Theatre review: The Happy Theory, The Yard Theatre, E9

Big on heart and soul, Happy Theory is the latest thoughtful and funny production from the brilliant Generation Arts. 

Generation Arts. "The Happy Hour".

Those final weeks of school, as you lay down your pen on your final exam are, thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. It can feel as if you have the world at your feet, inundated with endless possibilities. But the weight of what you’re leaving behind can feel dizzyingly daunting. And not everyone is lucky enough for the end of their education to be the beginning of something bigger and better. 

The Happy Theory follows a group of school leavers as they head out into the world – some heading to Oxford, others to Bath, a couple are couple travelling (including inspiring teacher Denise) and then there are those who can’t find a way out of their current lives.

In between revising their algebra and adverbs (rather ingeniously used by nasty head of year Mr Brennan – Robert O’Reilly, who also does a stunning turn as Kim Kardashian) the teenagers discuss happiness. What is it they ask? Some say branded trainers, big houses, Lotus cars – ‘nice things’ insists orphaned Frank (Ike Nwachukwu). Swotty Elle (she’s the one off to Oxford) retorts: what about billionaire Phones4U boss John Caudwell? His money couldn’t prevent his son’s agoraphobic? Happiness, Elle – and her and her allies – say, comes from within.

We don’t get a definitive answer to the happy theory, but we do see friendships falter, only for the unspoken bond to draw them together again; relationships fail, futures set free. 

Happy Theory is in some ways life imitating art. Generation Arts offers quality, free acting and theatre-making training for young people in the margins. The young people performing tonight are also on the brink of something, something that they may not have had the opportunity to seize without the excellent job the project does.

Happy Theory is a heartwarming, pacey piece of theatre, with performances that range from good to excellent. And the fantastic work of Generation Arts imbues this production with a sense of purpose and heart that we don’t always see at the core of theatre.

For more information on Generation Arts, see here.

 

 

 

Theatre Review: DenMarked at The Courtyard Theatre, N1

A funny, intense, confessional autobiography played out through hip hop, spoken word and Shakespeare.

Conrad Murray performing his autobiographical play DenMarked

Brought up on a succession of south London council estates, Conrad Murray’s future looks set out before it’s even begun. With an upbringing that included violent father, who Murray once sees strangle his mother until her eyeballs bleed, his early brushes with the law, school suspensions and a spell in prison seem inevitable.

But Murray, a gifted performer with a talent for words, is lucky enough have adults in his life who help encourage him to break away from his circumstances. Among those grown-ups is his tenacious social worker Judy and a teacher who gives him a copy of Hamlet.

That copy of Hamlet is central to Murray’s life and too his engaging one-man show that examines how we are – like Hamlet – marked by events in our life and how we react to them.

Like the Danish prince, Murray knows our world is what we perceive it to be, and our place in it is how we imagine it to be – good and bad are nothing more than human concepts. He quotes Hamlet’s line  “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” several times, a reminder that even in the darkest of places, you can find a way out of that cage with a mind reset.

Conrad Murray is an engaging performer, not least because this is his story. Uncomfortable at times – should we be laughing at his counsellor’s Freudian-focused questions or annoyed at their middle class mis-judgement? You get the impression this show is different every night, depending on the audience’s’ reaction to his unflinching life story.

Murray’s big talent, and one that got him out of scrapes, is his gift for beats and rhymes that he demonstrates inbetween the monologue, rapping to live mixes of looped samples. The tunes add another layer to his story, bringing texture and emotion to his background that isn’t there in the text.  The final number in particular was had a wonderful melody overlapped with Murray’s rap and a hook so catchy I was thoroughly caught in Murray’s storytelling net.

DenMarked | The Courtyard Theatre N1 | Until 17 June 2017

 

 

Theatre review: The Chemsex Monologues, King’s Head Theatre, N1

Patrick Cash’s tale explores the chemical highs and emotional lows of chill-outs.

