Kaspar at Arch 6, Burrell Street

Written for Whatsonstage.com

Peter Handke, an Austrian post-modern playwright, wrote Kaspar in 1968. Presented by Aya Theatre company in a disused railway arch in Southwark, this short play is largely performed by one actor, Ryan Kiggell, who takes the title role. Based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser who, aged 16, was only able to speak one sentence, the play opens with a lengthy sequence in which Kiggell recites “I want to be someone like somebody else once was” repeatedly, investigating every permutation of vocal inflection.

Projected voices bombard Kaspar from the four corners of the sparse and expansive area of this new performance space. Initially a puppet without a master, Kaspar responds to the instruction he receives and begins a (sometimes cripplingly) slow process of learning, via comparison and extrapolation.

Kiggell’s physical choreography is perfectly synced with the rhythm of the audio delivery. It’s strange to see a grown man, albeit in a somewhat dishevelled suit, building his own world. Handke explores what it means to know something: Kaspar attempts to create knowledge through aphorism and ties himself in knots with his semiotic obsession.

It’s hard to know how to respond to a play that’s only intellectually interesting, but Aya Theatre’s production is executed with precision and dedication. Kiggell matches the quality of Kaspar’s thought with poise and diction, whilst still retaining the air of Beckett’s tramps. Kiggell’s pallid face is that of both clown and genius; don’t see this play unless you’re fully prepared to be “sentenced to reality”.

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Being There: S.P.I.D’s Childsplay in Normand Park

Written for Total Theatre Magazine (print edition)

It’s 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in January – perhaps not to best time to perform an outdoor piece of site-specific theatre. It may be cold, but the sky is bright in Normand Park, and the air is crisp. It’s time to put your headphones on and relive your playground memories.

A young and enthusiastic cast emerge, accompanied by a shopping trolley, from the hoards of playing children. The audience is initially reluctant to latch on to their energy, but their participatory reticence does not last long. After a slightly forced introduction, we naturally fall into the rhythm of Childsplay.

Each audience member is given a headset or ‘portal’, which allows us to transfer between eras via a ‘time warp’. It’s a clunky but workable way of negotiating the different time periods through which the show journeys, charting the various forms of play experienced by 12 year olds, from the 1950s to the present. As the cast plays Cowboys and Indians, we listen to testimonials from people’s remembrances of play time, and the games they enjoyed the most. With historically apt music, a filmic element is introduced, as scenarios are played out in front of a soundtrack that only we can hear.

As we warm up to the idea of this show, we’re asked to participate in various games. Taken aside to learn clapping games and ‘Jenny Jones’, female members of the audience are given rhubarb and custard sweets. From a non-judgemental starting point, the increasingly gendered nature of play over time becomes gradually apparent. While everyone present is able to be included in a game of French and English, there’s an added severity if a girl gets hurt. As we veer towards the modern day, the gap between the sexes goes from barely noticeable to divisive.

Sparking an audience debate about the development of play, it’s clear that, like anything else, it has evolved with the changing world, rather than taking on an altogether new face. Open spaces, and a childlike defiance of the cold are both things we should strive to maintain. Nostalgia isn’t often thought-provoking – but sometimes it can be.

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A Doll’s House at #69 Theatre Delicatessen

After the recent attention received over Theatre Souk, I was eager to make a trip to Theatre Delicatessen to see what all the fuss was about. With an all female version of A Doll’s House on the cards I was sceptical, but also hopeful that I might be pleasantly surprised. While the venue itself came up trumps, the same can’t quite be said for the production.

The staff are welcoming, and there’s a lively atmosphere as the incoming audience members are handed flowers and fake moustaches before winding their way upstairs into this many roomed venue. These props prove to be superfluous to any forthcoming proceedings, but are nonetheless welcome accessories. The only major superfluity is the unnecessary adaptation of Ibsen’s solid, highly nuanced classic play. Sophie Reynolds’ script, although occasionally witty, is just a less good version – rather than a re-thinking – of Ibsen. Taking such a liberty with something so well known is incredibly risky – especially so if there is no discernible agenda or engaging interpretive drive.

