londoner’s dream
Zeal – Mrs P exudes it, and all the actors approach the story with a charming gusto that is hard to resist.

Review | Green Porno

Isabella Rossellin as snail

This article was written for the Guardian

The sickly spoils of Valentine’s Day aside, nature lovers will know the air is already thick with sex. In my bit of London, buds are bulging, swans are thrusting and fox’s pre-coital screams cut through the soupy dusk. Here, the blossom has already started to come. Green Porno was perfectly timed, therefore, on Sunday night. Indeed, it packed out the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall with insect fans and Isabella Rossellini worshippers alike.

The actress has recently been to university to study the natural world and is now itching to share what she’s discovered. So she has written a book and developed an illustrated lecture about the extraordinary and varied ways creatures find to reproduce. Alone on an empty stage save for a lectern, Rossellini admits that what she’s going to reveal won’t be pornographic but promises it will be obscene. Will it be erotic? That depends on your tastes.

Ranging through the sex lives of snails and spiders, to ducks, dolphins and even barnacles, this is the sort of lecture that dreams are made of. It’s surreal, dirty and meandering. Rossellini delivers what she calls her “conference” with wit and without inhibition, and accompanied by some utterly bonkers and brilliant films. She is both worldly wise and wide-eyed with wonder about her subject. Biodiversity needs champions like this.

Rossellini begins by discussing flowers and the fact us humans proudly give and display bouquets of sex organs. “I’ve seen them in churches” she gasps, with mock disgust. She goes on to describe and illustrate all kinds of copulation in vivid detail, explaining she best understands something if she can get inside the skin of it. As an actress, she must become the praying mantis that is beheaded by his lover or the female spider who is eaten by her offspring. To do this, she sports some fantastical outfits and stars alongside paper puppets in a series of short films.

In one of these films, we see her dressed up as a snail, complete with enormous slimy foot, stuffed inside a shell with her head and anus in dangerously close proximity. She demonstrates that snails are sadomasochists, shooting ‘darts’ at potential mates to turn them on. Later, on stage, she explains how dragonflies have sex, using a pair of winged rubber gloves and a toothbrush as props. The brush is for wiping away anything previous romantic visitors might have left behind. We learn that, relatively speaking, the barnacle boasts the longest penis in the natural world, and that female ducks have labyrinthine vaginas. And that dolphins have exotic uses for their fins and blowholes.

Sex sells of course, as do cult film stars, and this is science at its most silly and overtly adult. But Rossellini’s hilarious appreciation of the natural world and its sexual wonders is infectious. Green Porno has an earthy intellect and can’t be dismissed as merely eccentric. She focuses on the sex stories but doesn’t completely ignore manmade mass extinctions or climate change.

Our engaging lecturer celebrates the fact biodiversity is weird, wonderful and essential. That nature is capable of incredible, eyebrow-raising things. And I can’t think of many things more entertaining than Isabella Rossellini dressed as an earthworm, happily prostrate on a gangplank, convincing Noah why she doesn’t need to board the ark two-by-two because she’s hermaphrodite. Creepy crawlies have a new spokesperson and they really couldn’t wish for a better one. And if you’re looking for a Valentine’s gift for a nature lover with a GSOH, the Green Porno book and films could be perfect.

The Magic Makers

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This article was written for the Barbican

Tom Morris (artistic director of Bristol Old Vic), Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones (co-founders of Handspring Puppet Company), talk about life after ‘War Horse’ and their new collaboration on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

For director Tom Morris, the decision to work with puppets never felt like a radical one. Talking as he cycles to catch a train, he’s not just breathless with exertion but also with enthusiasm for the theatrical possibilities puppetry offers. It’s a passion he’s nursed for some time.

Working at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) in the 1990s, Tom shared a building with the Puppet Centre, an organisation determined to get puppetry taken seriously. Their enthusiasm was infectious. During this period Handspring Puppet Company came over from South Africa to perform at BAC, sealing Tom’s fate.

He later collaborated with them on ‘War Horse’, which has played to millions worldwide and is credited with sweeping puppetry firmly into the mainstream. As Toms says, “puppetry isn’t taboo any more.”

In a post ‘War Horse’ world, a second collaboration with Handspring was inevitable. The decision was to do something completely different next, a version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that Tom describes as “wildly experimental” and that features both people and puppets. It first played at the Bristol Old Vic last spring and comes to the Barbican in February.

Shakespeare’s play is well suited to puppetry, dealing as it does with the tricks the imagination can play. According to Basil Jones, executive producer at Handspring, “everything is potentially alive” in the production. “We slightly jokingly said everything has the right to life, so even floorboards can come alive.”