The Chemsex Monologues at the King's Head Theatre

The Chemsex Monologues at the King’s Head Theatre.

The Chemsex Monologues weaves the stories of four characters who separately narrate their individual experiences in drug-fuelled chill-outs – post-club parties – the strands of their lives loosely threading them together.

Patrick Cash’s tale of a part of post-gay club culture introduced me to a whole new world (and lexicon). G for those that don’t know (me) is, what 90s kids like me knew as GHB, and GBL, drugs that give users a euphoric high on a knife-edge; the dosage to reach that high is dangerously close to the level at which users can overdose. 

The story is dark, funny and unflinching, but there is never any moralising over the characters’ occasionally ill-advised actions. There is a bleak under current to each monologue, but no one is cast in a tut-tutting light.

The characters are – crucially – engaging and all four actors bring a emotional weight to their roles, not easy when there is no one on stage to spark off.

Matthew Hodson as sexual health worker Daniel is a joy, a red wine sipping oddity among G-ed up party goers. His goodness is endearing and never patronising – his character could tip over into a camp parody with the joke firmly on him and his Freddie Mercury-loving enthusiasm, but it’s only ever sincere, warm and funny – and we’re laughing with him, not at him.

But Daniel’s story comes towards the end. First we meet our narrator (Kane Surry), on the night he meets a pretty boy – Nameless – on an all-night bender during a weekend back in London from his base in Paris. He is introduced not only to Nameless, but to G and chemsex before they drift apart 24-hours later under the halcyon lights in Vauxhall.

Nameless – played with frenetic energy that combines innocence with a toughness – by Denholm Spurr – is up next. He relives the day he met Saint Sebastian, a celebrated porn star, rollerskating down Old Compton Street wearing nothing but hot pants and angel wings. They meet again at Hustlaball before heading back to Old Mother Meph’s where events turn from euphoric to chaotic, fun to nearly fatal.

We’re back at Old Mother Meth’s again with Fag Hag Cath. A young and newly single mother who is looking forward to spending Valentine’s Day with her best friend, Steve. But the scene back at Old Mother Meth’s has a nasty edge that Steve looks likely to step over into a darker place.

The Chemsex Monologues is a sensitive portrayal of a world where heavy drugs and delicate minds collide in frank, witty, sometimes heartbreaking ways, each story brought to life by Cash’s sharp script and performances that dig deep into their characters.

The Chemsex Monologues | King’s Head Theatre, N1 | Until 9 April 2017

Theatre review: Don Quixote in Algiers, White Bear Theatre

Forget Don Quixote’s chivalrous adventures, this Don Quixote is a dramatic account of author’s Miguel de Cervantes’ time in jail after he was captured as an enemy soldier.

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Rachel Summers as Zohra and Alvaro Flores as Miguel (c) Kwaku Kyei

 

Miguel de Cervantes, the man behind one of the greatest novels of all time, spent five years as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire at a time when southern Europe and northern Africa were intwined in war and bound in shared recent history.

Don Quixote was captured in Algeria during the Battle of Lepanto in 1575 by Barbary pirates and was finally ‘freed’ in 1580 after he was ransomed by Trinitarian friars.

It was during those years languishing in an Algerian prison cell that Cervantes had the germ of Don Quixote de la Mancha that he would write on his return to Spain in the early 17th century.

Don Quixote in Algiers loosely collates these events and ties them together with a big thread of fiction and a dash of religious and cultural tension, every bit as relevant today as it was in the latter days of the 16th century. The play is set in Algeria which was, in 1578, a regency of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish base for fighting the Spanish in the western Mediterranean, and a fuse point for Islamic-Christian fighting.

Spanish captive Miguel (Álvaro Flores) is an intense, brooding figure, scribbling madly on paper that is quickly discarded. His Trinitarian friar is a local merchant called Si Ali who pays Miguel’s ransom so he can help him translate records into Spanish – a ruse for his real use, to act as his spy in the shadowy city.

