Thursday, 24 January 2019

No safety net… No Show, Soho Theatre

Blackpool Tower Circus, aged five, and I was terrified… the magnificent men and women on the flying trapeze were swooping high over our heads and all I could think was that, without a safety net, they could die in front of us.

There’s always been a mortal fascination with circus performance, not just the risks they take but also the amount of their lives they have to devote to moving their art towards the limits of human possibility. I don’t say that lightly and when Kate McWilliam performs 54 cartwheels inside of a minute, she may be 11 off equalling the world record but it’s humbling all the same; how many hours, weeks, years have gone into that amazing minute?

This is circus but it also comes with a story both real and imagined… like a Morecambe and Wise sketch, or Miranda, there’s the artifice of the troop putting on a show but there’s also a deeper narrative, one based on the women’s own career and their treatment.

Kate tells us about her role in a TV show in which she and others trained celebrities to do circus tricks yet, in spite of the fact that she has a degree in the circus arts and is a specialist in some of the most physically challenging of the disciplines, she and other women were often reduced to more decorative displays while the men were allowed to tumble; she takes a glance at the audience and sets of on three perfectly executed tumbles, power and grace combined with acting: these movements carrying disappointment, frustration and an anger that cuts short any frills…

The men would be supportive always telling her she was good but, more often than that, saying that she was good “for a girl”.

Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross and a flying Francesca Hyde (Photos courtesy of Chris Reynolds)
Such an idea, in close proximity to these immensely accomplished and brave, women, is risible. Camille Toyer is a master of the cyr wheel a heavy metal ring that is some two metres in diameter. Kate narrates as Camille shows what she can do and whilst there’s a joke about the dangers, as they are both “professionals”, the cyr is heavy and can do a lot of damage. Where Camille to lose concentration and allow the wheel to run over her toes they would all break, at the other end the wheel could knock her out or worse whilst, for more difficult motions, it could finish her career as well as taking out the front row of the Soho Theatre.

Yet Camille is literally breath-taking in the wheel, spinning perfect slow circles and then speeding up as she turns 360 degrees first vertically and then, incredibly, almost horizontally.

There’s a running joke about Alice Gilmartin who keeps on trying to introduce the show in the manner of one of Eric and Ernie’s guests, the other’s gently take the mickey but, of course, she has a supernatural flexibility and strength that eventually smacks our gobs.

Her chief tormentors are occasional accordion player, Francesca Hyde and Michelle Ross who’s comic timing and impish grin put me in mind of Alan Cummings (a good thing!). The two have an epic stand-off trying to outlast the other one leg on the ground and the other in the air before they tow produce their party tricks, Michelle taking her though her high-wire act and Francesca spinning furiously supported only by her hair from a rope above the stage.

All have different characters and when they sit down in a line and eat their donuts in silence staring out at the audience it’s hard not to feel intimidated… there’s few people tougher than a circus artist and what are we looking at anyway… pal!?

Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Francesca Hyde Camille Toyer and Alice Gilmartin,
They’re testing us and sustaining a good-natured rapport with the watchers in much the same way as a great stand-up comic – yes, they act but the physical routines are personal statements and they demand our respect. Just as I rooted for those trapeze artists in Blackpool so I felt for the team tonight.

As Ellie Dubois who devised the show says, “we made this show before the #MeToo movement, but the world has been slow to catch up and it feels even more important and relevant than ever.” The moment of pure show-girls has passed and you can’t not look to your own attitudes in watching this “no show”. Whatever the politics, what emerges is a portrait of five hard working and consummately professional women.

No Show runs, jumps, spins and tumbles until Saturday 9th February 2019, there’s nothing like it in 
London right now and I urge you to spin your way as fast as you can to buy a ticket.

Ithankyou Theatre rating: **** A perfectly-poignant mix of performance art: philosophical circus that lifts you up and makes you think as you marvel at the potential of applied human dedication. Also, very, very funny too!

Friday, 18 January 2019

The Edge of the World… Outlying Islands, King’s Head Theatre

There’s a lot of cinematic references in David Greig’s extraordinary play, especially from island girl Ellen, who often leaves the island she shares with her uncle and travels the 40 miles across the North Sea to watch films on the mainland. Her favourite is Way out West which she has seen 37 times possibly because of her love for Stan Laurel, but the film I was most minded of is Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1937) which dealt with an island very similar to St Kilda which was evacuated in 1930 after local industry gradually died out and there just wasn’t enough population to self-sustain.

