Exit Stage Left: How I fell out of love with theatre criticism

I hate star ratings. But I understand their necessity in a theatre industry that is, at bottom, an industry. Star ratings are handy marketing tools, and go up on posters with the usual adjectives like ‘stunning’ or ‘dazzling’ or, truly one of the worst offenders, ‘important.’ But they can be a negative currency too, and also exist to give reviewers, and their readers, a bit of fun. A one-star review will likely gain more interest than five, because who doesn’t love a trainwreck? Other than those on-board, of course.

I usually know pretty early on how many stars a show is going to get. If it’s good, but not interesting, it gets three. If it’s great, but not perfect, it gets four. If it’s really great, and it does something worthwhile, it gets five. Lower ratings are saved for shows that need improvement, or shows that I think can take the hit. Fringe shows get higher ratings than big budget shows purely on this basis. If all this sounds arbitrary, ambiguous, and possibly unethical, it’s because it is. 

The theatre industry is deeply unequal. There are imbalances of power almost everywhere you look, from who runs the buildings, who gets the funding, who gets to do the work, and who gets to see it. Theatre critics are not passive observers in this messy matrix of cultural and economic capital, they are active participants. Like the Romans of old, they can choose who lives or who dies. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Five stars, or one.

I loved reviewing theatre. I would recommend it to anyone, as it’s by far the easiest and cheapest way to see as many shows as possible. If you’re learning your craft as a writer, this gives much-needed exposure to a world that is otherwise prohibitively expensive, and often exclusionary. My decision to leave criticism is not because I don’t think it is valid. It’s because what I’m doing is not criticism.

Full disclosure: I have not been (nor am likely to be seen as) a ‘critic’ in the traditional sense. I have never written for a national, nor have I ever been paid to write reviews. One could argue that this already disqualifies my writing from being serious criticism. But I would argue that, whether my opinions (and those loathsome star ratings) appeared in print or not, a critical response to a piece of art is just that – anyone can do it, for any cost, at any time, and in any way they wish.

We put so much stock into one person’s opinion and the medium in which it is given that our idea of what makes good art is totally skewed, limited, and limiting. Why is a five star review more significant than, say, a conversation with a stranger after the lights come on? Why are the words of a Billington or (perish the thought) a Letts more worthwhile than a laugh, a tear, or quite simply that euphoric, joyous feeling that comes from being with other people, watching and engaging with theatre together, collectively? 

We also need to look harder at who is writing the reviews. A 2016 survey found that 94 per cent of British journalism is white, and 86 per cent university-educated. 7 per cent of the British public go to private schools, and yet over half of all journalists and editors received their education in them. A study in the same year found that 92 per cent of arts audience were white. 

Looking at these statistics, it’s not hard to see how theatre critics might not be the most representative group of people. This is a problem, because as long as we value theatre criticism, we are valuing an incredible narrow set of perspectives and interests which, regardless of an increased interest in work from ‘diverse backgrounds’, still get to decide what is good, and what is bad. 

The kind of work I am interested in seeing is usually not the work that I am best placed to review. This is not to say that I can only have an opinion on a piece of art in which I am represented, but rather that another perspective can (and usually does) carry more weight. And this goes for everything, not just work that directly represents one person or community. What do benefit claimants make of Hamilton? What do sex workers make of Shakespeare? What do children make of theatre in general? These opinions are likely to be far more interesting, far more worthwhile, than anything you will find on your news stand (or what few of them remain). 

This is why social media has become such an interesting terrain for contemporary criticism. When Heathers opened last year, the reviews were either mixed or negative, with several reviewers giving the musical three or two stars (there they are again). But Heathers was a huge hit, and much of this was down to the ways in which the producers of the show deliberately used social media to target a younger audience, and featured Twitter reviews in their marketing. And why not? Surely a young girl’s opinion, given on a platform other young girls are likely to use, is far more meaningful, far more insightful, than one given by some gouty middle-aged bloke writing for the Telegraph? 

But even if we change who writes the reviews, we still need to change the way  in which we view criticism. We should see reviews not as judgements, carved into stone and pronounced from on high, but rather part of a dialogue between artist and audience, where both parties create meaning together. 

Beyond that, we should advance collectivity, and the emotions and ideas that are generated from witnessing (and participating) in art together. Needless to say, such a response is only as good as its audience, and the people in the seats matter just as much, if not more so, than those on stage. If we view the role of the audience as a critic in its own right, there ought to be no barriers to entry for gender, class, ethnicity, age, or ability. 

Perhaps these are utopian ideals in a capitalist economy. Theatres need to sell tickets, and very often depend on positive reviews from important people in important places. What I hope is that the above provides some alternative ways of thinking about criticism, and maybe, in a tiny way, we can start to change the discourse altogether. 

I’m thankful for the opportunities that reviewing gave me. But maybe it’s time we look for a new star system.

Review: Breaking the Code at Tower Theatre

Mathematician. War-hero. Victim. Alan Turing occupies a special place in British history. A brilliant mind, he cracked the Nazi’s enigma code, thus helping win the Second World War, and laid the groundwork for modern computer science. But he is also a victim of state repression. As a gay man, he was charged for indecency and chemically castrated. His legacy deserves to be honoured, as much as his treatment deserves to be condemned. 

Matt Cranfield and Joe Lewis in Breaking the Code. Photo courtesy of Tower Theatre Company (2019).

Matt Cranfield and Joe Lewis in Breaking the Code. Photo courtesy of Tower Theatre Company (2019).

Breaking the Code is a perfectly adequate (if somewhat uninspired) tribute to the great man. The play benefits from slick production, a brilliant central performance, and a story that deserves appreciation. However, there is no escaping a heavy-handed script, a lack of emotional engagement, and a rather conservative approach to storytelling that lacked invention, risk, and ultimately, reward. 

To speak of the positives, Matt Cranfield is magnificent as Turing. Cranfield’s portrayal is both humorous and humanising. He perfectly capturing a visionary thinker who, while not exactly given to social niceties, suffered loneliness, yearning, and a need to love and to be loved in kind. Joe Lewis also puts in a highly nuanced performance as Turing’s lover Ron, whose circumstances lead him to crime and cruelty. 

The production design is excellent, from set pieces to sound. I really loved Mike Nower’s coded walls, as well as the tap-tap-tapping of punched numbers that connected each scene. Sheila Burbidge and Peter Westbury’s costuming is also very fine, showing great period detail as well as considered choices for the play’s broad cast of characters. 

My real issue with Breaking the Code has more to do with what the play didn’t explore than what it did. While it’s true that Turing’s story is one that needs to be told, I wondered if the play could have taken a more inventive route – cutting out some of the (at times) lengthy dialogue for more active moments of empathy, pain, and revelation. 

Ian Recordon and Matt Cranfield in Breaking the Code. Photo courtesy of Tower Theatre Company (2019).

Ian Recordon and Matt Cranfield in Breaking the Code. Photo courtesy of Tower Theatre Company (2019).

The revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play is timely given the Bank of England’s recent announcement that Turing would be the face of a new £50 note. Aside from this context however, there is very little in the production that relates Turing’s story to the present moment. 