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Fanos Xenofos as the merchant Si Ali and Rachel Summers as his wife Carmen. (c) Kwaku Kyei 

Miguel’s presence soon intoxicates Si Ali’s daughter Zohra (Rachel Summers), who is as much a prisoner as Miguel, unable to leave the house except on rare trips where she must  be accompanied by a guardian. If she cannot escape her fate, she is destined to marry one of the dull men her father considers a suitable match.

Zohra’s imagination is sparked not just by the mysterious Miguel, but by her step-mother Carmen (Polly Nayler), a Spaniard captured by the Turks and sold to Si Ali. Her tales of growing up in a convent inspire Zohra to become a nun, although she has no interest in converting to Christianity, she simply wants time to read away from would-be suitors.

Will Miguel be her knight in tattered prison clothes as they plot to escape to Spain on a hole-riddled boat to Europe?

The atmosphere is as dense and claustrophobic as a prison cell thanks to designer Natalie Jackson’s clever set and Dinah Mullen’s constant, doom-laden soundtrack that gets under your skin.

Dermot Murphy’s script is a tangled web of intrigue where reality is as blurred as identity – and trust is as much a fugitive as Miguel. The production starts off strongly, aided by some great acting and clever direction, becomes rather bloated towards the end, where the narrative is derailed by heavy handed symbolism and overwrought dramatic devices.

But on the whole, the Condor Theatre Company punches above its weight within the small confines of the White Bear Theatre. Fanos Xenofós is a stand out as an exceptional Si Ali – composed, considered, his performance is grounded and warm – which perhaps the disparate ending of this production could have done more with.

 Don Quixote in Algiers | White Bear Theatre, SE11 | Until 4 March 2017

Theatre review: Le Gateau Chocolat: Icons, Soho Theatre

Inspired by the deaths of two close friends, Le Gateau Chocolat’s cabaret show is moving, funny and life-affirming.

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Performing in front of pictures of his icons – or his ‘voodoo board’ as he called it as so many of them seemed to have been picked off in 2016’s celebrity death march – Le Gateau Chocolat’s show is a homage to the people who shape our lives through music, ideas and books. His one-hour cabaret show also pays tribute to our more immediate relationships and the effect they have on us – our first loves, our fathers, our best friends.

More than a drag act, Le Gateau weaves personal life stories in-between performing beautifully arranged versions of 80s classics, Kate Bush, Elvis, Bjork and even opera. Le Gateau’s voice is as smooth, rich and delicious as chocolate and treads a difficult line between powerful and fragile.

Le Gateau is as moving as he is mischievous. There are, naturally, plenty of laughs, many of them on the night I was there centred around Le Gateau’s interaction with a bewildered looking man on the front row. He’s a hugely charismatic presence (Le Gateau, not the man on the front row) and he would be as engaging in a Burton suit as he would in sequins.

But I wasn’t prepared for the tears, despite the show being a inspired to the deaths of two of Le Gateau’s friends, as he recounts a story of early morning phone calls signally tragedy and the floors the room with a rendition of a song he sang at a friend’s funeral.

Flanked by his backing band, who may look unassuming but can conjure up wonderful arrangements and equally wonderful wigs, he has the basement at the Soho Theatre singing along to Whitney even on an early January evening when we’d all slipped into a post-Christmas back-to-work January tee-total slump.

The perfect antidote to the January blues.

Le Gateau Chocolat | Soho Theatre Downstairs | Until 7 January 2017

Theatre review:  Puss in Boots, Drayton Arms (upstairs)

Take a traditional family panto, add a healthy dash of filth, innuendo and satire for a hilarious anecdote to the lunacy of 2016.

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Even in the world of dwarves, fairy godmothers and Colgate-smile princes, Puss in Boots is a bonkers tale of a walking, talking, quick-thinking cat who, through cunning, deceit and daring, blags himself and his master a life of luxury.

Fat Rascal Theatre takes this traditional panto and gives it a contemporary kicking with an all-female cast that side-eyes 2016 with innuendo-peppered original songs, plot twists and  political satire.

