Thursday, 21 December 2017

Tale as old as time… Beauty and the Beast, Kings Head Theatre

Spot the cast from the mob! All photos by Nick Rutter
At one point two cast members chime “please don’t sue us Disney…” but it’s far too late for that! This is now the only true version of Beauty and the Beast and Disney can afford to over look their casting errors in the recent live action film.

This production puts the cheek back into tongue in cheek right from the get-go with a mime of Mickey in Steamboat Willie (fnar!) followed by a torch-lit shadow-puppet introduction from within a child’s canvas castle that must have literally cost pounds. It’s a pitch-perfect piss-take that treats its source material with such affection that you could scare call it beastly.

If anything, it restores the earthy heart of the fairy tale, the lust that goes with the love and the humble faults that all heroes must have – even in Disney. Beau (Jamie Mawson) is a handsome bookworm who longs for a better life away from his ordinary, illiterate little town… every plastic prince must escape from the tawdry to a higher level. His mother Maureen (Allie Munro) is an artist fond of “lesbian ceramics” who wants only for her son to meet a girl who loves Jane Austen as much as he and to exhibit at the Camembert Art Fair.

Jamie Mawson photo by Nick Rutter
But Beau is coveted by Chevonne (Katie Wells) an alpha female fond of hunting all round and specifically concerned with capturing this winsome fellow. In truth they’re ill-matched but she has eyes only for surface attraction and is in every respect so like a man oblivious to the loyalty from La Fou Fou (Allie Munro again).
The plot dances round the well-worn narrative playfully inserting overt commentary that everyone who grew up on VHS copies of the cartoon would now be old enough to appreciate. It’s bawdy but then everyone’s old enough to vote.
Maureen sets out for the Art Fair with her wares on their trusty steed, “bicyclette” but is ambushed by Lynx ending up imprisoned in a mysterious castle… Beau sets off to find her and ends up swapping places after meeting her captor the Beast (Robyn Grant). The Beast is really a princess who was bewitched by an itinerant and highly-judgemental magician (Aaron Dart) who cursed her to remain as a beast until and if she could ever find a man to love her for herself.
Tough task… but once Beau settles in he begins to realise that there’s more to this gal than horns, hooves and hair: she’s well read for a start and that is, you know, so important.
Allie Munro attacked by lynx on Bicyclette! Photo by Nick Rutter
The castle is also populated by talking house hold objects, a Clock, a Teapot and his daughter, a cup called Crack. They also sing a song about that awkward eating time between breakfast and lunch, “eat our brunch” … well, be their guest!
It’s looking very like a fairy tale and we know how its going to go but Chevonne has Maureen committed in an attempt to lure Beau to her lap and things get complicated…

Beauty and the Beast is a riot from start to finish and the audience is so much in on the joke as the King’s Head’s performance space is used to maximum impact. It’s a perfect seasonal treat for all those who secretly believe in fairy tales but who have a mortgage to pay and jobs to hold down… somewhere out there amongst all the beasts is our sweetheart! And he/she might well have a sense of humour!

The cast are a blur of madcap invention with Allie Munro at one point playing two characters almost at the same time either side of Katie Wells. There’s a terrific impersonation of the Pixar Lamp by Aaron Dart who also plays a mob with the aid of two brooms. Robyn Grant makes for a perfectly beastly heroine and sings as passionately on the matter of eggs as she does for her Beau. Jamie Mawson harmonises so well with his Beast and is soppily sincere throughout.

Jamie Mawson and Robyn Grant photo by Nick Rutter
The troupe is well drilled and clearly used to playing together as part of the Fat Rascal Theatre company. Fat Rascal Theatre strive to create fresh and funny feminist musical theatre and here they succeed emphatically well.

Robyn Grant wrote the book and lyrics with Daniel Elliot and the music was written by James Ringer-Beck and well performed on the night by Nicola Chang.
Beauty and the Beast runs at the Kings Head until 6th January and if you’re looking for a more adult rendering of the classic tale with songs and humour then please don’t think twice - tickets available here. Male or female, in any combination, this story is indeed enduring… Disney won’t need to sue at all.