Ellen’s island is a lot smaller and, following the death of her father she has no option but to support her Uncle on what he describes as a place with no soul, given over long ago to “paganistic” worship and which he sees only as an opportunity to make money…

I have noticed that something draws us towards outlying islands. Some force pulls… 

So muses Oxford-educated scientist Robert (Tom Machell) who has an almost mystical obsession with outliers and the wild nature they sustain, he is a man who grasps opportunities and is constantly – obsessively – observing, and not just the bird life; Ellen watches him watching her, his dark eyes so fixed she feels as if he grasps her within his hand.

Jack McMillan and Tom Machell (Photos courtesy Timothy Kelly)
Robert is joined by colleague John (Jack McMillan) who is more of a photographer than an observer, cataloguing what he finds with more detachment. The men have been sent to the island to record the wildlife and, especially the rare Leach’s Fork-Tailed Petrel, and they have a month to catalogue the animals “fighting, flighting, feeding…” and their ever burrow.

They arrive to be greeted by old man Kirk (Ken Drury) who shows them to an abandoned chapel, with a broken door that becomes a running joke in a play that mixes humour with a deeper and darker message about humans and nature. Kirk introduces them to his young niece, Ellen (Rose Wardlaw) and both are, naturally, aware of her “presence” with Robert quickly teasing John about his virginity and his expectation that he’ll fail to compete.

Robert follows his instincts and John is forever “hovering” never diving in for the kill or to taste life to the full, always held back by excuses of manners and dignity.

Meanwhile, the men find out from Kirk that The Ministry is planning to use the island to test biological weapons and will reimburse the old man for lost earnings from his Puffin farming and other uses of the land. Without knowing this, the men have been sent to effectively “cost” the project by counting the wildlife that will be killed. Robert is appalled at this potential destruction and starts to restrain the old man, weak of heart and drunk on too much whisky, Kirk has a heart attack and dies… Robert’s fault, perhaps, but not something either man will confess to.

Rose Wardlaw and Ken Drury (Photo courtesy Timothy Kelly)
Ellen mourns her Uncle, but is surprisingly disconnected, she is freed now and this is her island. As the lads move Kirk’s body, intending to bury him after three days of lying in state, she wakes to see them struggling to open the door… at first we think she’s crying but them she bursts out laughing at these two funny men, “Laurel and Laurel” which is high praise.

To cap things off with proper ceremony and in recognition if this pagan church, she sings a pagan song which, it turns out, is “Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia” from Way Out West – a great moment with the three voices combining to uncanny effect…

Ellen is unleashed and thereafter the story takes a different tone as the three begin a closer examination of their own natures… free from constraint and still three weeks from the next boat.

Ellen recounts watching one of the men, tumbling down a cliff face, stripping at the water’s edge, “pleasuring himself” and then diving into the waters… she has become the naturalist and is watching them with the same calculation as Robert. The skinny dipper was John but he tortures himself by holding back from making any move with Ellen… it’s a question of nature versus nurture and mannered repression but the outcome is far more complex than that.

We’ve been made film stars by his gull eyes…

David Greig’s play is lyrical, funny and unsettling in a positive way. There are traces of Powell’s later magic-realism as well as everyone from William Golding to Derek Jarman via Samuel Beckett and it doesn’t do predictable. The fact that is based on actual incidents – de-populated islands and government weapons tests – adds a real-world subtext of ecological and scientific abuse. But it’s the mysteries of human sexuality and our refusal to treat ourselves with respect as animals that hit the hardest. We all want the awakening Ellen has… and the freedom of seabirds, forever living in the uncertain moments.
Jessica Lazar directs her players to create an atmospheric and moving mystery, and Rose Wardlaw is especially compelling as the closeted lass whose true nature brings surprises and delight as the two men circle, one confused and the other in a rapture of natural abandon. Good job all round!

Outlying Islands plays until Saturday 2nd February and tickets are available from The King's Head Theatre website and box office, it’s another example of the strength of Islington theatre and I recommend it without hesitation.