The third born son of a lowly born family, Colin, is left nothing but a cat in his father’s will. But the cat gives Colin more than he’s bargained for as his feline friend sets out to sort out his daft master’s life, rid the land of evil and help Colin marry the beautiful (but, seemingly vacant) princess Fififi.

This is no ordinary festive fairy tale – Puss (Rosie Raven) is a DM wearing, rolly-smoking badass, the insipid princess turns out to be a feisty feminist while Colin is not the handsome would-be-prince, but a drippy loser who couldn’t win the hand of a clock let alone a beautiful princess.

The actors play several parts with an ease that in some cases is so good my plus one thought they were two different people (Phoebe Batteson-Brown’s transformation from drippy Princess Fififi to Colin’s brother is particularly effective).

Best of all, is Katie Wells’ punchy performance as evil King George with his references to building a wall around his kingdom, tweeting (using a model bird as a prop) every ridiculous thought and fancying one’s own daughter, we all know where the inspiration for this fairy tale badie came from (#trump).

Robyn Grant as the narrator and Queen is in spectacular voice,  and Allie Munro as poor Colin is a sympathetic lead with an excellent line is funny faces.

The audience don’t get a free pass with this panto; there’s the usual “he’s behind you” and “oh no he didn’t” call and responses that are weaved into the narrative with ease. The experience was even more immersive for a couple of audience members who were pulled on stage for dancing and stripping (sort of).

But even for those of us who escaped that fate, it was still impossible not to be sucked into this colourful, crazy, cat-centric world.

Puss in Boots | Drayton Arms | Until 7 January 2017

Theatre review: Pub brawl Shakespeare: Hamlet, Pack and Carriage

Buzzy, original and slightly anarchic, this is Shakespeare Camden style 

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The play’s the thing – Fox and Chips’ Hamlet at Camden’s Pack and Carriage until 13 December 2016

I’ve always thought Hamlet would be very at home in a pub, holding forth over a pint of craft beer, getting rowdier and more self obsessed with every sip. So it’s apt to stage Hamlet in a sticky floored pub in Camden as a semi-immersive production.

Fox and Chips pub brawl Shakespeare is a fun, energetic, fresh production of Shakespeare’s Danish-set tragedy. The conceit is that Polonius is the bar manager and his pub the venue for evil Claudius and traitorous Gertrude’s wedding reception. While the audience never really move on from playing the audience, despite pre-performance banter, the setting helps to break down barriers that seems to spring up when people are presented with Shakespeare. And I’d always rather watch a production from a sofa with a pint of real ale (they do chips too, so what’s not to like?)

This production has a 1970s theme; the costumes are all flares and big collars and a poster of Bay City Rollers (at least I think it was Bay City Rollers) adorns the walls. This is never explained, but it highlights the dramatic soap opera elements of Hamlet. Anything that helps bring Shakespeare down from its lofty reputation to the very human level Will is speaking to is always welcome.

Fox and Chips’ production is engaging and well paced. The big speeches are delivered with a contemporary rhythm and without unnecessary fanfare or wink-wink knowingness that can dog productions. Imran Momen’s Hamlet cuts the right kind of teenage angst with that dash of cruelty; stropping, mean, inconsistence, he’s a man who loves you in the early stages and dumps you when you start falling for him – basically every guy you’ve ever met online dating.

Chris Kyriacou’s Claudius is a standout performance, and he’s well supported by Victoria Otter as Gertrude – not an easy role to play in my mind; I’ve never really figured out where my sympathies lie with her.

The production could maybe benefit from toning down the frantic physicality. There is often a temptation with Shakespeare to take the short cut to explaining the plot through gestures rather than letting the words – which let’s face is, are usually pretty good – tell the story leading to an over reliance on the physical.

But this is a small criticism of what is a brave, sparky, deconstructed and original performance of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.

Plus, the ale is very good. H would approve.