Turing would have been fascinated (and maybe disturbed) by the world we now inhabit, particularly one in which artificial intelligence is a daily presence in our lives. Addressing these developments could have made for some interesting discussion. Breaking the Code, while skilfully executed, ended up being a little too conventional for a man who was anything but.

Breaking the Code is showing at Tower Theatre until 19 October. Tickets available from the website.

Review: Islander at Southwark Playhouse

Sound is a storyteller. For as long as there have been stories, they have been songs. From the sea shanty to the folk ballad, music has always been one of the most effective and evocative ways to tell a tale. And what better tale is there, than that of a people’s folk history, rich with myth and magic, and linking both past to present in stirring style?  

Kirsty Findlay as Arran in Islander. Photo courtesy of Jassy Earl (2019).

Kirsty Findlay as Arran in Islander. Photo courtesy of Jassy Earl (2019).

Islander is a marvel of expressive yet minimalist theatre. Blending both the traditional and the modern, the musical combines contemporary Scottish folk and vocal loops to create an intimate yet otherworldly story of epic adventure and gleeful mundanity.

Eilidh (Bethany Tennick) is a young woman who dreams of leaving her island. Such a life is both isolating and provincial for Eilidh, where the big story of the day is one man’s missing gnome. She longs for excitement and friendship, and both come in the form of Arran (Kirsty Findlay). A mysterious newcomer, Arran’s arrival (and that of a whale) leads Eilidh to wonder over the existence of finfolk, the shape-shifters of Orkney folklore. 

Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay in Islander. Photo courtesy of Ali Wright (2019).

Bethany Tennick and Kirsty Findlay in Islander. Photo courtesy of Ali Wright (2019).

The two performers are fantastic, singing and stamping their way through numbers both lyrical and otherworldly. Two-part harmonies and looping vocal passages create a mesmerising atmosphere, and help take you into the strange and poetic world of the show. Finn Anderson’s music is almost a character in itself, with a recurring motif that will be running through your head well after you have left the theatre.

I was also impressed with Amy Draper’s direction, which made great use of an intimate setting and practically zero props. Islander shows what can be achieved through music and sound, as some of its most vivid moments are created with just a sampler, two microphones, and two very talented performers. 

If there is a criticism to be made of Islander, it is that the show lacks an emotional weight. While tragedy is not always an appropriate mode, there is certainly melancholy to the story, and I felt this could have been explored a little more. Some loss and sadness can be a good thing, and both were missing from a musical that was very enjoyable, but not entirely satisfying on an emotional level.

Islander is well worth checking out. It is a wondrous story of myth and lore, inventively told through music, sound, and performance. A delight to get lost in, like the washing waves of an endless ocean. 

Islander is showing at Southwark Playhouse until 26 October. Tickets available on the website.

Radio Tread: How the Walkman changed our world

Last weekend I stepped outside of my flat and played an entire album. Given how much music is available and my tendency to skip tracks, the only thing about this story that comes close to being remarkable is that I played the album in its entirety. Putting on my headphones and pressing play? That tiny miracle feels as natural as putting one foot in front of the other.

Sony Walkman TPS-L2

Sony Walkman TPS-L2

Forty years ago, a Japanese electronics manufacturer released a product that not only changed the way we listen to music, but how we experience the world. The Sony Walkman TPS-L2 was released on July 1, 1979 ­– a fourteen-ounce portable cassette player that enabled people to listen to music wherever they went. From work commutes to park jogs, we had a new companion to entertain, motivate, or simply drown out the rest of the world.

I have been drowning out the rest of the world for some time. Despite being born nine years after the first Walkman, I have been there for all its children. I remember the cassette player I ‘borrowed’ from my brother, how my discman chewed up CDs while walking, and the long hours I spent recording music onto the short-lived (but much-beloved) mini-discs. Now all my tunes come off my phone via wireless Bluetooth technology. We haven’t figured out how to plug music directly into our brains just yet, but who knows, maybe we will by tomorrow.

What is most significant about the Walkman is not necessarily its technological innovation but rather its impact on culture. Much like the television and radio, the Walkman changed the way humans experience their world, but unlike these earlier breakthroughs the portable music player could reach well beyond the home. The outside world could now be filled with whatever sounds we wanted. A walk through town could be a blistering drum solo, while a lone train journey could become a mournful ballad. If life could be described as a movie, we now had our own soundtrack. 

Listening to music in this way has done more than just make our daily lives less boring. Michael Bull has written of how the Walkman, and portable music players generally, have enabled people to recreate spaces in their own image, stating that ‘[m]ediated sound reproduction enables consumers to create intimate, manageable, and aestheticised spaces in which they are increasingly able to, and desire to, live.’ By playing music, I can project my desires onto an area, change how it looks, how it feels and, in my mind at least, its very meaning.

Most significantly, portable music also enables people to make public space private. This has both positive and negative implications, for while the user can get greater enjoyment out of a location, they can also alienate themselves from the area and its people. This separation not only isolates the individual in a world of their own making but can also reinforce differences, rather than dissolve them.

In Sofia Coppola’s cult film Lost in Translation, its odd couple Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson take a taxi through Tokyo by night. In a now iconic scene, both stars stare out of the window, soundtracked by My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Sometimes’. The music, combined with its neon visuals, show the thoughtful melancholy of two foreigners who feel ‘lost’ in a strange land. Thinking of this scene, I remember playing similar music off my iPod in late-night taxis across Seoul. Back then, somewhat drunk and prone to melodrama, I thought it was meaningful. Now it seems positively colonial.

It is considerations like these that make me wonder what Charles Baudelaire would have thought of the Walkman. The French poet and critic is well-known for his writings on flâneur (lit. ‘stroller’ in French), a man who wanders amongst city crowds as a ‘passionate spectator… in the heart of the multitude’, who is ‘away from home and yet [feels] everywhere at home’. Listening to music on headphones can make a person feel like they belong anywhere – but it all depends on who that person is and what privileges they are afforded.

When the Walkman was first released it cost $400. Portable music is certainly cheaper now, but just because the technology is accessible that does not mean public space is. The ability to move freely in the city is still limited for people more likely to be policed than those to which our modern flâneur might belong (male, white, upper-class, etc.). Baudelaire not only describes the ‘stroller’ as having an ‘aristocratic reserve’ but also his (and it is always his) ability to ‘see the world, be at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world.’ Disappearing into a world of music, undetected and unscrutinised by people, police, and surveillance cameras? Not everyone can be so lucky.

Paris; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Paris; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Throughout this article I have used the word ‘we’. But who that ‘we’ is and how it is constituted is important to address if we’re ever going to create spaces where people – all people – can live and listen to music freely. A more just society, free from the violence of law, economy, and prejudice, would be one where everyone can be an audio flâneur, plug in some headphones and go for a stroll. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey put it, the right to the city is ‘a right to change and reinvent the city after our hearts’ desire.’ I think the great promise of the Walkman, and indeed all portable music players, is this very reinvention of space and self through music.  