A broadly feminist reading of the play, the bar staff try their best to call all the female customers ‘sir’. There’s some nice choreography at the opening, as the cast appear corseted on stage. As Nora proceeds to dress, director Frances Loy’s take on ‘performing’ gender identities is made clear – and it’s neatly done. Unfortunately, this is not suggestive of any further interpretive audacity. Some of the scenes feel tiresomely overwritten, and there are a few awkward corners. Although some of the performances could be stronger, the real weak point of this show is its failure to follow through what it starts.

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Is a critic’s life worth living?

When is it time to move away from watching mediocre theatre?

 Visitors to this site may have noticed a paucity in the number of my recent blog posts. Although this has been the effect of several causes, laziness has not played any (significant) part. Having recovered from a late-November flurry of shows, I’ve realised that I’m no Mark Shenton: I can’t watch 12 shows in one week and retain my sanity. I’ve also realised that there definitely is such a thing as too much theatre. Combining 5 performances a week with an already busy schedule is tough enough, but when I noticed that the majority of these performances were middling to awful, I began to wonder what I was doing. In haste I also wrote several sub-par blog posts. It became a case in point of quantity over quality.

Although I’ve not been reviewing, I’ve still been watching off and on, but have seen little to inspire me to write. The Box Set at the Etcetera earlier this week is possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen: bad writing, worse acting and more penis jokes than even a teenage boy could withstand. The Cradle Will Rock at #68 Arcola (yes, I failed to blog about a first time visit to a theatre) was by no means as bad, but still left me uninspired. I know there have been many positive comments about the production, and I don’t think it was at all bad, but it made me neither think nor feel. Similarly Men Should Weep is an appealing staging of a rediscovered play, but it’s essentially Coronation Street on stage. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily watch Corrie from time to time, but it’s not the reason I go to the National. Hamlet, too, was aesthetically pleasing, and Kinnear does a fine job. But Ophelia with a ghettoblaster? T-shirts tucked into tracksuit bottoms? An ambiguously contemporary setting with no apparent political agenda? I’m beginning to wonder if I expect too much from theatre.

I can count the number of outstanding shows I’ve seen this year on one hand, but that’s ok: it’s what outstanding means. The number of real disappointments, however, could keep me going all night. Spending five nights a week watching a lot of dross is disheartening, and it’s led me to pursue other interesting new enterprises. (Rest assured, I won’t be starting a blog about them). As Boal said, ‘I don’t want people to use the theatre as a way of not doing real life’. Although we can’t always hope to see theatre that will fundamentally change us as people or cure social problems, we can hope for theatre that clicks with us or makes us think. At the very least we should hold out for something that grips us and entertains us rather than makes us feel like we’ve wasted our time (and possibly money) on something that is average or worse. Any suggestions of theatre that might restore my faith will be gratefully received.

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La Soiree at #67 South Bank Big Top

Written for TheatreFix

La Soiree

An impressively sized new location just behind the National Theatre, the South Bank Big Top is home to La Soirée. This circus show, put together by the creative team behind La Clique, is an evening of sheer spectacle, awesome entertainment and guilty indulgence.

With two large bar areas, popcorn and ringside seats, La Soirée is a proper circus experience. Although the performance area is smaller than you may perhaps imagine, it’s utilised well and the audience is able to be within (sometimes quite literal) spitting distance of the acts. The show is hosted by Miss Behave, who provides both a focal point of deviousness and disbelief. Pushing a table leg through a hole in her tongue, she’ll make you both smile and squirm.

There’s hula-hooping and plenty of trapeze acts in various guises. Performers like the English Gents and David O’mer are undoubtedly geared more towards female members of the audience; when the going gets tough, they resort to losing most of their clothes in order to polish off their routines. This is not to do a disservice to their aerial and gymnastic feats, however. You’re unlikely to see a copy of the Financial Times placed in such a precarious situation, or a bathtub used so dextrously.