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: ****

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Jazz-age Jitters… Thark, Drayton Arms Theatre

The Twenties, the decade when we started our liberation through a vibrant mix of our own music, dance and style: a movement to joy that never really stopped, give or take a war or two. As a deep-diver in the world of silent film I can see the influence of the original The Cat and the Canary on this play not to mention the romantic comedies of Ivor Novello, the loaded direction of an Ernst Lubitsch and the flapper energies of Colleen Moore. There was so much invention at this time and broadening of cultural opportunities...

I don’t know much about Ben Travers but he, along with PG Wodehouse, would have set templates that are still being mined and this play is very much what you’d expect a “farce” to be: witty, clipped wordplay, delivered at speed with no let up from start to finish. In the hands of director Matthew Parker, Travers’ play becomes a Hi-NRG romp, with machine-gun diction and a cast that carries on with expression even when they have no lines… exactly like a silent movie! It’s like a competition, a free-form exhibition – no doubt highly rehearsed – of movement, expression, pantomime and even vocalise: when the butler’s name is called, it’s almost sung, “Hoooo-ook!!” whilst the bizarre maid at the supposedly haunted house, Mrs Death (called Jones, for obvious reasons…) lets out a sequence of strange, foreboding moans.

On top of this you had an audience whooping and laughing almost constantly throughout the play: they were having a ball and that provides more eloquent comment than my words could convey.

Ellie Gill, Isabella Hayward, Alexander Hopwood, Charlotte Vassell and Sophia Lorenti ((lhphotoshots)
There was also dancing and Beyoncé too! At the end of the first act the cast suddenly started dancing as a jazzed version of Crazy in Love boomed out of the speakers. This was unexpected but before we had time to react it got funnier as one by one the troop began stepping out. The icing on the cake was Lionel Frush (Alexander Hopwood) gurning his way in the middle of the women but the 10 Strictly points go to Isabella Hayward whose Cherry Buck was the jazziest baby and has early had extensive experience of the Charleston and possibly the Black Bottom too.

Farces can seem thrown together, but they require discipline and perfect control of space and time: those doors won’t open by themselves and the plot lines won’t tangle without due diligence and all the players and pieces fell exactly where they had to tonight.

As Matthew has said in interview, the men tend to be the idiots whilst the women are far smarter, but the beauty of the writing is that everyone finds their way on the end as gentile society is lampooned for the amusement of all.

A lady calls: Robin Blell and Isabella Hayward ((lhphotoshots)
The young cast clearly relished the chance to play “period” comedy but the writing is smart and the feel is very contemporary: it was a knowing decade. Having seen so many silent comedies even the play on words for “queer, very queer…” echoes a title card in Hitchcock’s’ The Lodger in which the famously gay Ivor Novello’s character is knowingly referred to as a queer fellow and that’s nothing compared to William Haines cheeky male-bottom pinching in Spring Fever: the twenties saw the beginning of liberation for all.

Indeed, the play’s very foundation point is marital infidelity as Sir Hector Benbow (Mathijs Swarte) starts the ball rolling by inviting Cherry Buck, a young window dresser he had met in London, for dinner at his house whilst his wife is away. Sadly for him, not only does Lady Benbow (Charlotte Vassell) announce her unexpected return at precisely the same time as his naughty tryst but so does Mrs Frush (Ellie Gill) and her son.

The Frusts had bought a country house, Thark, from Sir Hector who was acting on behalf of his ward, Kitty Stratton (Natalia Lewis) who also happens to be romantically entwined with his nephew Ronald (Robin Blell) … Needless to say, every relationship is quickly up for grabs with lie piling upon lie as Sir Hector tries to get the hapless Ronald to meet Cherry only for Kitty to get the wrong end of the stick and that stick to be swung in both men’s general direction.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... (lhphotoshots)
It’s almost by way of distraction that the men decide they need to prove Thark is a sound investment by sleeping in the most haunted part of this most haunted house. Cue things that go bump in the night and a grandstand finish.

