Theatre review: Rebel Angel, the Old Operating Theatre

Keats’ early life as a medical student is dramatised against Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre

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Jonny P Taylor as Keats with Peter Broad as his guardian, Mr Abbey, credit: Chris Nash

As atmospheric venues go, the Old Operating Theatre in London Bridge is hard to beat. Creaking with history, the tiny amphitheatre was used, until its closure in the mid-1800s,  by St Thomas’ Hospital to demonstrate surgery – usually amputations on the poor – to medical students who packed the narrow rows that look down on the bloody show.

One of the students who passed through the garret theatre was young nightingale fan John Keats. The poet lived over the road with his friend and fellow medical student Henry Stephens, who would also ditch the amputations and go on to make a fortune in ink. 

Doe-eyed Keats realised early on in his medical training that he was more cut out for stanzas than surgery and this production of Rebel Angel examines his journey from reluctant student to his (very) early Endymion days. The play doesn’t follow a chronological order, so we oscillate between Keats’ childhood as an obedient, enthusiastic child attempting to soothe his mother, whose violent coughing signposts both her own demise and her son’s early death, and his days as a student.  We leave John at the end waiting for his coach on the first leg of his travels to Rome where he would go on to write the poems that would see his name mentioned in the same breathe as his heroes, Byron and Shelley.

Thankfully Rebel Angel is far less bloody than the shows the audience witnessed in Victorian times, although this production is every bit as fascinating and enthralling as those demos would no doubt have been to the young men of the time (except Keats’ queasy friend Tyrrell who wisely opts for the pub over another botched surgery experiment).

Keats, played with considered intensity by Jonny P Taylor, sacrificed much for his poetry and posthumous fame. He fought with his guardian, Mr Abbey, who had been left as the boy’s charge when his mother died when Keats was 14. In this production Mr Abbey (Peter Broad) represents the old school, a man who has little time for fancy words and dandy ways and Keats isn’t afraid to leave him behind in hope of poetry glory.

Taylor’s Keats is far from the waif like figure he is often portrayed as – all flouncy blouses and pining for Fanny Brawne – he is determined and single-minded. He’s not afraid to stand up to boorish surgeon Bill Lucas (also played with great pomposity by Peter Broad) after a slip of the knife ends another young patient’s life. And young John doesn’t so much woo young ladies with fine words as experiment with their hearts – his poetry his surgeon’s knife.

The small cast play several characters adeptly and director and writer Angus Graham-Campbell makes fine use of the confined and stripped back setting. As any student of English Literature knows, having a framework can enable a poem to pack an even greater emotional punch.

Rebel Angel | the Old Operating Theatre, SE1 | Until 7 October 2017

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Theatre review: The Divine Comedy, Barons Court Theatre

An impressive re-telling of an allegorical journey through sin and salvation.

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Alex Chard as Dante in So It Goes Theatre’s retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy

There’s something fitting about hell being represented in a dank basement, with a pub (so often a heavenly respite) above us. Purgatory? Let that be the ramshackly awkward pre-curtain queue that wound up the stairs sending theatre goers into the path of diners and waiters.

Douglas Baker’s adaptation of Dante’s three-part journey through hell, purgatory and paradise is both ambitious and low-key. It takes the 14th century poet’s mammoth text and reduces it to a whirlwind 90-minute production, compressing  the main themes into a zippy, but no less powerful play.

The play is brought into the 21st century, a risky move that works despite the juxtaposition ofLatin poet Virgil in a Harrington jacket talking about sin and salvation and somehow God being the biggest character in this drama doesn’t seem anachronistic. 

We meet Dante – a character is his own poem – as he’s about to throw himself off a bridge in despair at the death of his lover. But his attempt is scuppered when Virgil, sent by the very woman he is grieving, turns up with a very persuasive case not to jump: a tour of hell, destined to be Dante’s abode for eternity should his suicide attempt work. 

In the original poem, Dante’s saviour, Beatrice is a mysterious woman whose identity remains a puzzle for scholars, but whose presence grounds the poem. In this production, her ambiguity is stripped away and she is positioned firmly as Dante’s dead lover.  

Oddly, while the pace of this production is brisk, Beatrice’s glacial arrival in beige heaven rather stalls the play. Despite Kathryn Taylor-Gears‘s calm, assured and thoughtful performance, the momentum sags as she argues with Dante to reconsider his faith before contemplating a jump into the afterlife.

The atmosphere in the Barons Court Theatre  is naturally claustrophobic and menacing, but the lighting and projections ramp up the tension.  While the moments of physical theatre movement director Matt Coulton introduces help to sustain the momentum and inject some energy.

The Divine Comedy is no Fawlty Towers in the laugh department, but there are some moments of wit in this production. The tube as purgatory is amusing – although during a heatwave, the Central line can feel more like hell.

The cast are all excellent, the all-female chorus (Sofia Greenacre, Marialuisa Ferro, Sophia Speakman and Michaela Mackenzie) bring a haunting aura in their various stages in the afterlife, while Alex Chard is captivating and assured as a baby-faced Dante.

An original and creative production that stokes the fire of Dante’s poem with flair and invention.

The Divine Comedy | Barons Court Theatre | Until 30 September 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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 allies – says, 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