Hippolyta is imagined as a sculptress, crafting images of the spirits she hopes will bless her imminent marriage. These then come alive as puppets. “Out of the figures she makes, chaos erupts,” explains Tom.

Handspring has created about 30 fantastical puppets for the play, made from wood and cane, and ranging in scale from tiny to giant. Oberon and Titania stand two and half metres tall. Sometimes they’re used in bits – just a huge head and larger than life hand, say – and other times presented as the complete figure.

“The aesthetic of the play is a little bit future survivalist,” explains Adrian Kohler, artistic director of Handspring. “There seems to have been some destructive force on the universe that these people live in. It’s a world where magic has possibly been reinvented, or brought back into the lives of the characters because they need it. The puppets are an embodiment of that language.”

Shakespeare’s audiences believed in supernatural forces and spirits, and with this production Tom wants you to as well. “The audience creates the life of the show. This is true of all theatre to a certain extent but with puppetry nothing can happen unless the audience believes the puppets are alive.”

Expectations run high after ‘War Horse’, but the chance to revive their second show together feels like a privilege. After presenting ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’ in 2011, this is a welcome return to the Barbican for Handspring.

“The show is a fluid entity, it’s a work that’s continually evolving,” says Adrian. “The production at the Barbican is fortunate as we have the opportunity to refine it further. We hope people come with an open mind to how we’ve interpreted Shakespeare, rather than how we have rehashed ‘War Horse’.”

Review | What’s Become of You?

Compagnie 111, What’s Become of You (Questcequetudeviens) Stéphanie Fuster, Alberto Garcia. (c) Aglaé

This review was written for Animations Online

French flamenco dancer Stephanie Fuster asked experimental theatre director Aurelien Bory (Compagnie 111) to write her a show, and ‘What’s Become of You?’ is the intimate result. It’s a portrait of an artist, revealing Fuster’s strength and her vulnerability. Performed at the Barbican during the final weekend of this year’s London International Mime Festival, it’s a suitably vivid piece of visual theatre that lays bare the spirit of the dance, and dancer.

We first meet the dancer as a novice, working through rhythms and wearing a full, traditional red dress complete with flamenco frills. This dress slowly develops a life of its own, and Fuster’s playful interaction with it is an early highlight. It allows her to recline, three feet off the floor, and turn 360 degrees in mid air. It eventually becomes independent and she is left alone in her underwear. An ambitious dreamer, reality awaits.

A Spanish guitarist and singer – Jose Sanchez and Alberto Garcia – are now present on stage, providing a haunting traditional soundtrack, and we meet Fuster again, track-suited, as she begins her training. A shipping container with a mirrored wall and a glass side provides a studio. As her repetitive practise grows faster and more obsessive, the lighting darkens to red and the glass steams up. She dances with her mirror image, fascinated with what she is becoming, and presses herself against the room’s side, leaving body prints in the foggy glass. Her footwork is incredibly fast and there is a mad heat in the air.

The third and final part of the piece sees Fuster centre stage, in a simple black dress and heels, with water flooding around her feet. She stomps through her moves with impressive vigour and a certain violence, sending water spraying into the air. The red dress reappears, inert, defeated, as a towel to mop her wet face.

The shadow-play becomes increasingly inventive and descriptive. At one point, Fuster’s image is projected in huge shadow onto the wall above the container and it looks like she is on top of a tall building, or on the edge of a precipice. The rippling shapes cast on the container by the disturbed water are hypnotic.

The floor has microphones within it and, every time Fuster’s feet slam down, the impact reverberates through the theatre. Suddenly she slips and can no longer stay standing. The lights go down on her completely soaked, prostrate in the shallow water. As the dancer is humbled, it feels like we’re witnessing something deeply personal as well as carefully choreographed. ‘What’s Become of You’ is an accomplished, slick piece of dance theatre; it is also raw, brave and honest.

Review | Folds

Photo by Gerardo Sanz
This review was written for the Londonist

It turns out the wrapping can be as much fun for grown-ups as it is for toddlers, if the four men in Folds are anything to go by. They manage to construct a whole show almost entirely out of cardboard and brown paper. Using circus skills and gentle humour, production company Enfila’t explore some of these humble materials’ possibilities. Paper can be twisted into a tightrope as well as used as a projectile; and who knew a man dashing around inside a cardboard box could be so amusing?

Music is central to this show – the double bass acts as both apparatus and instrument; a length of stretched sticky tape is plucked like string. Accordion, banjo and tuba provide more of the soundtrack. There’s also a huge metal rocker thing that the men tumble all over, rolling nailbitingly close to the edge of the stage. The moment when the ensemble are all on the rocker, making music in eccentric positions, is a highlight.