I listen to music on my headphones any place, any time. I listen to music when I’m going to work, when I’m sat at my desk, when I’m reading a book, and when I’m doing nothing at all. I listen to music on my own, and in company, because that’s how anti-social I am. I listen to music when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m drunk out of my mind. A long journey, a lazy afternoon, a loud café. The Walkman changed my world. I’m just waiting for the world to catch up.   

Review: Styx at Playground Theatre

Dying is scary. But so too is losing one’s memory. The bitter injustice of Alzheimer’s is in making a person suffer two deaths, one in the mind, and then one in the body. One could be forgiven for thinking that there is little joy to be found in such topics, but a new piece of concert-theatre shows otherwise – asking the question, what if death was less of an ending, but more of a journey?

Max Barton, Ness Thornton and Addison Axe in Styx (2019). Photo courtesy of Second Body.

Max Barton, Ness Thornton and Addison Axe in Styx (2019). Photo courtesy of Second Body.

Styx tells the story of one woman’s experience of Alzheimer’s, using personal reflection, lively songs, and the legendary tale of the musician Orpheus and his quest to rescue his true love Eurydice from the underworld. The tale is often told, from 17th century operas to 20th century rock albums, but is given a thoughtful twist here, subtly comparing the loss of memory to Orpheus’s perilous voyage below.

Max Barton is a charming performer and storyteller with a gift for jazz and blues composition. Together, with a broad ensemble of saxophonists, percussion, guitars, keys and synths, he manages the difficult task of weaving both intimate details with stirring and often rollicking tunes, as well as occasional asides about the nature of the human mind, the function of memory, and the restorative power of music. 

Max’s grandparents both suffered from Alzheimer’s, with his grandfather passing away some time before writing the show. While growing up with music, and well-aware of his grandparents’ affinity for it, he later learned of the Orpheus Club, a jazz club they both ran in the 1950s. Through taped conversations, Max sheds light on this exciting family history, tracing a tale of love, loss, and jazz.

The cast of Styx (2019). Photo courtesy of Second Body.

The cast of Styx (2019). Photo courtesy of Second Body.

The production is a marvel. Jethro Cooke’s lighting design is fantastic, using the inspired choice of many light-bulbs to convey the thoughts of musicians, and steer the narrative from the mythic to the real. The use of dark and light is what makes this show as captivating as it is, and demonstrates that sometimes simple ideas can be the most effective in creating atmosphere, suspense, and even humour.

Not everything works perfectly, however. In telling the story of Orpheus, the show sometimes crosses into quite surreal territory. The dissonant and chaotic sequences, while purposefully uncomfortable, were not always easy to follow and often failed to advance the show’s themes or message. 

Styx is an innovative and immersive experience of death, memory, and music. I was not only moved but inspired by its story and that of Max’s grandmother Flora, whose perspective and insights were both touching and enlightening. Styx may be about a journey to the unknown, but it is at least one with friends. 

Styx is showing at Playground Theatre until Saturday 14 September. Tickets available on the website. 

Review: 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War at New Diorama

It is an era marked by crisis. Bloody conflict, economic collapse, and the rise of fascism at home and abroad. Governments break down, treaties are torn up, and a new world order threatens violence across Europe. The year is 1936, but it could easily be now.

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War tells the story of the Scottish volunteers who fought fascism with the International Brigades. Split between 2017 and 1936, the play begins with a group of Scottish lads who, with the promise of free beer, are told how young men like themselves once went to fight for freedom. Through storytelling, memory, music and choreography, the play connects the present to the past, showing how the volunteers’ example has relevance for today.

Nicholas Ralph, Josh Whitelaw, Robbie Gordon and Cristian Ortega in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Nicholas Ralph, Josh Whitelaw, Robbie Gordon and Cristian Ortega in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Political theatre, particularly when it concerns historical events, can be divisive. Too much information and the play can become a lecture – too little, the play can become alienating to those unfamiliar with the history. 549 avoids these problems by being as informative as it is engaging, honouring the sacrifice of the volunteers without glorifying the brutality of war, nor the complex motivations that led these young men to fight.

Josh Whitelaw in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Josh Whitelaw in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

On a performance level, there is not much to fault. From Robbie Gordon’s idealistic but naïve George, Nicholas Ralph’s crude and greedy Jimmy, Christian Ortega’s sweet but nebbish Bill Dickson, to Josh Whitelaw’s intemperate Jock, the young men are all uniquely drawn and brilliantly, convincingly performed. Rebekah Lumsden is also worthy of note, with a charmingly no-nonsense bartender who also happens to deliver some of the show’s most powerful moments.

The production is wonderfully considered and nimbly executed. Jack Nurse’s direction is imaginative, cutting between timeframes in a way that is both engaging and coherent. Catherine McLauchlan’s design is both beautiful and immersive, featuring evocative lighting from Benny Goodman and a moving yet understated score by VanIves.

Rebekah Lumsden in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Rebekah Lumsden in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

One of the most striking aspects of 549 is the sense of loss that can be felt in throughout. The play is about a great many things, from fighting for one’s ideals to international solidarity against oppression, but it is also a story of sacrifice, sorrow, and tragedy. Many people died fighting for the Brigades, and they were unsuccessful in stopping Franco, nor indeed the greater forces of fascism which would soon engulf Europe in blood and horror. The play reminds us that, in fighting for what is right, there is always a cost.

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War is a perfect example of theatre that can inform and inspire. As we face the threat of fascism, in Britain and overseas, we must learn from history, and have the courage to fight again. The war may have been lost, but the fight continues. Viva la Brigada.  

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: Cuttings at the Hope Theatre

Recognition. Remorse. Resolution. The three r’s provide a framework for celebrities and brands, or rather their agents, to apologise to the public. Such strategies come in handy, particularly when live broadcast and social media have created more opportunities than ever for the rich and famous to say the wrong thing. Cuttings explores the fall-out, and the messy business of saying sorry.

Natasha Patel in Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

Natasha Patel in Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

Cuttings is a brilliant and perceptive comment on public relations in the 21st Century. When YouTuber-turned-actor Arthur Moses delivers a foul-mouthed acceptance speech at the Olivier Awards, his publicists scramble to repair the damage. Featuring writing as sharp as its title, superb performances in three distinct roles, and a surprisingly nuanced take on industry inequality, Cuttings is a delight.

Joan Potter and Maisie Preston in Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

Joan Potter and Maisie Preston in Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

The three publicists are well-drawn personalities, with differing opinions on how to rehabilitate their client’s image. Danica (Maisie Preston) is the sweet but rather over-privileged junior straight from gap year travels, while Gracelyn (Joan Potter) is the no-nonsense industry veteran, appropriately experienced in boxing and showbusiness. Ruchi (Natasha Patel) is perhaps the moral heart of the story, whose desire to help Arthur is motivated by more than just contractual obligation.

As the show progresses, we learn that doing the right thing is not always best when you’re trying to win a publicity war. Cuttings is a fine comedy, with dialogue full of smart quips and put-downs, but there is great depth and subtlety too. The strength of Ollie George Clark’s writing is in the characters, all of whom have own reasons for acting the way they do, from personal morals to business prestige, and are explored in a way that is both entertaining and revealing.