Hamlet | Pack and Carriage, NW1 | Until 13 December 2016

Theatre Review: Buzz – A New Musical

Funny, rude and sassy, Buzz: A Musical hits all the right spots.

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Fat Rascal’s Buzz A New Musical: the story of the vibrator told with wit and plenty of cheek.

Well, that was fun. After a tough couple of weeks, a musical about the history of the vibrator turned out to be a magic bullet of cheer.

Or perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. Since the dawn of man, women have been looking for ways to satisfy themselves without having to rely on them mainly because – as we learn – throughout the centuries, men have been too busy hunting, fighting Gauls or running away from the C word (commitment). And for much of history, female sexuality wasn’t even acknowledged by mansplainers who, well into the 20th century, continued to ignore or suppress the notion that women actually enjoy sex.

This romp through the blossoming of women’s self-satisfying desires and the machine that helped it along centres around twenty-something Angie whose vain, skinny-jeaned boyfriend of three years has just dumped her over garlic bread at Pizza Express.  The ex, Mark, is the most recent embodiment of man as represented in Buzz – a hipster in a failing band, he finishes with dependable Angie for big boobed groupies and O2 sized dreams.

Devastated, Angie wallows in her penguin PJs until her best friend suggests she looks elsewhere for some satisfaction – and this pick-me-up won’t sit around in his pants all day playing computer games.

Enter the vibrator as Angie and the audience get an all-singing, all-dancing history lesson through female sexuality as she learns how to fall back in love with herself.

Cleopatra burst through a wardrobe taking us back to 50 BC where she hollowed out a fruit stone and filled it with buzzing bees who kept her amused in Mark Antony’s long absences in the Roman army. We witness the Victorian doctors who eased hysteria with dexterous figures and see the prehistoric phallic shaped objects that shocked archeologists failed to catalogue.

The musical numbers aren’t quite Les Miserables in terms of orchestration and composition (although I think this really has the potential to work on a bigger scale – the West End could do with a dose of shock and awe), but the lyrics are witty and brimming with filthy smarts. You’ll be singing the words to the finale as you head to Gloucester Road – possibly to the embarrassment of your fellow tube passengers.

Among the (many) laughs is a very real point about women reclaiming their bodies and understanding them better. More educated than ever – and more liberated than ever –  women are still largely ignorant of their bodies and in the light of the recent Ched Evans case it’s apparent society still punishes women who enjoy sex.

And Buzz is singing from the rooftops that we should no longer be ashamed.

Buzz: A Musical | Drayton Arms SW5 | Runs Tuesday to Saturday evenings at 8pm until Saturday 29 October 2016

 

Five Reasons To See Dreamgirls

The wait is finally over as Broadway smash Dreamgirls brings its glitz and glamour to London’s West End 35 years after this story of a 60s girl group first wowed New York audiences.  Here are five reasons why you need to get your ticket today.

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  1. Amber Riley

Glee fans will already be familiar with Amber’s knockout voice and those who never heard her as sweet-natured Mercedes Jones are in for a spine-tingling treat. Amber plays Effie White in the show, the lead singer in The Dreamettes alongside her best friends Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson, who soon discover that the path to fame is as strewn with heartbreak as it is dreams. For a sneaky listen to Amber’s power to set hearts racing and tears flowing, check out this preview of her singing ‘I Am Changing’.

2. The Songs

From heart-wrenching big ballads to Motown-style stompers, the Dreamgirls musical numbers will have you dancing in the aisles, sobbing into your popcorn – and humming them for days. Audience favourites includes ‘I Am Changing’, ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ and ‘Listen’ – originally made famous by Beyoncé in the 2009 film and now a part of the stage production.

 3. The Costumes

The spangly frocks, the wigs, the sparkly shoes – Dreamgirls is almost as famous for its fabulous costumes as it is for its killer tunes. And the costume changes are as frequent as a Diana Ross tantrum – the 2009 US touring production of Dreamgirls had over 460 costumes and 205 wigs. The London production’s wardrobe has been designed by renowned, Tony Award winning costume designer Gregg Barnes.