Ithankyou Rating: **** Great cast and an intriguing journey out to the farthest reaches of ourselves.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Run, run, run… Original Death Rabbit, Jermyn Street Theatre

“I said to my soul, I said to my soul…”

Arthur C Clarke, always ahead of the game, had it that the next stage of human evolution would see some kind of meld between man and machine. The scientist-turned writer conceptualised the idea of communication satellites which have played a huge part in the process but what the clever old stick didn’t quite see was that machines would start to act as an extension of human misery.

Originally broadcast on Radio 4, Rose Heiney’s play is making its stage debut in a time of a world-wide web of social media neurosis; an “…endless demonic mosaic of other people’s stupid bullshit words words words, egos fighting egos like kamikaze pilots in the sky…” The internet has brought knowledge but not so much wisdom and we fall into it like thirsty donkeys at desert watering holes.

But this play is about rabbits, not donkeys, as the lone character, an exceptionally bright Oxford graduate whose name we never learn, has become eternally known as the Original Death Rabbit. ODR is played quite magnificently by Kimberley Nixon who grabbed this one-woman play by its tail and seamlessly inhabited the role, which is, ahem, more than can be said for her shabby rabbit suit. She is funny, heart-rending and devastatingly real deftly mixing in the comedy with desolate sorrow, her eyes welling up with tears that stunned the audience a split second before another perfectly-timed line made us laugh. I can fully understand how Kimberly won her BAFTA and, on this performance, I fully expect that there’ll be more to come.

Kimberley Nixon photo Robert Workman 
The play is about loss, mental illness, and abuse… the woman’s life has stalled after her academic achievement, a first no less and all from a state school, has not enabled her to overcome her father’s violent breakdown when, four days after finishing finals, he cut both their cat’s ear and her hand, pushing it into the cat’s blood before her mother knocked him unconscious with a potato masher.

Her father had undiagnosed schizophrenia and whilst he was sectioned his daughter went into her shell or rather her rabbit onesie. Heiney smartly swerves the serious using ODR’s own denial to bring out the humour and to obscure the full horrors, revealing the actuality of the damage in stages, keeping us laughing with one eye on the emerging tragedy. Kimberley Nixon makes light work of this complex narrative balance as well as single-handedly taking us back and forward into her character’s timeline and browsing history.

The bunny suit had originally been a present from her tutor after she’d written a paper on the awfulness of Playboy bunny girls… she kept it for the novelty value but, after her father’s attack she began to wear it again, inoculating herself with its innocence even as she moped about town and, after hanging around a grave yard, been photographed in the background at a teenager’s funeral. The image was picked up and she went viral… with dozens of youngsters “death rabbiting” all over the country.

Photo Robert Workman
This faddish fame enables her to find an illusory direction in the wastelands of her twenties as she deludes herself that this will form the basis of some monetizable career online… this was in the 2000s before paper dollar content turned into very digital dimes. Living off an inheritance from her aunt, she is able to indulge her fantasy “success” through her twitter feed as Original Death Rabbit as well as a forum dedicated to the proper appreciation of the major works of Richard E Curtis: 4 Weddings, Notting Hill, Love Actually – no comma - and up to About Time. This most certainly does not include The Boat The Rocked – obviously! – and she runs the group with a firm hand.

This side of ODR adds much humour to the plot and even allows her meet up with a potential romantic interest although after he starts quoting lines from Curtis’ films it’s clear he’s even more detached from reality than she is.

This harmless lionisation of an under-appreciated purveyor of middle brow cinematic comfort blankets is balanced by ODR’s darker web activities, notably her trolling of an alternative comedian, @hipsterripstercomedy who both feel make too much out of #mentalhealth on the social network.

As her life gets more difficult – money running out, drink-fuelled denial - the more she falls into a social-media dependency part of which involves her trolling her nemesis in the cruellest of fashions from another account she set up for these anonymous assaults.

Photo Robert Workman
It’s a compelling story arc and a thoroughly disciplined script which crosses back and forth before revealing exactly where our heroine is. Kimberley Nixon is amazing, carrying the weight of the narrative with skill and superb comic timing. She can flip the mood with expert instincts too and controls this one bunny play from start to finish.

Props to Hannah Joss’ expert direction as well as Louie Whitemore’s set and costume design – spot on if I remember the 00s right.