Down to earth, Folds shows a more intimate and simple side of circus. Multilingual (French, Spanish and Danish, as well as a smattering of English), it’s the shapes thrown on stage that are important rather than the words. There isn’t a narrative as such, just a playful spirit and a dash of derring-do. If you’re looking for a family show this Christmas, this one is sweet without being sickly. It’s not glitzy or jaw dropping, but it has charm.

Review | Fortune’s Fool

Fortune's Fool at the Old Vic. Photo by Jay Brooks.

This review was written for the Londonist

The back story to ‘Fortune’s Fool’ makes a somewhat soap opera-ish comedy of manners political rather than just petty. Turgenev’s play was banned when he first tried to publish it in 1848. The Russian censors didn’t like the fact it exposed the pettiness and vulnerabilities of the rural gentry, and by extension quietly criticised the wider Russian social system.

The world Turgenev depicts is one he knew well – he hailed from an estate far grander than the one in the play, boasting 5,000 serfs and a despotic mother. Four years after ‘Fortune’s Fool’ was banned, the writer found himself imprisoned and then exiled to this estate for writing an admiring obituary of Gogol. Turgenev was producing work in a revolutionary era that loaded everything with extra potency.

We live in less potent times. But the play does have something of an edge right now as it’s the first time it’s ever been staged in London’s West End. In fact Fortune’s Fool was pretty much lost until Mike Poulton, via a bored bookish friend, stumbled upon it. Poulton’s lively adaptation, which was a hit in the US, has finally found its way to our shores.

Sometimes a play is so absorbing you forget it’s make believe. That’s never the case here. It depicts a world where show and surface are all, and the characters follow such strict social rules it’s like they are all merely pretending to live. None of them has enough depth to make you truly care about them, but they are entertaining enough. And it’s always fun to see the upper classes looking ridiculous.

The play’s original Russian title translates as ‘hanger on’, and the story charts the fate of such a sponger, a gentleman called Kuzovkin. He’s lived in another family’s house for 30 years but the daughter’s recent marriage and return to her country pile makes his future uncertain.

Enter the sweet young couple, swiftly followed by an outrageous neighbour and his fishy sidekick. Add some bickering below-stairs staff and oodles of booze and you’ve got yourself an explosion. Iain Glen as Kuzovkin is suitably mawkish and Richard McCabe as the interfering neighbour Tropatchov is as wildly vile as he can be.

The daughter’s parentage is called into question as events turn from hammy to decidedly sinister towards the end of the first half. The truth will out, socially acceptable cover stories are devised, and people are paid off. Humiliation hangs thick in the air, hastily buttered over with politeness. Thankfully, even that cracks in the end.

Review | Satyagraha

ENO SATYAGRAHA- ENO Chorus, Alan Oke (c) Donald Cooper

This review was written for Animations Online

Abstract and atmospheric, Philip Glass’ ‘Satyagraha’ has been revived by the English National Opera in collaboration with Improbable for six performances at the London Coliseum. Featuring giant puppets and a swirling score, the opera covers Gandhi’s early years in South Africa – a crucial but under reported period in the young lawyer’s life when he first developed the idea of satyagraha, which translates as ‘truth force’.

An opera about non-violence sung in ancient Sanskrit without surtitles may sound challenging but this gentle, epic work is worth any effort. Through powerful music, strong visuals and a brilliant, silent ‘skills ensemble’ of manipulators, it effectively expresses its ideas about people power in a way that doesn’t require you to follow the text. It’s a non-linear piece, jumping back and forth in space and time. The circling narrative mirrors Glass’ circling, repetitive score. The overall effect is hypnotic and suitably meditative.

Newspaper is a key material in the production, just as a weekly newspaper called ‘Indian Opinion’ was crucial in spreading the word about satyagraha to the movement Gandhi inspired. Sheets of newspaper act as screens to be projected onto, while rolls of the stuff form huge streamers that projections can flow down. It is balled up into a heaving seething mass and untangled to form large textural human and animal shapes. Cellotape is an important material on stage too, proving surprisingly versatile and interesting, as both structure and puppet.

The set is made from sheets of corrugated metal that’s rusted to a deep golden hue. Windows and doors are lifted out of it to reveal the icons that inspired Gandhi and, later, huge papier mache puppet gods. Other puppets include some giant fat cat like figures, which tower over the tiny human Gandhi and are operated single-handedly and not entirely gracefully by people on stilts. A short episode featuring a five person strong crocodile made from large baskets is impressive. The puppets may be big but they are made from simple, down to earth materials.

‘Satyagraha’ is a piece where, appropriately, the chorus is king. Sometimes gentle, other times blasting, their hypnotic chants swirl around Glass’ music. Huge words and inspiring phrases are projected onto the set, like typographic scenery. This opera feels like a myth in the making, packed with ritual and symbolism, and is an entrancing joy to both the eyes and ears.