4. The Story

It’s not all singing and dancing, Dreamgirls is an engrossing and emotional story. The plot follows the fortunes – and failures – of Chicago-based trio The Dreamettes – Deena Jones, Lorrell Robinson and Effie White after they are discovered by ambitious agent Curtis Taylor, Jr. The girls’ career takes off under Taylor, but at a cost as it’s not long before he’s controlling their every move. Under the stress of success, cracks begin to show in the group as the beautiful Deena emerges as the star of the group over the gifted Effie. 

5. Be Part Of History

Dreamgirls first hit Broadway in 1981 directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett. The show won six Tony Awards and has toured the United States and the world. The show finally arrives in London in a highly anticipated new production directed and choreographed by the hugely successful, Tony and Olivier award-winning Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, Something Rotten!). One of the reasons why the show took so long to arrive in the West End was because producers couldn’t find the perfect Effie – until they discovered Amber. And who wouldn’t want to miss out on perfection?

Dreamgirls | Savoy Theatre | Booking from 23 November 2016 | Click Here For Tickets

Theatre Review: 1984, The Playhouse Theatre

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‘Two minutes of hate’: 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre

London in the sunshine is a glorious place to be, especially down by the river where, looking out across the water, surrounded by the buzz of beer-fuelled Londoners, the world looks pretty much perfect.

And what a better thing to do on an early summer evening when the world looks so lovely than to sit in the near darkness watching a dystopian tale so powerful that I felt like I’d spent the night on a rack in Room 101.

The world in this adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 may contrast sharply with London on a warm night, but in these days of Julian Assange and Ed Snowdon, government cover ups, politicians whipping up hate against minority groups and surveillance cameras on every corner, Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare novel, first published in 1949, seems more relevant than ever.

Orwell’s novel has been distilled down to its brutal bones for the stage by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. The production transferred to the Playhouse Theatre at the end of last month from the hit factory that is the Almeida. Watching this intense, claustrophobic play in the confined space of the N1 based theatre would been punishing. For once I was glad of my Upper Circle seat.

The conceit of this production is to use the appendix in the original novel as a springboard to bookend Winston’s tale with a narrative that’s set somewhere around 2050 where the book has become a historical text. The play opens with people in some kind of book club  (book clubs, like cockroaches will probably survive an atomic attack) discussing this ‘diary’; Winston’s story, its providence, relevance, reliability and impact debated widely. Having those characters then playing characters in Winston’s story further rams home the mirror image that Orwell was holding up to us in his novel: there is no past or future.

This Almeida Theatre, Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse production makes full use of every theatrical component – the set and the staging are as vital as the tremendous acting in telling this story.  For a large part of the one hour 41 minute play the set resembles a church hall or school library; officious but perfunctory, there is nothing futuristic about it. When Winston and Julia are in the hands of the Party, the set is stripped bare and bathed in white light. Throughout the play, the theatre is plunged into pitch darkness, rocked by booming noises and illuminated with strobes.

But it’s not all crash, bang, wallop, the acting is top notch too. Mark Arends is a wonderfully juddery Winston, wide eyed with fear. Hara Yannas gives a lovely controlled performance as Julia, a character who could to be seen as cold and robotic.

Nineteen Eighty Four is a book I know and love; I’ve read it several times, but it’s a story that still has the power to surprise and shock, especially when it’s adapted with such force as it is here. That final scene was proper hand-over-the-face stuff; I had controlled my mind in a way the Party would have been impressed with to forget just how nasty things get in Room 101 (clue: more fake blood).

This is a truly affecting – and entertaining – play; I don’t think I’ve ever been so rattled by a piece of theatre.

1984 is back at the London Playhouse until 29 October 2016.

Get 64% off ticket prices here.

This review is from the 2014 production at the Playhouse Theatre.

by Suzanne Elliott