Maisie Preston in Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

Maisie Preston in Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

From a production standpoint the show boasts slick direction from Rob Ellis and a wonderfully detailed set from Caitlin Abbott. A busy office is brought to life with illegible Post-It notes and a cupboard overflowing with promotional material. I loved all the little details, like the wall-mounted punching bag, and the framed film posters which are naturally replaced depending on which client should walk through the door.

Cuttings is a hilarious and timely send-up of celebrity faux-pas and the changing nature of publicity in the digital age. The play is full of clever observations about how the internet has changed the way people interact with their fans, but also serves as a reminder that, while opinion may have become democratised, the industry is a long way from being equal. Cuttings deserves publicity, and all the good kind.

Cuttings is showing at the Hope Theatre until June 22.

Book tickets on the website.

No Bad Press: Interview with Writer and Director of Cuttings

Any publicity is good publicity, right? In an era where so much of the news cycle is determined by social media, opportunities abound for people to get noticed and, to use that most horrendous of modern phrases, ‘start a conversation’ online. But what happens when that conversation is not so positive, and the notice is for entirely the wrong reasons?

Cuttings is a new play that explores online fame (and infamy). When a YouTuber turned theatre actor delivers a drunken rant on stage at the Olivier Awards, his publicists will have to work around the clock to defuse the situation, from fielding calls to keeping the star off social media.  

I caught up with writer and director, Ollie George Clarke and Rob Ellis, to find out more about the play, and the nature of apologies in the digital age.

Hi guys! Cuttings addresses an increasingly common phenomenon – the celebrity controversy. What inspired the show?

Ollie: My inspiration for Cuttings came from a love of behind-the-scenes drama. What and how strings are manipulated, who’s doing the maneuvering – and why! ‘Why’ is always good. I’m particularly interested in those people slightly to the left of the spotlight.

The world of theatre is one which I know, and believed I could write about in a way that felt genuine but also brought with it an element of excitement.

Natasha Patel in rehearsal for Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

Natasha Patel in rehearsal for Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

Have you and Rob worked together before? How did the collaboration come about?

Rob: Hilariously, we met through social media on #OVConnect. Ollie dropped me a line wondering about another of his plays, but I really connected with the subject matter in Cuttings and asked to read it.

I was laughing by the third page which I took to be a good sign. Fortunately, we both had shows playing so we could go and see the other’s work, and seeing how well Ollie’s writing went down with an audience was what convinced me to look at Cuttings seriously. Theatre503 were looking for short runs in January, so we pitched them a rehearsed reading and went from there. 

Ollie: It’s our first collaboration, and I say first in the hope that there may be many in the future. I think Rob is an incredible director and trust his judgement completely. 

What are some of the challenges in writing and directing satire like this?

Rob: I mean look at the world, satire is harder to do than ever. Too outlandish and you’ll lose your audience, but too subtle and you’re overshadowed by real life. It’s a time when SNL sketches from ten years ago could now be documentaries. We’re aiming for The Thick Of It, where the characters aren’t surprised by the way their world is, but they are pretty pissed off about it. 

Ollie: I think from a writing point of view I have a constant eye on topicality and time frame, particularly given the contemporary setting.  Are these the most current references? Am I speaking about people still in the public eye? I imagine we’ll be updating these types of details before every performance, which is pretty exciting.

I also think, am I capturing an authentic style of voice in order for the satire to feel real? YouTube, and that specific, personal, direct address which many vloggers have is a big part of the play. I watched countless videos to try and find a way I could process all these different voices and create a new one which felt organic. 

Social media can be a great way of getting publicity, but not always for the right reasons. Do you think that social media is a blessing or a curse in this regard?

Rehearsals for Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

Rehearsals for Cuttings. Photo courtesy of Cam Harle (2019).

Rob: It has its ups and downs. It's hard to ignore how beneficial Twitter is as a platform for marketing. Twitter allows you to know a person’s true colours - it's not a platform for editorials. It's quick, unfiltered and to-the-point, and you can’t hide behind a well-managed thought process.

It’s an incredibly dangerous and outstanding tool simultaneously. As with anything, it's not the fault of the tool, but the responsibility of the user to use it properly. And obviously, I can’t escape the fact that social media brought this show into reality.

Ollie: There’s a moment from the play, when the old thought of ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ is raised and is responded to with ‘there’s actually no such thing as good publicity, there’s just planned and unplanned’ – and I imagine you could say the same of social media.  

What do you want audiences to take away from the show? 

Ollie: A slight cynicism, and a pinch of salt, towards public personas. And to have laughed. To have enjoyed their night at the theatre!

Rob: Their wine glasses. I work at The Hope and it would be great not to clear up after the show.

Cuttings is showing at the Hope Theatre from June 4 – 22.

Tickets are available from the website.

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.

Review: Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre

Immigration is rarely out of the news. While refugees drown, politicians pontificate over border controls, and far-right movements become ever bolder, at home and abroad. The stories tend to focus on our response to immigration, politically and socially, but rarely do we hear from those making the journey. The humanity of refugees is so often ignored. A new play demands otherwise.

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Don’t Look Away is an admirable but flawed work that aims to humanise asylum seekers. The play tells the story of Adnan (Robert Hannouch), a Syrian refugee who takes up residence with Cath (Julia Barrie), a cleaner from Bradford, whose already estranged relationship with her son Jamie (Brian Fletcher) is complicated further by the young man’s arrival.

By focusing on personal relationships, rather than political questions, Don’t Look Away avoids heavy-handed messages for affecting family drama. There is a wry humour throughout, particularly from the endearingly cheeky Adnan, which proves refreshing for a play that could, in the wrong hands, come across as patronising or proselytising on the suffering of others.

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Robert Hannouch is well-cast as Adnan, whose portrayal of a young man forced to grow up fast is both touching and convincing. I was also impressed with Julia Barrie’s performance as Cath, who manages to convey all the complexities of a mother trying to do the right thing by two sons, one natural, and one whom she has effectively adopted. Brian Fletcher could at times seem a little stiff as Jamie, but this could be due to his notably unsympathetic character.

The main issues I have with Don’t Look Away relate to writing and characterisation. While Grace Chapman is smart to avoid broad political discussions in the play, the sense of realism is often spoiled with dialogue that can be anything but subtle. Disagreements between characters are not so much teased as they are bluntly laid bare, which sometimes took me out of the drama, and diminished the scenes’ emotional impact.

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

Don’t Look Away at Pleasance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Ryan Cowan (2019).

As hinted above, while I enjoyed the characters of Adnan and Cath, I thought Jamie could have been developed further. Jamie is hostile to both Cath and Adnan, the former for neglecting his father and him, and the latter for taking up his old room. These grievances felt under-explored, and as such only seemed to relate to the character’s entitlement, which made him difficult to relate to and rather two-dimensional as a person.

Despite these problems, Don’t Look Away deserves a watch. The play serves as a worthy reminder of our collective responsibility towards the victims of state violence, and a call to look past the headlines to the human lives caught up in the struggle.

Don’t Look Away is showing at Pleasance Theatre until Saturday 18 May.

Tickets are available from the website.