Thark is a far cry from Matthew Parker’s last play, Brimstone and Treacle and it shows his comedy chops especially in his joyous cast. Everyone is lovable with Blell deserving special mention for his facial displays of contorted horror and his elaborate attempts to communicate new lies through mime. Daniel Casper plays the long-suffering servant Hook, who always takes the blame even when he has to put off seeing his new baby daughter. Sophia Lorenti has a double role as the Benbow’s maid as well as the aforementioned Death/Jones when she really takes flight.

Sophia Lorenti gets a telling off from Mathijs Swarte's Sir Hector (lhphotoshots)
Kieran Slade pops up as the journalist Whittle and it’s interesting to see that even in 1927, little time was had for this profession with Sir Hector’s preference is for shooting first before answering any questions.

Thark plays at The Drayton Arms Theatre in South Kensington until 6th January and tickets are available from the box office site.

Don’t hesitate old bean, it’s a hoot!!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: ****

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The invisibles… FCUK’D, The Bunker

“You’d be surprised how many people you don’t see, not really…”

The author Christopher Priest wrote a book and play called The Glamour which theorised that the art of not being seen could, by logical extension, make some people invisible. It sounds daft but those of us who stand unnoticed at the bar or walking on the shady edges of the pavement may indeed be difficult to spot. Of course, when the person looking actively doesn’t want to see you… then you vanish.

So it is with the children on the edge of relative and actual poverty whose home environment leaves them ignored by parents addicted to the search for fleeting oblivion through drink and drugs: if they don’t want to notice even themselves what time have they for children?

Some 100,000 children run away from home each year, a Wembley full of unloved and damaged individuals who still haven’t coalesced as adults, every year. Niall Ransome, a member of the Olivier Award-winning Mischief Theatre Company, drew on his own experience of growing up in Hull in writing FCUK’D, his first play.

He wanted to take a closer look at those who end up with no future simply through accidents of birth and environment: just the kind of people that so many of us Guardian-readers have sympathy with but sometimes find inconvenient and intimidating.

This is a subject you don’t run at head long and Ransome’s use of verse enables the construction of a visceral and empathetic fable, which perfectly suits the damaged children at the centre of the narrative. The main character, Boy, is a teenager already run out of track but who has a younger brother, Matty who is bright and has a chance.

Will Mytum plays Boy and gives a remarkable performance of threatening vulnerability occupying the stage for an hour of monologue, character-play and pantomime in its original sense. Will waits outside school for his brother, jumps from his bedroom to avoid the social services, runs through the rain with his brother and steals a car and I swear you could hear the brakes squeal as they made their getaway.

This all action approach is matched by the syntax of the verse with some exceptional passages describing in vibrant detail the streets in which they live as well as their speed of escape. The pace picks up in the most visceral way during this escape and also the play’s conclusion and it takes a heck of a performer to play these words so well!

You are completely absorbed by the story as the two boys pursue their hopeless quest…  Ransome, who also directs, makes the most of the Bunker’s darkly intimate space where the watchers can be watched by the performers. All of which makes Mytum’s performance all the more remarkable.

By the end you have sympathy with this lad, this scally (in Scouse terms), who you’d normally cross the road to avoid. All we need is understanding and a little love…

FCUK’D truly is, as promised, an alternative show for the festive period and I would highly recommend it as a play for today that humanizes shell-suit culture in a way that should make us all the more determined to fix ourselves and a society in which so many fall through the cracks. We need to notice people more…

It plays at The Bunker until 30th December tickets available from the box office site or telephone: 0207 234 0486.

IthankyouTheatre Rating: **** 

Saturday, 18 November 2017

A riot of my own… Inside Pussy Riot, Les Enfants Terribles, Saatchi Gallery

The stock descriptor for Inside Pussy Riot would be “immersive” and yet it’s more than that; you’re submerged in your own thoughts left alone with the realisation that nothing you experience in this wonderfully direct performance art is remotely close to the suffering of Nadya Tolokonnikova and the other members of Russia’s Pussy Riot.

