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.