Just be Humble: Interview with The Upsetters’ Marcus Bernard

Theatre is hardly known for being inclusive. Black and brown people disproportionately come from lower or working incomes, and a high cost of tuition as well as insecure employment is likely to dissuade many from drama. That’s before you even consider the lack of real representation and opportunities, on-stage and off, and clearly on display every time a theatre announces a new hire, a new show, or a new season.

The Upsetters, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s house band.

The Upsetters, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s house band.

One new writing night hopes to address the imbalance, or better yet, upset it completely. Named after legendary dub musician’s Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s band, The Upsetters presents new, short plays, written and performed exclusively by people of colour.

The very first instalment is due to run on Sunday, June 9 at the Bunker Theatre in Southwark, London.

Playwright and Founder Marcus Bernard was kind enough to explain a bit more about the project and what he hopes to achieve:

What is The Upsetters and how did the idea come about? And why Lee Perry? 

The Upsetters is, at the moment, a short play night where every piece is written by a writer of colour, directed by a director of colour and performed by actors of colour.

New writing nights are a great entry into the industry, most have open submissions, and you get the chance to meet new creatives, network and experience writing for the stage. However, when I was involved I found that I was often the only writer of colour involved.

I sent out a tweet, quite thoughtlessly, saying that I was going to start my own night. I used quite galvanising language. It wasn't about ‘the industry is awful’ but rather ‘this isn't great, I'm going to do something about it’. But it got liked and retweeted over 600 times so I decided I needed to follow through.

I'm not great with names, but The Upsetters seemed fitting. Firstly, it's essentially a scratch night so Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is perfect. I'm also a huge fan of his music. I grew up listening to dub. But I also figured that this was about disrupting the industry and, hopefully, upsetting a few people along the way.

What has the response been like so far? 

It's been pretty amazing. We had 132 scripts submitted to our call-out which is incredible and shows that the need for this is out there. Some of the plays we've received are pretty special.

We've also had support offered to us by Theatre Deli who are providing 100% subsidised rehearsal space. Plenty of other companies have expressed interest in helping us out but, to be honest, I've been a bit precious about giving up control. I'm keen to ensure that it doesn't become a side project of another larger theatre company to freshen up their own brand.

I'm really grateful for all of the offers for support and for every like and retweet that we've received. Genuinely, without people's help, even as simple as a quick retweet, we wouldn't be getting the exposure that we've had so far. It's been huge.

How does the experience of putting on a show work compare to writing? 

Marcus Bernard, Playwright and Founder of The Upsetters. Photo courtesy of Marcus Bernard.

Marcus Bernard, Playwright and Founder of The Upsetters. Photo courtesy of Marcus Bernard.

I really love writing. And I'm quite good at it but I've got a lot to learn. I'm a long way away from getting my name up in lights outside of the Royal Court!

Producing gives me something to do when I'm not writing. With that being said, both producing and writing can be pretty isolating experiences. I do most of my writing and producing by myself, and a lot of it is just thinking before getting around to actually doing it.

I would love to expand what The Upsetters does, perhaps seek further funding and produce a full-length play, and really start to champion underrepresented artists of colour. It feels like there's a real need for this. I'm still figuring it all out but I trust it'll go where it needs to go.

What are some of the challenges? 

Mostly the challenge is financial. The Upsetters is about being an accessible platform to artists of colour but most BAME people are from working-class backgrounds which means they can't afford to work in the arts.

I also have to be mindful, not only of people of colour, but also those who are LGBTQ+, working-class, women, disabled, D/deaf, and neurodivergent. I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to cater to as many people as possible.

We've selected a wheelchair-accessible venue, all performances will be ‘relaxed’ which means the lights are up, low sound will be used, and people are free to move around. We're also captioning using The Difference Engine for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.

Unfortunately, all these things cost money and, as we're unfunded, we've had to put it on the ticket sales. We're charging £15 which is more than we'd like but we're hoping people will understand.

How did the partnership with the Bunker come about? 

Basically, I thought their new season was dope. All women, many working-class artists, lots of artist of colour, but without much fanfare about it. It wasn't being marketed as ‘this is our women's season’. It just was. And that's how it should be. 

Matt Maltby (New Work Coordinator at the Bunker) really challenged me on representation. If it wasn't for our conversation, I wouldn't have captioning. He made me consider things I hadn't thought about previously. And a conversation with (Artistic Director of the Bunker) Chris Sonnex really sealed it for me when he asked whether my night was exploiting people of colour as a marketing ploy.

I think it's important to interrogate your own privilege, position and motivations, and those conversations got me thinking about that in the best way.

What do you hope to achieve with The Upsetters? 

I want to produce more short play nights, I want to branch out into full length plays, I want to take stuff on tour, and I want to see some huge Hollywood movie starring a little-known South-Asian actor who got her first role at one of our nights.

That's kind of the point. I want it to be a platform which can help launch people's careers. We're never going to see a Chinese King Lear at the Globe if people from South-East Asia aren't able to get their start in the industry.

We're not going to have an Indian penning the next MCU film if they can't afford to write their first script. Short play nights are how my (still very young) career got started. It seemed like a good way to help others.

What can theatres and practitioners do to change things for the better?

It’s about making room for others and interrogating your own privilege. And it goes for everyone, not just white, middle-class people, even though they should probably do it most of all. 

My Dad is Black, he's half Jamaican and half English, and my Mum is Indian, so I straddle a few different cultures. My parents grew up at a time where cultures didn't really mix, and, to a lesser extent, so did I. I saw many sides of both oppression and privilege when it came to race, and I try to use that experience when I look at things now. I try to consider all angles, I try to be mindful of history and I try to be respectful.

I can't tell you, or anyone else, how to use your privilege because I don't know what your privilege is. You're white but that doesn't necessarily mean much outside of the fact your life may be a bit easier. It's up to the individual to take a look and think about how they can best be useful to others.

Finally, as your night references music, what have you been listening to recently? 

I've been listening to surprisingly little music recently but not too long ago I rediscovered Upwards by Ty. Strangely, Ty retweeted something I posted about the Windrush generation and it just reminded me of how much I loved the album when I was growing up. I've had that on quite a bit. 

Also, when I write plays, I often create playlists to accompany what I'm writing. Mostly it just gets me in the mood, reminds me of the frame of mind I am in or want to be in. My latest play that I'm writing is about a mixed-race Black activist, so I've had that playlist on quite a bit. It features Arrested Development, Kano, Gil Scott-Heron, Sam Cooke, Tracy Chapman and a few others.

Thanks for your time Marcus, and best of luck with the night!

The Upsetters will run Sunday June 9 at 4.00pm and 7.30pm at the Bunker Theatre.

Tickets are available from the website.

Review: A Hundred Words for Snow at Trafalgar Studios

Journeys of exploration are revered in British culture. From Charles Darwin’s Beagle voyage to Ernest Shackleton’s polar expedition, stories of pioneering men are widely celebrated. I say men, because these are the stories we largely hear about – despite plenty of examples otherwise. In Britain, the heroic journey has usually been understood as white, colonial and, well, male.