Original Death Rabbit runs until 9th February and I would recommend it highly – details on the Jermyn Theatre website.

IThankYou Rating: **** You’ll believe a bunny can cry… I predict this one will have a long run!

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Three sisters… Anomaly, Old Red Lion Theatre

The tag for this play is “Post-Weinstein. Post-Spacey. Pre-Preston.” Each case is its own thing and we struggle to absorb the facts depending on our existing opinion of the alleged abuser. Pity us “fans” that hardship but what about the families of these (mostly) men?

Liv Warden’s play is concerned with the three daughters of a powerful abuser, film mogul Philip Preston and in her programme notes she confirms the inspiration from the Weinstein case, especially the harrowing tape of his meeting a starlet in his hotel, but also the subsequent reaction as the World soon forgot its guilt and doubled down on electing a misogynistic President and even this week, we saw right-wing commentators justifying verbal abuse of female MPs.

This is never over and in the case of the play not even being born into wealth and privilege is enough to protect Preston’s three daughters from what Warden terms “the destruction, inherited pain, reputation and loyalty” they have to live with. What can you do if your father is a serial abuser, sexually violent and used to using his power to get away with it for almost all of your life?

Natasha Cowley, photo courtesy of Headshot Toby.
We don’t get to meet Mr Preston and the only other male voices are recordings from meetings or phone calls and that’s cleverly done as it leaves the focus entirely on the three sisters and the three actors who give them quite startling life, two of whom, rather incredibly, are making their stage debut.

Piper is the oldest and, appropriately enough is played by Natasha Cowley who has been in productions at the Globe and National Theatre whilst younger sisters Penny, Katherine Samuelson, and Polly, Alice Handoll are recent theatrical graduates. The three combine to mesmeric effect as they un-wind following the devastating revelations of their father’s assault on their mother. The assault makes the news and it seems like finally Philip’s crimes will catch up with him.

Piper and Penny have the most to lose with the former in charge of Preston International and the latter a actress propelled by Dad’s leverage into stardom. Piper is the control freak, the most intellectually aggressive and a chip off the old block who marries her childhood sweetheart and then ignores him in preference for the addictions of the business. Penny is in a whirlwind of objectification and at one point the board members try to use a sex tape of her to blackmail Piper… the men are disgusting, relishing the tape and the power it gives them.

Katherine Samuelson, photo courtesy of Headshot Toby.
But the Prestons have a secret weapon… Polly, a recovering addict who has escape from rehab to come and see if her mother is OK. The elder siblings’ reflex is to defend their father, family first and Prestons Together (mostly) and Penny tells one interviewer that his actions were “reactive” … the language of obfuscation in a World denied clear meaning. But Polly has no time for this and tweets “F*ck Mel Gibson, f*ck Johnny Depp and f*ck Philip Preston!”

Naturally the press love this and so do “we” who feed them… but Polly is only concerned with breaking free of a life twisted by the wrong kind of fatherly attention. When she was five, she caught her father with their French au pair, Manon and he slashed her across the face, over the eyes, with his belt causing her to lose a week at school. Her father’s fame coloured the school’s view of the injuries which were described as an “anomaly” not requiring further attention.

As the full extend of Philip’s abuse is gradually revealed a secret the three have hidden has to be confronted – he is the anomaly and his behaviour is consistent.

Alice Handoll, photo courtesy of Headshot Toby.
The play is superbly wrought by director Adam Small who uses the Red Lion’s intimacy to good affect by having all three women on stage at the same time, held in their moments, posing for the cameras, crying, or silently roaring with grief as they take turns in confronting the full horror of their lives.

The actors played things very tight, the two eldest sisters movements controlled and evocative of their roles but Alice Handoll roams across the stage, pushing the fourth wall with confidence and holding the gaze of the shocked audience. Katherine Samuelson shed real tears as her character’s sadness finally overwhelms and Natasha Cowley’s depiction of iron woman Pippa’s collapse was just as devastating… a very powerful three-hander with each deftly passing the narrative "baton" during a measured build-up of tension as the full truth is revealed.

Anomaly continues at the Old Red Lion until 2nd February and I strongly urge you to see it. Details on the website.

IThankYouTheatre Rating: **** A play for today.