Review: Flights of Fancy at the Hen and Chickens

Theatre comes in many shapes and sizes. Far from being a clearly-defined medium, a show can be long, short, serious, silly – a journey into the unknown or a slice of life. A new writing night provides a bit of both.

Flights of Fancy is appropriately-titled, featuring five short plays that cover everything from modern technology to bawdy gardeners. Produced by actor and director Laura Román and her company Rebound, the night showcases the work of a promising new writer, James Mannion, whose talent for sharp comedy is evident throughout.

Powerless, one of five plays at Flights of Fancy. Photo courtesy of James Mannion (2019)

Powerless, one of five plays at Flights of Fancy. Photo courtesy of James Mannion (2019)

Mannion is at his best when exploring domestic tension and absurd situations, as shown by two of the stand-out plays, The Contract and The Patient. The former imagines a future of short-term marriage contracts with hilarious results. Actors Nassima Bouchenak and Nelson Ekaragha achieve a brilliant chemistry together, with Bouchenak’s brittle exasperation perfectly matched to Ekaragha’s charming obliviousness. The latter reveals Mannion’s strength at dry humour, showing what happens when a hypochondriac is given some good news for once – a fate that is, for him, worse than death.  

Cabbages, one of five plays at Flights of Fancy. Photo courtesy of James Mannion (2019)

Cabbages, one of five plays at Flights of Fancy. Photo courtesy of James Mannion (2019)

Other highlights include Cabbages, where an exchange between gardeners turns a little blue. Skillfully directed by Lizzie Fitzpatrick, this funny play has actors Wendy Fisher and Samantha Wright trading quips about courgettes and a hunky television presenter. It’s a delightful piece of ribaldry, and would not go amiss on a Radio 4 Sunday afternoon schedule.

It’s not all perfect. Some of the plays may feel a little too familiar, particularly to audiences accustomed to the tech-phobia of Black Mirror or millennial-baiting articles about how young people cannot switch off their phones. The plot of Honey, where an Alexa-style assistant falls in love with its owner, did not feel particularly original, while Powerless, a play about how young people can’t cope without electricity, wore out its premise very quickly.

Still, Flights of Fancy is definitely worth checking out – a pick and mix of light entertainment and quick satire that will surely please anyone looking for a break from the current state of affairs. I look forward to seeing what Rebound does next, and Mannion’s continued development as a gifted comic writer.

Review: As We Unravel at the Bread and Roses Theatre

Grief can bring people together, as much as it can tear them apart. For families, bonded by life and love, losing a parent can be devastating – especially when it’s the only one you have. Such topics of loss and learning to deal with its consequences are not usually light, but As We Unravel manages to explore the issues with clarity, humour, and refreshing irreverence.

As We Unravel is about three sisters who, after losing their mother, must find a way to pay the bills, and keep it together – as well as each other. With nothing but themselves and a cupboard full of beans, they must take work where they can get it, and avoid the pitfalls that come with precarity, from taking to the bottle to taking out loans – often from less than scrupulous sources.

Velenzia Spearpoint and Phoebe Alice Ritchie in As We Unravel. Photo courtesy of Tom Grace (2019).

Velenzia Spearpoint and Phoebe Alice Ritchie in As We Unravel. Photo courtesy of Tom Grace (2019).

The well-drawn sisters each have their own distinct personalities and motivations. Callie (Phoebe Alice Ritchie) is perhaps the most impressionable of the three, wanting to keep the peace in a house of bristling tension. Luce is more of a free-spirit, whose struggle between a desire for independence and love for family is convincingly portrayed by Hayley Osborne. Jemma is a complex but sympathetic character, whose antagonistic attitude hides pains and shames superbly portrayed by Velenzia Spearpoint.  

The play is at its best during its scenes of bickering, where jokes over household chores and romantic liaisons give way to bitter arguments. The sisters are all trying their best to cope with loss, with each one tested by new opportunities and old troubles, whether that means a chance at love, or a return to something less clear-cut (and a little more troubling).

Nance Turner as Oretha in As We Unravel. Photo courtesy of Tom Grace (2019).

Nance Turner as Oretha in As We Unravel. Photo courtesy of Tom Grace (2019).

Staging decisions may have been made for logistical reasons, but the effect is one of intimacy – placing the audience right there in the sisters’ kitchen. Sally Hardcastle’s set is cosy yet rough around the edges, giving the sense of a lived-in home that has seen better days. However, this tight space could make some of the scene transitions feel a little awkward. Characters spend a lot of time changing clothes and details, some of which I wasn’t sure were needed and could often disrupt the momentum of the show.

Still, the main problems I have relate to dialogue and tone. I loved some of the absurd and silly humour, particularly when it came to baked beans and, well, a rather unsightly find in one tin. Unfortunately, this was also set against some very expository dialogue that made interactions feel a little unnatural.  

Hayley Osborne and James Calloway as Sid in As We Unravel. Photo courtesy of Tom Grace (2019).

Hayley Osborne and James Calloway as Sid in As We Unravel. Photo courtesy of Tom Grace (2019).

The play also has some interesting detours into darker territory. These include predatory affairs (and maybe abuse), alcoholism, and selling drugs. Given the playful nature of the show, these elements (while admirable attempts at exploring serious issues) were rather jarring. Despite being powerfully acted, these intense moments did not feel earned, nor satisfying on a level beyond surprise.  

As We Unravel is a fun show with a lot to offer in character and conflict. As the directorial debut of Sassy Clyde and the Lotus Players company, the show is a promising entry, brought to life by a talented cast and fine production talents. I look forward to seeing what comes next! 