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

A Hundred Words for Snow presents a different vision. The play details a young girl’s journey to fulfil her father’s dreams of visiting the North Pole, running away from home with his ashes, a backpack, and her mother’s credit card. Effortlessly funny and profoundly moving, A Hundred Words for Snow is not so much about polar expedition as it is about the girl’s own self-discovery, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A Hundred Words for Snow has one of those scripts that is almost annoying in how good it is. In Rory, Tatty Hennessy has created a character who is smart, courageous, and while a little understandably naïve, endearing in her determination, and charming in her refreshingly blunt humour. Writing children is no easy feat, but Tatty pulls off something special – capturing a child’s enthusiasm for the world as well as the all-too-real anxieties of growing up and grieving what is lost, while gaining much more in the bargain.   

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

Gemma Barnett is (if you’ll forgive the cliché) a revelation. A good script is nothing without a good actor to bring it home, and A Hundred Words for Snow is blessed with a sublime one. I was impressed not only with her comic timing but her perfectly observed and nuanced performance of a girl coming to terms with loss and her own burgeoning womanhood. This powerhouse performance does not come from nowhere, and director Lucy Jane Atkinson deserves credit for getting the best out of Barnett which, as it turns out, is an awful lot.

A Hundred Words for Snow is as near-perfect a show as they come. My only regret was its short running-time, as I could have easily spent another hour in Rory’s company learning about arctic explorers and their darkly hilarious escapades, or the writings of Amundsen, or the five different North Poles. Whether or nor the Inuits have a hundred words for snow, I am running out of words to tell you how brilliant this show is. Just go see it.

A Hundred Words for Snow is showing at Trafalgar Studios until Saturday 30 March. Tickets are available from 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.

Review: Liberty at the Deptford Heritage Festival

What difference does it make? I remember a colleague telling me these words after reading one of my early drafts. Yes, she said, it’s a perfectly serviceable script. But what difference does it make? Meaning, what is the point of it? What do you want it to do? What message do you want people to take home?

I think about this question a lot when I watch theatre, especially political work. When I watch dramas about politics, movements, activists and revolutionaries, I find myself wondering about the intention of its authors. Is it to inform or inspire? Reflect views or challenge them? In other words, what difference does it make?

Liberty is about Kath Duncan, a left-wing activist from Scotland, whose arrest and landmark case advanced the rights of free speech in the United Kingdom. A perhaps under-sung heroine of the Labour movement, and advocate for political and social freedoms, her example is an inspiring one – a reminder of the sacrifices of others, and the need to carry on their legacy.

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019).

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019).

Liberty is an interesting and worthwhile tale – but not always a persuasive one. Part social history, musical, and parliamentary drama, the play explores Kath Duncan’s life, her arrest at the hands of the police, and the debate that followed. It is a somewhat muddled affair, with powerful set-pieces and catchy songs, yet let down by its earnest, wooden dialogue, and tell-not-show approach, which can feel ponderous and lecturing at times. Most crucially of all, Liberty lacks conflict, tension, and resolution – the key elements of any enjoyable drama.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy, learn, and reflect upon. Emily Carding is brilliantly cast as Duncan, whose commanding presence hides a vulnerability, smartly observed by Carding and powerfully performed. Ana Luiza Ulsig is a joy to watch too, switching between loyal comrade and pompous official with charm and wit. I was particularly impressed with Rona Topaz’s music direction, with beautiful performances of songs both lively and soaring, bolstered by the play’s divine Church setting and its excellent acoustics.

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019)

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019)

Liberty can feel truly immersive, helped in no small part by being set in Zion Baptist Church in Deptford. Meetings of workers and organisers would (and continue to) be held in such venues, so the setting is both appropriate and engrossing. The costuming is brilliant in its period detail, and I loved the creative use of the space as a meeting hall, office, and Houses of Parliament – skilfully employed by director Karen Douglas.

Photo courtesy of Deptford Job Centre

Photo courtesy of Deptford Job Centre

Kath Duncan’s story is significant in Deptford history. The area has undergone noticeable change in the past decade, perhaps best demonstrated by the rather gross appropriation of a Job Centre into a themed bar. Gentrification is one thing, but ironic gentrification is quite another, and seems quite insulting to the area’s working people, who may well be suffering from austerity, low wages, and scarce employment. Liberty is therefore important, celebrating the area’s radical history in one of its historic community centres, not yet lost to ‘development’.

But then the question. Leaving Liberty I wondered what the play’s impact might be, particularly on viewers who might be less than sympathetic to its heroine’s struggle, and that of working-class and Socialist movements. Perhaps the point of the play is not to win over people, but rather to celebrate a life and an achievement in the name of social justice. To that end, it certainly made a difference to me.  

Liberty is showing at Deptford Heritage Festival until February 28th. To book tickets, and find out more about the festival, please visit the website.

Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI at the Arcola

Confession time – I have never read Brecht. Until last weekend, I had never seen one his plays performed either. While I am familiar with his theory of alienation (largely due to a popular film podcast), the work of this great and influential playwright has largely escaped me.

This sorry fact probably disqualifies me from any kind of ‘serious’ theatre criticism. I don’t believe you need to have read a lot of books to enjoy art, and theatre should be no different. But given my ignorance of Brecht, could I still appreciate his work? And what might graduate of East 15 acting school achieve with the material – written at a time when Europe was falling to fascism, and performed now, at a time when it appears to be rearing its ugly head once more?

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

The answer is yes, and the results are mixed. The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI satirises Hitler’s rise to power by trading Nazis for Chicago mobsters. Arturo UI, a tyrant in the mould of Capone, takes control of the vegetable trade through blood and intimidation, purges his enemies and associates, and then takes over the whole city. Despite my apprehension, it’s a simple enough tale. It is a shame then, that this production often lost me in the details.

To be fair, marshalling such a large ensemble onstage is no easy feat. The performers come from East 15’s International Cohort, and are all clearly enjoying themselves as larger-than-life gangsters, whose accents and lingo are so immediately recognisable you can practically hear the hand gestures.

I was particularly impressed with Sean Dale’s commanding intensity as Arturo, Amanda Zappia’s thuggish pomposity as Roma (a clear reference to Ernst Röhm), Constantine Pinotsis’s leering Giri, and Stephanie Van Driesen’s charming turn as the announcer, whose blend of carnival barker, fool, and Greek chorus, was a joy to watch.

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

The animal masks, while reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, were a nice touch. Doberman dogs represent Arturo’s henchmen (or perhaps Hitler’s brownshirts), while rabbits and pigs appear as the abused and oppressed city-folk brought to heel. The transitions between location and scene are smooth and effective, and the play has an infectious energy and rhythm that never lets up.

There are laughs but, appropriately, horror too. The climax of the play is breath-taking in this regard, where a triumphant Arturo lords it over a people scared and defeated, and who must now accept his rule or die. There is also a particularly powerful rendering of the Night of the Long Knives, where Roma pleads for mercy before being silenced by Arturo. These scenes are chilling, not only in how they are performed, but considering the reality that they were written in 1941, by a man that had only just escaped Nazi persecution.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI is not always easy to follow, partly by its many characters, but mostly by its shifts in tone. The moments of darkness are commendable, but jar with the rest of the show, which seems to sit more comfortably as comic farce than dark satire. Perhaps this is the point, but an abundance of campy turns, from gee-whizz reporters to cackling goons, robbed the production of any tension, and made much of the proceedings feel about as sinister as Bugsy Malone.