Coinciding with the Saatchi Gallery's impressive Art Riot: Post Soviet Actionism exhibition, this show leaves you shaken and definitely stirred: it informs as it provokes, and you are the subject. I was Number 5 for an hour, I wore a red balaclava and I sat alone in the dark listening to Nadya talking about her actual experience in prison. She specifically asked me to use my voice more in future… this is the time to make a stand as the World drifts carelessly towards ruin.

I’m not going to give away the narrative as that would spoil so many surprises that I really wouldn’t want to have missed. Sometimes you learn through experience more than by watching and this, comrades, was most definitely a learning experience. More than that, it was a call to action.

Les Enfants Terribles

Let us not forget…

1. It is 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution: why do revolutions happen? Open question…

2. In 2012, Pussy Riot’s Tolokonnikova was prosecuted for performing 35 seconds of a song called Virgin Mary Put Putin Away – a direct attack on the Russian Orthodox Church's unequivocal support for Vladimir Putin – inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.  She was sentenced to two years of imprisonment, where she was faced with solitary confinement and humiliation, including regular forced gynaecological examinations.

The Art Riot exhibition includes footage of the performance at the Cathedral and I remember incredulity as well as pity for the reaction. It woke the World up to the direction Putin was taking and now, five years of election influencing and increasingly aggressive military posturing later we should be more than ever on our guard. Yet, we pull inwards and vote for a smaller, less caring view of the World with the worthless assurances of salesmen that “taking back control” and making our country “great” again is the solution to our fears.

Tolokonnikova believes in real democracy by which she means that which involves the people and she is urging us all to speak out and to stand up for our rights: together we are stronger than the authorities want us to be. She points out that if everyone tweeting in opposition to Trump took to the streets of Washington or wherever he’s playing golf that week, and demanded he step down, he would be gone very quickly indeed.

Yet, on most days we allow ourselves to be divided by petty squabbles stirred up and invented by social media manipulators or the billionaire-owned press. We have to stay focused and we have to be aware…

Les Enfants Terribles are an action-oriented, Oliver-nominated acting troup and they collaborated with Nadya to bring about this production. Staying in character an interacting with “civilians” must take some focus and they were superb as they confronted the slightly-disorientated audience and their occasional attempts to crack wise… (sorry!).

They were, to a woman, magnificent and, if I’m honest, quite scary! This started with a no-none sense induction from Asha Reid who I’m sure has a terrific sense of humour but not perhaps today.

Beatrice Scirocchi provided the most genuinely shocking moment (although I’m not saying how) and Roseanna Brear made for the most insane of judges – think Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen on a double-dose of acid and you’re not even close. Alex Gilbert had us standing in line with not a whimper whilst Jenny Horsthuis has such natural authority I wonder if she’s considered a role in government?

The troop not only performed well they also played well with us as an audience group and that takes skill. They were a joy to watch and to work with and yes, Asha, I did return my pen…

You’re left feeling like you’ve been in a dream and this is indeed the most potent dose of mind-altering theatrical hallucinogens I've ever been given. By the end, in the words of The Clash’s Joe Strummer, I not only wanted a riot I wanted a riot of my own! You say you want a revolution? Don’t you know that you can count me… in!

Inside Pussy Riot runs to Sunday 24th December 2017 and it is one of the most important pieces of theatre in London right now and all year. I politely request that you buy tickets immediately! Do it. Do it NOW!

IThankYou Theatre Rating: **** They mean it man, and so should we!

Photos from Kenny Mathieson

Friday, 17 November 2017

Keep on running… Phoenix Rising, The Big House, Smithfield Market

Never seen a play in a darkly-lit underground car park? You’ve never really seen theatre pal!

Tonight was a magical mystery tour starting at my favourite Smithfield ale house, The Hope and then off through the meat market, down some stairs, along a corridor and out into a shadowy void with runners warming up for a sprint. Straight away you’re into the action and almost complicit in this extraordinary passion play as the drama mills around you in disorienting bursts of light and sound throughout the strangely perfect location.

