Do What Thou Wilt at the Barbican

Written for Total Theatre

Crowded, confusing and dark apart from a smoky haze of green lights, walking into Harminder Judge’s performance cum installation is like walking into a game of laser quest crossed with a satanic disco. The focal point is a giant pool of murky water – thick black mud in what can only be described as a ‘gunk dunk’. It is this pool, and the aerially suspended Judge, that we watch for the sixty minute duration of the show. Bursts of smoke fan out into clouds that play catch with the green neon strips and, as Judge painfully descends, his toes separate the light beams before he makes a torturously slow journey into the pit.

Accompanied by an obscure soundtrack of white noise and speech made incomprehensible by the sporadic hissing of smoke, Judge’s act is largely devoid of context. Seemingly a representation of the devil moving between heaven and hell, we get absolutely no sense of who or what this creature is. Neither bestial nor humane, it’s difficult to have either an intellectual or emotional response to this presumptuous piece of art.

There’s an expectation in the air that Judge’s eventual engulfment in the mud will be more spectacular than it eventually is. When he finally hits the mud, it is so underwhelming because we have already pre-empted it by about five minutes.

As a five pointed star of red lasers appears and Judge begins to ascend, it’s greeted with an inaudible groan: we now watch what we have just endured, once again, in reverse. There is the occasional interesting connotation conjured by the way Judge holds himself – Grendel, Neptune, Christ. But these occur more by chance and through a wish that there might be an image for us to hold onto. Neither cerebral nor visceral, I left the auditorium not so much puzzled by what I had watched, but why anyone felt the conviction to make it.

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A Woman Alone at #73 Tabard Theatre

A one-woman show starring Daniela Lavender, A Woman Alone is an unusual duologue performed only by one person. Talking to her neighbour, who we cannot see, this is a woman who has been put under house arrest by her own husband for starting an affair with her French tutor. Well-sustained, funny and compelling, the play verges on the edge of the surreal.

The play is at its strongest when we are left to imagine the characters that fill this woman’s life. It’s something of a disappointment when her wheelchair-bound, one-armed, trumpet-playing brother-in-law is wheeled on to the stage – an underwhelming dummy with a bugle stuck round its hand.

The set consists of a lively collage of photographs of murderesses, and provides us with a curious backdrop. The idea of murder apparently not entering her head until the last five minutes of the show, when her neighbour suggests it to her (unless we assume her to be a hallucinated companion) makes the design pre-emptive of the action.

An interesting comment on freedom of choice and what it means to really be forgiven for an affair, A Woman Alone is a provocative short play. It does, however, tend toward the repetitive, and we feel at times that Lavender is perhaps carrying a text that would otherwise be inclined rather to drag.

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The Knot of the Heart at the Almeida

Written for Whatsonstage.com starstarstarstar

With three cold-hearted women at its centre, it’s initially difficult to warm to David Eldridge’s new play. All three have addictions of some kind: Lucy has a drug problem, her older sister Angela is a workaholic, and their mother Barbara seems permanently to have a glass of wine glued to her hand. It’s frustrating to watch these inward-looking, unsympathetic, middle class women throw abuse after abuse at each other, and only when Lucy enters the crisis centre do things suddenly become interesting.

The Knot of the Heart provides us with a rare thing: a woman-led play with three complex, if hysterical, female characters. Lisa Dillon gives a charged performance as Lucy, the children’s TV presenter whose career goes awry. In the refuge centre she reluctantly becomes normalised – it’s only then that we realise the full extent of her mother’s stultifying child-rearing techniques.

Peter McKintosh’s sleek design allows for smooth and unintrusive transitions between scenes. Props and furniture may be sparse, but we have all we need to move between a hospital, the family house in Islington and, finally, a (somewhat unnecessary) beach in South Africa. Kieran Bew also makes an impressive contribution to the production, taking on the roles of six different minor male characters. From a camp nurse to a drug dealer, each persona he inhabits is distinct from the previous one.

Although its central characters are often infuriating, Eldridge surprises us and ignites our interest in these seemingly unlikeable women. These characters at first seem superficial, but we come to understand the history and conflict of these deeply troubled yet over-privileged women. It’s a slow burn, but The Knot of the Heart gradually wins us round, giving us a compelling story when we least expect to find one.

 

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74 Georgia Avenue at #72 New End Theatre

Written for Whatsonstage.com starstarstar

A one-act play by American writer Murray Schisgal, 74 Georgia Avenue is an intriguing and surprising two-man play. Taking place in the house of Joseph and his wife, the peace is unexpectedly disturbed by an unknown visitor, Marty. When it transpires that 74 Georgia Avenue was Marty’s childhood home, Joseph is initially hostile towards him. As it happens, however, the two have more in common than first meets the eye.

Joseph reveals a series of ‘dibbuks’ to Marty, during which the souls of three dead men inhabit his body. Deftly played by Nathan Clough, this is an unusual conceit and one we must buy into in order for the play to bear meaning. His delineation of the different characters is clear, and these encounters with another world ignite our curiosity.