Ultimately, it comes down to taste. As a fan of historical satire, I would have enjoyed a darker production with a little more teeth, and one perhaps more appropriate to our times. Chicago mobsters were relevant to Brecht but seem somewhat dated in 2019 – an era hardly short of hustlers from which to draw inspiration.

Despite my criticisms, this was a fun if at times confusing show, brought to life by a talented ensemble of young actors that I look forward to seeing on stage again soon. Now where to begin with Brecht…

Review: Fatty Fat Fat at the Vaults

Taking ownership of oneself is not always easy. Technologies, from surveillance to social media, have made the world smaller and if it’s not big companies selling our information, we are helping them do it – from posting a selfie on Instagram to searching on Google. For women, who have grown up with expectations of how to look and act, achieving ownership of one’s self, body, and mind, can be even more of a challenge. And that’s before we even talk about size.

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Fatty Fat Fat is a funny and moving show about one woman’s life and struggles in a society that will just not let her live. From early childhood memories, comic sketches, and vivid poetry, Katie Greenall’s show balances humour, introspection, and the need for change. As celebrities and brands try to embrace body positivity (or more accurately, money), Fatty Fat Fat is a refreshing corrective – full of heart and yet devoid of bullshit.

I am sometimes cautious of shows that feature autobiography and reflection. While it is true that all performers bare a little of themselves on stage, I find the sharing of one’s personal life can make me feel uncomfortable. It is for this reason I do not always like attending comedy shows – the fear of cringing always puts me on edge.

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

I need not have worried. Katie is a superb performer and storyteller, whose gift of delivery, timing, and judgement gets laughs in all the right places. Crucially though, she never sugar-coats the pain that comes from growing up with a body that friends, family, and society deem unattractive and in need of changing. Her observations are playful but pointed, and gently invite audiences to consider their own prejudices, and those of others.

The energy is kept up throughout, as stories of school-trips, summer days, and discos are broken up with lively routines. Audience participation is a powerful and often underused dramatic tool, but is applied to great effect here with gameshows, readings, and Never Have I Ever. The last of these is a particular highlight, beginning with fun and jokes and ending somewhere far darker.

The set is minimal but effective, featuring one microphone, a fridge, and garish birthday balloons spelling out the word FAT. Katie’s use of these props and the space itself is to be commended, and under the direction of Madelaine Moore she is able to segue between the show’s many different moments with ease and skill.

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

My criticisms relate to pacing and structure. The show moves so quickly that I did not always have the time to fully appreciate every moment, and I thought that particular scenes could have benefitted from further development.

The sketches sometimes felt as though they were cut short, which was a shame, as they are highly enjoyable and engaging. I would also query some of the poetry, for while Katie’s language is indeed beautiful, it sometimes felt at odds with the otherwise frank and down-to-earth tone of the show.

Fatty Fat Fat is a brilliant and creative work, the result of a talented writer and performer with an abundance of fresh ideas. I am not in the least surprised that the show has now received Arts Council Funding, and I am looking forward to seeing how it grows and develops further.

Theatre is and should be a space for expression and affirmation, no matter who you are or what your body type. Hopefully with shows like Fatty Fat Fat, more people can take ownership.

Fatty Fat Fat is showing at the Vault Festival until Sunday 3 Feb. Tickets are available from the website.  

Review: Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse

How did this happen? Once the subject of smug ridicule, a scandal-ridden reality show star with no political experience, coherent policies, or ability to string a sentence together, became the 45th President of the United States. In the two years since the election, countless column inches, discussions, and tweets have been spent trying to figure out how it could be that a man as unsuited, unpreprared, and unsavoury could have made it to the White House. Before the man even took office, Lynn Nottage had the answer.

Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton, and Clare Perkins in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton, and Clare Perkins in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

But Sweat does not merely answer for the election of Donald Trump. Lynn Nottage’s prescient yet prophetic play answers for right-wing radicalism, xenophobia, white resentment, and the destructive failures of late-stage capitalism. The play does so with grace, empathy, intelligence and, dare I say it, hope. Extensively researched over two years from 2011-13, the play received its debut in 2015. It feels like it could have been written yesterday.

Sweat tells the story of Reading, Pennsylvania, where a working-class community of steel-workers is under threat. The factory is outsourcing labour and jobs are disappearing. The residents, who have suffered from declining living standards, decide to act. In doing so, they come up against forces more powerful than they could realise – turning friends against family, community, and each other.

Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Set in a local bar, the play explores the lives and plight of an ethnically diverse but economically alike ensemble. Everyone in the town seems to work at the steel factory, except for a crippled bartender, his Latino assistant, and a shambling addict, laid off long before, and wise to what’s coming. Featuring several interweaving narratives that cross families and friendships, the play is about how a group of ordinary people can be torn apart by an economic order that cares only for profits, and nothing for livelihoods.

Theatre has not always had a great track record of representing working-class stories but Sweat avoids caricature. Nottage’s time interviewing the residents has clearly played a substantial role in the writing of the characters, who feel authentic, relatable, and human. Sweat does not excuse its characters but argues for why they may act the way they do, smartly dissecting the dynamics of race and class in the process. The play deconstructs of the myth of an exclusively white working class, demonstrating how any serious discussion of class struggle cannot be viewed outside the lens of racial injustice.

Sule Rimi and Osy Ikhile in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Sule Rimi and Osy Ikhile in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Lynette Linton’s direction is brisk, unsparing, but also humane. Balancing the needs of an ensemble of complex characters is no easy feat, but Linton has pulled it off magnificently – not only giving each actor their ‘moment’ but the space to explore their joys, pains, and personalities. The fact that Linton can do this while maintaining tension is a marvel, and her excellent judgement bodes well for her upcoming stewardship of the Bush Theatre.

In terms of performance, no one puts a foot wrong. Much will be said of the legendary Martha Plimpton as the defiant and proud Tracey, but Clare Perkins should also be deserving of notice for her powerhouse performance as friend Cynthia, who becomes alienated from the community after taking a managerial position at the factory. From Emilia, Mrs Dalloway, and now Sweat, Perkins is three-for-three in a year of stunning lead roles, and I’m beyond excited to see what she does next.

Stuart MacQuarrie and Martha Plimpton in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Stuart MacQuarrie and Martha Plimpton in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Speaking of characters, Frankie Bradshaw’s set design is something to behold. The factory around which the community of Sweat has been organised is beautifully rendered by wrought-iron girders and rusted chains, while a counter, lit up with neon, perfectly captures a small-town bar. You can practically smell the stale beer, peanuts and, well, sweat.

This play is not one to miss. Sweat may be based in Reading, Pennsylvania, but it could easily be set anywhere in the de-industrialising West. While watching Sweat, I thought of towns across the United Kingdom who were similarly gutted when industries left, and the government did nothing to help. In such situations, it is easy to see why desperate people turn to dissolution, drugs, and the desperate logic of anti-immigration.

There is so much more to say about Sweat. In the interests of a conclusion, I’ll leave it to the words of one steel-worker of Reading who saw the play. Addressing Nottage and the crew, she said “I really appreciate that you do this, and call the play ‘Sweat’, because all we have to give is that.”