The oddest member of the line up is by far and away Captain Frodo. Otherwise known as ‘Rubber Boy’, Frodo provokes intrigue and disgust. He manipulates both his own body and the audience, as he exploits his double-jointedness to the max. Pulling weird and wonderful faces, and throwing confetti after every attempted stunt, Frodo really does have to be seen to be believed.

La Soirée is unpretentious, frivolous fun. It may not be high art, but if you’re looking for a bit of escapist magic then you can’t go far wrong.

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A Doll’s House at #66 The Space

A Doll's House

An innovative and fresh take on A Doll’s House, this performance by Space Productions involves a subtle re-thinking of Ibsen’s classic play. Incorporating dance elements and puppetry, the ideas behind this production are both experimental and surprisingly cohesive.

Irina Borisova and Emma Thatcher’s collaborative design is radical and transformative: the theatre space becomes a doll’s house, enveloped with canopies and hanging ornaments. Particularly of note is the visual dominance of a suspended transparent post box. This provides a perfect auricular centrality to the letters dropped by Krogstad and Doctor Rank, and emphasises the fragility of Nora’s situation, and how out-of-reach her solution seemingly lies. The decision to have the Helmers’ children played by puppets is an excellent one. The small role they have in the piece is perversely strengthened, as is Nora’s resolve to leave this household in which she is unable to serve a fulfilling purpose.

There is a strong central performance by Gina Abolins as Nora, but there is the odd moment of weakness in some of the other actors. The most overwhelming and memorable aspect, however, is indisputably the tea party-like set. Papered and packaged macaroons, delectable costumes and a programme you’ll want to keep for ever, this is a modern yet sensitive and inoffensive interpretation of Ibsen.

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A Dog’s Heart at the Coliseum

Written for Animations Online

A Dog's Heart

Raskatov’s opera is an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, a novel that was written in 1925 but banned in Soviet Russia until 1987. The story is a biting, satirical Frankenstein-like tale of what happens when Professor Filipp Filippovich takes in a stray dog, Sharik, and transforms him into a human by giving him the testicles and pituitary gland of a man. Calling himself Sharikov, this dog-human hybrid predictably creates havoc.
 
Sharik is played by a thin and wily puppet, manipulated by four puppeteers from Blind Summit Theatre. He is dark and cunning, and convincingly skulks around searching for food. As Sharik comes into contact with Filippovich, we witness the brilliant stages of his transformation, the mechanics of which are all cleverly hidden from view. Sharik enjoys the good food of the bourgeouis household, and promptly grows a sizeable belly. As Sharik becomes a man, we see the puppet develop a human head and begin walking on two legs, before Peter Hoare is revealed, naked, behind a white sheet.
 
The synchronisation between Sharik’s puppeteers and vocalists is brilliant, and Andrew Watts as Sharik’s pleasant voice displays pleasing variety in the different shivering and hyena-like staccato motifs. Mazzonis’ translation also allows Sharikov in particular some wickedly funny lines. Admiring his own virility, he comments ‘Perhaps my granny had a fling with a St Bernard’.
 
Michael Levine’s set is uncomplicated, but easily moved to create a variety of different rooms, all with very clean lines and differentiated performance spaces. The use of projections on the back wall also lends the production several contrasting atmospheres. We see large scale versions of small actions made on the stage, such as typewriter keys, as well as a healthy dose of video footage of Soviet Russia. The most effective use of projection comes when we see ridiculous, exaggerated shadows during Sharik’s operation: blood spurts and huge scalpels emphasise the grotesqueness of this surreal situation.
 
Raskatov’s accessible adaptation combined with the polished yet zany influence of Simon McBurney’s direction culminates in an easily watchable evening’s opera. With balalaika playing, an imaginative use of scale and more derangement than you could hope to find in a usual operatic farce, A Dog’s Heart is a successful first collaboration between ENO and Complicite.

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