The Big House is a project aimed at breaking the cycle of destitution for care leavers with so many falling through the cracks of an under-funded system once they reach 18 and with the shocking statistic that around half of prisoners under 21 have been in care. Director Maggie Norris worked for six years on rehabilitating offenders, many of them care leavers, and set up the company to help break the cycle. The aim is to provide a creative outlet and so many of tonight’s superb cast have been in care themselves…

Andy Day’s story is real enough to them and they brought these fragile lives straight at us as we moved from one part of the huge space to another, the cast were like energised apparitions and it almost a shock when at the end they moved amongst us shaking hands and thanking us for coming.

This photo and above: Dylan Nolte
The play tackles difficult subjects and yet there is an energy and a joy in the playing: this is their truth and they are eager to share.

Callum (Aston McAuley who is threateningly brilliant) is the coolest of the runners at the start and psyches out the rest of the sprinters, easily winning with minimal preparation: he knows they know how competitive he is. Like most of those we encounter Callum is a care leaver and yet he has this great gift that could elevate him far above his rented flea-pit and the drug addled streets in that part of town you’d much rather avoid.

He’s as quick to temper as he is fleet of feet and one social worker after another feels his displeasure: he won’t be mollified and treats every attempt at kindness as a potential threat. Yet, all is not well, he keeps on having strange cramps in his legs and seeing visions of a weirdly angled figure facing off against him and laughing. The “Disease” is played quite superbly by Oz Enver who contorts his frame with near impossible angles…

Photo: Rick Findler
We don’t know what this portends as so many aspects of Callum’s life are wrong, he’s damaged and almost lost. We get flashbacks to his junky mother Julie (the excellent Rebecca Oldfield) and the abuse she meted out towards him and his sister Linda (Jade O'Sullivan). It’s no wonder the teenager finds it hard to trust helpers, only agreeing to be coached by Josiah (Charmel Koloko) when he agrees to try get him a pair of Nike running shoes.

Meanwhile he hangs around with mates who struggle with the crime and addictions of their neighbourhood, Bready (Daniel Akilimali – also superb) and Omar (Jordan Bangura). He even picks a wrong ‘un with his conflicted girlfriend Nina (Perrina Allen so cool and convincing) who dances well but sows dissent among his mates. It’s an unforgiving world and everyone is on their mettle ready for fight of flight.

Callum’s nightmares grow more vivid and there’s an incredibly effective dream-scene when the track is lit through dry ice and his family and friends appear as ghoulish figures, all topped off by the arrival of his angular bete noir… We find out soon enough the meaning of that vision and as Callum seeks out his sister and sectioned mother, it seems he has nothing left to live for… and yet… Oh, just go and see it!!!

Photo: Dylan Nolte
I loved this play in the run-around and the use of the space is superbly imaginative. It was a magical mystery and I’m amazed by the cast who were so vividly alive in their roles. This is art imitating life inspired by art and surely the most passionately genuine show in London.

The play runs (ha!) until 2nd December 2017 and I would urge you not to miss it: a quite unique experience and one that will leave you reeling.You can get tickets from the Big House site.

Where: Smithfield Car Park. Box office and audience meeting point: The Hope, 94 Cowcross St, Clerkenwell, EC1M 6BH.

IthankyouTheatre Rating: ***** Expect Big Things from the Big House!

Further details of the Big House project are available ontheir website. A very worthwhile cause and one that needs our support to help more phoenix rise.

Art of darkness… The Dark Room, Theatre 503, The Latchmere, Battersea

The last time I was at the Latchmere was to see a one man show of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, switch forward a few decades and I have just seen something altogether more shaded.

Angela Betzien’s play is Australian Gothic, six characters, three separate stories all intertwining like vines choking a colonial mansion house. We’re out in the Northern Territories, there’s no civilisation for days and we’re jammed into a motel with ghosts, hysteria, drunken discord and the still beating bloodied heart of  a secret that will change these sad, desperate people for ever.