Sweat is showing at the Donmar Warehouse to January 26. Tickets available here.

Review: White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre

Zadie Smith has never lacked scope. Her debut novel told the story of three families, two generations, and over fifty years of history, culture, and mixing. White Teeth was a critical and commercial hit when it was first published at the dawn of the 21st Century – an epic story of finding one’s identity, one’s home, and one’s place in North-West London. Set in Kilburn, an adaptation of White Teeth made perfect sense for the local theatre, Indhu Rubasingham’s newly refurbished Kiln. The question is, how to go about about doing it?

The cast of White Teeth. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

The cast of White Teeth. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

If you are the creative team behind White Teeth the answer is even more scope. Director Rubasingham and adapter Stephen Sharkey have taken not one but two leaps with the material. The first was to add another generation to the story, bringing its time-frame up to the present day. The second was to adapt the work by way of that most perilous of crucibles – the stage musical. Given the length and complexity of White Teeth, these decisions made me curious, if a little apprehensive. Having seen the show, I cannot imagine doing it any other way.

Ayesha Antoine as Irie Jones and Richard Lumsden as Archie Jones. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Ayesha Antoine as Irie Jones and Richard Lumsden as Archie Jones. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

White Teeth introduces Rosie Jones, daughter of Irie, and granddaughter of Archie and Clara, the white British and black Caribbean couple around which the novel is originally based. The addition of Rosie makes White Teeth relevant to 2018, but it also enables a clever framing device for a narrative that crosses both time and perspective to tell its story. Due to an unfortunate incident at the beginning of the play, Rosie is in a coma. She watches events that led to her conception with the help of Mad Mary, who serves as both narrator and Greek chorus in a joyous yet poignant rendition of Smith’s novel.

From its opening number, White Teeth establishes itself as a celebration. We see the very street upon which the Kiln resides, Kilburn High Road, brought to life by a colourful cast of characters. You might pass them on your way to school, to work, to the shops. You might even know them. Musicals, as with any form of drama, require audiences to believe in the worlds they portray, and White Teeth is no different. The play not only achieves this end, but does so with a palpable, irresistible sense of fun. This is Kilburn, only turned up to 11.

Michele Austin as Mad Mary. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Michele Austin as Mad Mary. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Singing, dancing, and acting their way through this labyrinth of mixed-up identities and tangled love-lives is a superb ensemble. This multi-talented cast (some even double up as musicians) all produce fine performances, but special credit is owed to Tony Jayawardena as the hilariously pompous Samad Iqbal, Ayesha Dharker as his long-suffering wife Alsana, Ayesha Antoine as Irie, the beating heart of the piece, and of course, Michele Austin as Mad Mary, who commands the stage with cane waved and teeth kissed.

One of the downsides of White Teeth is that, except for its opener, the tunes are not particularly memorable. Adapting large sections of characterisation for snappy musical numbers is not an easy task, and White Teeth is often better at telling its story through drama, rather than music. In this regard, the production often seems less of a musical and more of a play with music, which may disappoint enthusiasts for the form.

White Teeth is nevertheless an excellent work and a warm welcome to the Kiln. Rubasingham and company have crafted a play that buzzes with life, love, and location. White Teeth is a mission statement for the theatre, showcasing a venue that represents its community while throwing open its arms to newcomers. The Kiln has a bright future, and I can’t wait to go back.

Review: Ear for Eye at the Royal Court

Theatre is infinite. Good drama can reveal histories, experiences and possibilities that go well beyond time and space. Words and actions can tell the stories of a multitude, through past, present, and future. The new play by debbie tucker green contains such voices, addressing the present moment while reaching back centuries.

Photo courtesy of Royal Court (2018).

Photo courtesy of Royal Court (2018).

Ear for Eye is a devastating exploration of protest and power. This highly ambitious yet effective play uses monologues and conversations from both Black British and Black American voices to address lived experiences of white supremacy, its effects, its origins, and its perpetuation at every level of society.

For obvious reasons, I will not be able to properly articulate the emotional significance of Ear for Eye, and I await the views of writers for whom the play’s subject matter may have personal resonance. I add this disclaimer in the hopes that national newspapers and platforms carefully consider the critics they do send to review, as I can already sense that some will be reductively naming it a ‘#BlackLivesMatter play’. Reader, Ear for Eye is much more than a hashtag.

debbie tucker green (2005). Photo courtesy of Sarah Lee for the Guardian.

debbie tucker green (2005). Photo courtesy of Sarah Lee for the Guardian.

Ear for Eye is less about individual characters and more about a variety of experiences, brought to life by an ensemble of talented performers. Split into three parts, the play blends social realism with abstract poetry, a protracted ‘conversation’ between professor and student, and historical evidence of the laws and practices that established racism in the West, a system that shapes and stunts lives to this day.

Part one consists of a series of short interactions between cast members. Some of these are connected, as in the case of an argument between two young men, but most are not, showcasing different social relations and how they should respond to violence. These include students arguing over the use of protest, men and women reliving humiliation and abuses by police, as well as parents giving their children ‘the talk’ of how to behave when stopped by law enforcement.

With a cast as talented and broad as this, it is difficult to pick out select performances for credit. However, special mention is owed to Tosin Cole and Nicholas Pinnock for their nuanced portrayal of differently aged men discussing pride and masculinity, Eric Kofi Abrefa and Michelle Greenidge for the gravity and horror they invest their harrowing tales, Angela Wynter for the formidable power of her sermonising, Anita Reynolds for her warm portrayal of a mother trying to help her son as best she can, as well as younger cast members, Jamal Ajala and Shaniqua Okwok, who both bring charm and light to their performances, yet are no less rich with emotion and depth.

The cast of Ear for Eye. Photo courtesy of Suki Dhanda for the Observer (2018).

The cast of Ear for Eye. Photo courtesy of Suki Dhanda for the Observer (2018).

Part two is entirely dedicated to one interaction, namely that of a white professor and a black student. The piece showcases green’s mastery of language, as the truth of the situation is gradually revealed through tense, infuriating, and occasionally funny back-and-forth (as one-sided as it is). Lashana Lynch is simply stunning as the student, whose self-control, self-policing, and growing frustration will sadly be familiar to women talked over, belittled, and disrespected when trying to give their opinion. Demetri Goritsas is equally fantastic as the insufferable professor, whose refusal to listen not only reveals his bias, but also how white supremacy operates, unknown to white people, perpetuating itself in the most supposedly open and liberal of spaces.

The last part is difficult but necessary. Breaking again with conventional narrative, part three is made up of recorded clips of American and British white families, elderly people, couples, and children who read out Jim Crow laws of segregation and slave legislation in Jamaica. The section is harrowing but important, as it reminds us not only of the historical and legal precedent for abuses against Black people but also how the faces of white supremacy belong to normal, ordinary people.

Ear for Eye is unlike any other play I have seen this year and will likely see for some time. Unsurprisingly for a talent as renowned as hers, debbie tucker green has created a work that is both personal and intimate yet crossing oceans, history, and lifetimes. Ear for Eye demands to be heard and seen.