As We Unravel is showing at the Bread and Roses Theatre until May 25.

Book tickets on the website.

The Show Must Not Go On: Why the Oscars need a Rethink

The Oscars are a mess. From criticism of a lack of diversity to declining viewership, Hollywood’s biggest night has had a troubled few years. Judging by the events leading up to this year’s ceremony, the 91st Oscars are mired in controversy and the Academy does not seem to know what to do. Perhaps it is time to call the whole thing off, or cut it short, or something, anything, to keep the show relevant, interesting, and worthwhile.

Every year since 1927 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have presented awards to filmmakers for their talent and expertise in the field, from directors, actors, writers, and production staff. The event is a highly publicised affair, with all the biggest stars showing up in nice dresses and tuxedoes to compliment and resent one another, while they applaud their contemporaries in the collection of gold statues.

A diverse selection of Oscar nominees, winners, and stars. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

A diverse selection of Oscar nominees, winners, and stars. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

Despite a primetime slot, massive media coverage, and more celebrities than a Trump attack ad, viewing figures for the Award show have been on the decline. The number of people watching has nearly halved in twenty years, falling from 46 million in 2000 to 26 million in 2018.

Some have blamed the low numbers on recent scandals over diversity and sexual misconduct, highlighted by online campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo. Others point to the redundancy of the ceremony, as people can easily watch speeches on YouTube rather than sit through hours of inane red-carpet footage, bad jokes, and niche awards no-one really cares about. Whatever is at fault, few could argue that the response from the Academy has been less than assured.

Let’s go through the announcements, then the rather unceremonious retractions. Last Summer the Academy declared it would add an award for achievement by popular film. The decision was immediately met with criticism, with some arguing it devalued the other awards. Others queried over what constitutes a ‘popular film’ and, if such films were deemed award-worthy, why not nominate them in the usual category? Following the backlash, the award was dropped barely a month later.

Kevin Hart. Photo courtesy of AFP.

Kevin Hart. Photo courtesy of AFP.

Then there was the question over who should host. Given ongoing industry scandals, the Oscars have tried to play it safe in recent years and are particularly keen to avoid another Seth MacFarlane ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ routine. So, in December, they announced cuddly comic Kevin Hart. Family-friendly, bankable, and Black, Kevin was an ideal choice for an Award show desperate to avoid controversy. The only problem? Users of social media, the means by which all public figures must now live and die, revealed homophobic tweets on Kevin’s Twitter. After he refused to apologise, Kevin quit. With little time to spare, the Oscars have decided that the awards will have no host.

Guillermo Del Toro winning the Oscar for Best Director for Shape of Water (2018). Photo courtesy of Kevin Winter (Getty Images).

Guillermo Del Toro winning the Oscar for Best Director for Shape of Water (2018). Photo courtesy of Kevin Winter (Getty Images).

Finally, the Oscars have tried to retain audience numbers by cutting running time. In the past, organisers have played off winners when they feel their acceptance speeches go on for too long – an indignity that is often more awkward than necessary. In February, several weeks before the ceremony, the Academy announced it would cut presentations for four categories, including editing and cinematography. After complaints from industry figures such as Guillermo Del Toro, the decision was, again, hastily reversed.

All of this back-and-forth indicates an organisation that has no clue about what it is doing, nor about how to save its ailing brand. I am sceptical about the value of awards anyway, as I don’t believe art is or should be a competitive enterprise. Still, until the Socialist utopia is achieved, something ought to be done about a show that, for now at least, still conveys value, prestige, and opportunity. Here are three things the Academy could do:

Take it off the Television

The Oscars ceremony is expensive. With a continual slump in viewing figures, justifying the three-hour broadcast becomes more difficult. Significant costs could therefore be made by taking the ceremony off the television, and instead offering it as a live-stream on social media. Twitter is usually the best place to be during the awards anyway, with clips being uploaded directly and users responding in real-time, cracking jokes, creating memes, and usually complaining that so-and-so was snubbed.

Drop the Routines

Billy Crystal as er, Sammy Davis Jr. Photo courtesy of CBS.

Billy Crystal as er, Sammy Davis Jr. Photo courtesy of CBS.

The Oscars have had some truly awful routines over the years. Recent examples include the aforementioned Boob song, Ellen’s bafflingly pointless pizza order, James Franco’s dress, Billy Crystal’s weird blackface, and Jimmy Kimmel inviting in tourists for some reason. Save time, dignity, and interest by getting rid of the routines altogether.

Let the Artists Speak

People want to know who won, and what they said. Other than mishaps like the infamous Moonlight announcement, the speeches are what tend to make headlines – particularly if the artist uses their platform for political and social grandstanding, or the kind of heartfelt tribute that inspires tears in Hollywood and at home. While it is true that some spend a little too long on the podium thanking everyone and their cat, many others are brutally cut short. Without the limitations of television broadcast, you don’t need to play people off. Let artists go on for as long as they want.

Be more Inclusive

The Oscars have got into trouble again this year for a lack of representation. This time, the trending hashtag might be #OscarsSoMale as there are zero women nominated under the Best Film or Best Director categories. Beyond implementing inclusive practices (perish the thought), the Oscars should at least do their homework. If there are no women or people of colour on your list, then maybe it’s time to ask questions of yourself, the Academy, and the films you have watched. Great work is being created all the time, and you have no excuse not to pay attention.  

These are just a few ideas, but I think they would go quite a way to making the Oscars a more engaging night for people. The Academy should embrace new media, cut down on the unnecessary elements, and keep the controversy to the people onstage – rather than those running the show.