We witness the gradual coming together of two men who are both imprisoned by their wives. Forming an unlikely rapport, they explore aspects of their shared history. Switching between the mundane and the surreal, this is a difficult play to get right. Sometimes the lighting changes in this small space are a little overbearing, and the transitions between the naturalistic and the supernatural are marked slightly too heavily. The constraints of a short play are self-evident, but the lack of resolution and brevity of background information we are given make this play feel like the beginning of something, rather than a complete story in itself.

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A Bold Stroke for a Husband at #71 Bridewell Theatre

The Bridewell’s Lunchbox Theatre series is proving popular: on a Wednesday lunch time there’s a good crowd of people assembled to watch Little Bear Theatre’s production of A Bold Stroke for a Husband. A 40 minute version of Hannah Cowley’s Georgian farce, the company has adapted the show to fill this lunch break slot.

The play is light and frothy, and its predictable form certainly won’t overtax city workers during their free hour. The adaptation is spritely, and very little is left to linger longer than it needs to. A well-trodden story of unrequited love and mistaken identities, A Bold Stroke for a Husband sees Donna Victoria manufacture various ploys in order to regain the love of her husband, Don Carlos.

Although many of the characters are caricatures, this is a funny and ironic adaptation of a fast-moving and slickly directed play. Dan Smith plays the parts of Pedro, Garcia and Vincentio, and is at his best when he’s playing two at once, having an argument with himself. In a Tommy Cooper-esque character piece, Smith is dressed half in one costume and half in another, and alternates commendably between the two. Karen Elliot is also particularly entertaining as Minette: though of small build, she commands considerable presence on stage.

A fledgling company, this is Little Bear’s first production. While we may question the merits of the play they have chosen to bring to this slot, it’s clear that they are a company whose vigour can bring spirit to an unknown play.

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Winterlong at Soho Theatre

Written for TheatreFix

Winterlong, the first play from Bruntwood Prize-winning playwright Andrew Sheridan, is an ambitious and intriguing drama about Oscar, a boy who is repeatedly rejected by those around him.

Beginning at the moment when Oscar’s pregnant teenager mother goes into labour, and spanning his upbringing and scenes of Oscar as a teenager himself, we witness the cycles of poverty and loveless-ness that envelope his existence. This is a recognisable but undeniably perverse universe, and, although often gripping to watch, one which eventually becomes too disjointed to seem plausible.

Sheridan creates a host of compelling characters and Harry McEntire and Gabrielle Reidy as Oscar and his grandmother Jean do an especially convincing job. The language of the play is also edgy and sometimes fantastically original. Observing a fellow diner in a Blackpool fish and chip shop, Oscar’s grandfather John remarks that “Flamboyance with condiments smacks of depravity”. Exhibiting an arsenal of colourful and cutting insults, Sheridan has a distinctive voice – and he’s not afraid to mince his words.

There are however some peculiarities which cannot easily be attributed to the constructed weirdness of this world. The boy we meet in the opening scenes walks around in the middle of winter wearing only pants, wellingtons and a vest, looking more like a poor imitation of Stig of the Dump than a convincingly hard-done by child. Although brought up by his grandparents, Oscar at 10, 12 and finally at 14 is remarkably high functioning for a child deprived of love, money and much cultural stimulation. There are also two cameo roles, both played by Laurence Mitchell, and are eerily similar homosexual characters that lurk around one Manchester canal. These characters are interesting, but neither seems to further the story as much as we perhaps expect them to. With striking similarities between the two scenarios, we crave a little more symbolic suggestion or explanation to make their contribution to the characters’ development more decipherable.

Sheridan is a young playwright and, at times, Winterlong seems a young play. His is a voice that’s worth watching out for however, and his vision is undeniably unique. Winterlong may not deliver all that it promises, but it’s worth betting that Sheridan’s future work will.

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Throats at #70 The Pleasance

Are you a fan of Beckett? So is Gerald Thomas.

Watching Throats is an odd experience to say the least. It’s an oddly adept production of a terrible play. It’s hard to give anything in the way of background or synopsis, because nothing really happens – nothing in the way of story, at least. It’s absurd and tries very hard to be surreal, but it’s just not weird enough to grab its audience psychologically.

There’s a woman who for half of the show is just a head, a man sauntering around in heels and another who alternates between wearing a Brazilian football strip and some kind of insect costume. But why? I’ve no idea. Throats is bizarre but not in a way that is either entertaining or that makes you think.

The production and the cast, however, are really quite good. The sound design is probably the most effective part, with the first few minutes of the show taking place in the dark, with only audio to entertain us. It does a good job, and the music is well plotted in the show. Unfortunately though it’s a case of the play being so bad that nothing else is really given enough of a chance to shine through – there’s just nothing for the actors to really get their teeth into.

Gerald Thomas’ biog takes up two pages of the programme, but much of it is about his experiences with Beckett. I think we can see just who Thomas is a poor imitation of.

And in other news…

If anyone’s keeping a running tally, then you might like to know that I also paid first-time visit #71 The Palace last weekend, to see Priscilla. There’s not a lot to be said: if you love drag queens then you’ll love this show, as does most of its audience. The highlight for me was definitely the seven year old Rudi Goodman, who plays a brief role as Tick’s son Benjamin. Wearing an oversized kangaroo suit, it’s impossible not to be charmed by him. It is £3.50 for an ice cream though, so beware.


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