It’s cleverly staged by director Audrey Sheffield, with all six players being in the same space at varying points and, occasionally, saying the same lines in over-lapping sections of dialogue. It’s no wonder Betzien won Best New Australian Work at the Sydney Theatre Awards, her writing is so emphatically on point with a jaw-dropping narrative discipline that leaves you surprised when all the strands are finally tied together… even then she has a couple of body blows to deliver. You think you’re second-guessing the storyline but it’s too well wilfully elusive for that.

There’s also something of the style of Betzien’s fierce compatriot Nick Cave in a tale dealing in so much horror and that obstinately refuses to compromise. This is about an abuse so ordinary it simply does not deserve to be sugared.

Katy Brittain
In the close confines of the Latchmere, up those stairs that make you feel locked off from the reality of Batersea outside, this is a potent mix indeed.

The first couple arrive in the Motel. A youth worker, Anni (Katy Brittain) who brings with her a dirt-encrusted teen Grace (Annabel Smith) who is wearing a sack over her head and is clearly disturbed. It’s an unsettling start and clearly there’s not only any way that Grace will calm down… she is very intelligent but cannot rationalise her way out of her suffering. Anni is experienced but she struggles to keep pace with her charge’s speed of thought as her mind slithers around the burning scar of her brutalised experience. She has ADHD, PTSD, ODD and “oppositional defiance disorder…” she’s heard all the attempts to box her neuroses.

As Anni and Grace dance or rather box their way around each other another couple enter who are also at odds… a local policeman, Stephen (Tamlyn Henderson) and his pregnant wife Emma (Fiona Skinner) a teacher. They are staying in the motel rather than drive all the way home after a wedding in which Stephen was best man and, having been drinking all day, he’s not exactly picking up on the subtler tones of his wife’s conversation.

Fiona Skinner and Tamlyn Henderson
Stephen’s colleague, Craig was the man getting married and Emma resents the way he fawns over his boss… the alpha male in this law enforcement backwater. Emma has not enjoyed herself and views the nuptuals more like a rally than a wedding. Something has happened, the police are closing ranks and Craig is at the heart of it. Emma and Stephen left Sydney after he turned whistle-blower and now his bravery has deserted him. Staggeringly drunk he only wants to catch the bus to re-join Craig and the boys for more drinking…

Enter Craig (Alasdair Craig) – same space, different time and room – who is pensive and nursing a full tumbler of brown gin… he’s got thinks on his mind… It’s only when he and Stephen interact – these cross-character moments are so well worked – that we understand that a boy died in custardy and that Stephen is expected to cover-up by omitting certain facts and over-emphasising others. It’s the old code and yet having broken it once at some cost, it is sad to see him out of options and his integrity under threat.

There are stories, first from Grace then from Emma about a young aboriginal boy who was disturbed and also sexually confused. He was often seen wearing a dress and otherwise confusing the locals but Grace knew him and Emma believed she could help him. At one point, Grace pulls a lamp out of the wall and in the flash of darkness we glimpse a young black man in a dress… Is he real or haunting the young woman.

Alasdair Craig
The mystery deepens and Joseph (Paul Adeyefa) will eventually make an appearance in revelatory flashback. Everyone is connected and everything is caused by abuse and neglect with people denying their own instincts in an attempt to maintain what passes for normality in this far away place.

This is the kind of play that will linger in your mind for days. The cast all give incredibly committed performances and there must be a fight for the throat sweets after every show, especially from Annabel Smith: Grace is so far fallen… she roars in anger and fear. Her character is terrified and, gradually every one else joins her.

The play was produced by Paperbark Theatre and sponsored by the NSPCC in recognition of its message about the enduring hell of abuse.

The Dark Room runs until Saturday 2nd December 2017… it’s visceral, unflinching, and brutally soulful … please don’t miss it! Tickets available from the Theatre 503 website.

IThankYou Theatre Rating: ****

All photographs courtesy of Alex Brenner.