Theatre review: All the Little Lights, Tristan Bates, WC2

A dark thread of humour runs through this play that packs short, powerful punch 

 

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Erin Mullen as Lisa (left) and Lucy Mabbitt as Joanne in All the Little Lights 

 

Addressing serious topics is part of the remit of the arts, but plays With. A. Message. can be clunky and overplayed. 

We look to books, films and theatre to entertain us, of course, but the arts are also a crucial way of helping us understand the our world, as well as those worlds that many of us – thankfully – never see. Creating work that addresses more than the everyday this without sounding preachy or knocking people over the head with A Message requires a hand, a solid story, and strong characters that are more than just vessels to deliver The Point. All the Little Lights manages to walk this tightrope of narrative and message with ease, packing a punch with sharp dialogue and superb acting.  

Three friends have gathered around a campfire in celebration of Lisa’s 16th birthday. Angry, hurt Joanne, 15, has brought along her new sidekick, 12-year-old Amy, who, it becomes quickly apparent, is out of her depth and perilously close to the danger that has ripped Joanne and Lisa’s lives apart. 

This night around the campfire very much isn’t glamping in Dorset; it’s a disused bit of ground on the outskirts of an unnamed town; it’s sleeping by a railway track, and cold spaghetti hoops out of the tin; it’s punch make with Fanta and vodka swinged from a plastic bottle. 

And the campfire tales aren’t cosy or heartwarming, they are ghost stories of a very real kind. There is a great deal unsaid in Jane Upton’s script, but the coded sentences, the tension and fear that radiates from Lisa, and Joanne’s destructive hurt and anger throb with disturbing detail. These are girls on the edge of society, clinging on to a system with no safety net below. 

Lisa (Erin Mullen) is now in foster care with a big bedroom and a foster father who plays guitar. She had severed ties with her best mate Joanne (Lucy Mabbitt) before and was attempting to rebuild a life shattered by the sexual exploitation they were both subjected to. But Joanne can’t let go in the way Lisa wants, she is finding it harder to shake off the darkness of her past and looks set to take Amy with her.

The chip shop and predatory TJ – an older man who works there and whose appetite for young girls threatens to now consume Amy (Emily Fairn) – loom large through this one-hour production, but we never leave the fireside, Joanne and Lisa’s conversation skipping over and around the traumatic experiences they have been through.

They are a mix of cynical toughness and childishness – they play chicken with the trains on the nearby tracks and conjure up stories of the people who live in the houses with ‘the little lights’ they can see in the distance. But their shared trauma and horror lies between them, tearing them apart while binding them together. The threat to innocent, lonely Amy lingers ominously as the fires dies.  

The three young actors deliver powerhouse performances, the pain emanating from them as brightly and intensively as a well tended campfire. The seriousness of the script is punctured by humour that never seems forced or over compensatory – even a moment of corpsing seems natural. And, crucially, while the subject matter is dark, All the Little Lights, is absorbing and compelling.

Playing as part of Camden Fringe, and supported by child exploitatin charity Safe and Sound, this production of All the Little Lights deserves wider exposure. 

All the Little Lights | Tristan Bates | Until August 17 2019

 

Chambers_, secret location, London

Food, wine and theatre are the perfect ingredients for an evening of immersive delights 

What better way to spend a searing hot day in July than in a bunker in the depths of east London? Hidden away under London’s steaming concrete, far from the record-breaking heat, the hottest ticket in town is Chambers_ – a collaboration between Gingerline and Flavourology – part theatre part culinary experience that ticks all your sensory boxes.

Described as a “palette twisting, interactive, multi-dimensional dining adventure”, Chambers_ is super sharp and wildly imaginative, the loose narrative arc no barrier to an evening of food, fun and flights of fancy. 

What happens in this underground world is shrouded in mystery – those who’ve passed through the multi-verse are sworn to secrecy, but it’s breaking no promises to say that Chambers_ is a tight, well-directed and acted romp with none of the hysterical improv that can tip an immersive experience into a toe-curling experience. 

There’s no real plot but you don’t really notice as you move through a series of set pieces each with its own cast of characters – and roles for the audience. In each room you get to tuck into one of the five dishes that you’re given along your journey, fusing the theme of the performance with appropriate food. 

The food is good… The programme warns it’s not Michelin star but the meals are tasty and flavourful (there’s a reason I’m not a food critic). I’m a vegetarian but my meat-eating plus one enjoyed her carnivorousness treats just as much. 

While the fusion of food, art and performance is the draw, the real star of the show are the sets. Wonderfully imaginative and brilliantly realised, they bring to life these other worlds and play a large part in taking your brains – and your tastebuds – to another dimension.

Chambers_ | Secret location | Until 28 September 2019

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The Night of the Iguana, Noël Coward Theatre (preview)

A long journey into the night as a big name cast fails to imbue relevance to this three-hour-plus production 

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“Oh, God, can’t we stop now? Finally?”

The last line in The Night of Iguana resonated for all the wrong reasons: after over three hours in a broiling hot theatre surrounded by fidgety tourists, I have rarely empathised so much with a character.

Still in previews (which didn’t stop the theatre charging us £30 for seats way in the gods), Tennessee Williams’ 1961 play, features many of his tropes – the weather is an extra character, the tension boiling over as the thunder rolls, there are troubled male character battling demons, enigmatic women who refuse to be tamed and heavy-handed metaphors.

After seeing Noël Coward’s sparkling Present Laughter at The Old Vic last week, The Night of Iguana (currently showing at the Noël Coward theatreseemed like a lumbering beast – as slow and ungainly as the titular lizard, the theatrical heat (or perhaps the very real one in the auditorium) seeming to sap the production of any fire.

The play follows a classic dramatic arch. Set in the 1940s, you get a bunch of mismatched characters in one place – in this case, a cheap hotel near Acapulco, Mexico. Clive Owen plays Shannon, a priest with a penchant for young girls – something which we seem to be asked not to feel too strongly about – who has recently been released from an institution where he was recovering from a “nervous breakdown”.

After being released from his physical internment (but very much still battling to break out of his mental prison), Shannon takes up a position as a tour guide for a second-rate travel firm and brings his current group to this dilapidated establishment run by his friend Maxine (Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn), a recent widow struggling to keep a roof over her and her guests’ heads.

When we meet Shannon he has just been accused of the statuary rape of a sixteen-year-old member of his tour party. But, hey, he carries women’s luggage so he’s not all bad. The women of the group have turned against him because of the small matter of the rape accusation – and are portrayed as nagging, humourless women for being so uptight about this silly little trifle.

In the midst of this, comes watercolour hustler Hannah Jelkes and her elderly grandfather Nonno who, despite having no money to pay their bill, take up residence at the hotel (although Hannah is given a room with a leaking roof by Maxine as a little two-finger gesture).

The central scene is a heavy tête-à-tête between Shannon and Hannah where they excavate their pasts in a merry dialogue dance that could be cheerfully cut to half its length so we could all get home before midnight.

Occasionally the heavy atmosphere is punctured by funny, well-delivered lines, usually from Lia Williams as Hannah. And then there are the Nazis in their swimsuits who every now and again will gallop on stage, laughing at London burning in the Blitz, demanding champagne, before skipping off again to a collective WTF.

Length isn’t a barometer of a good or bad play, of course; I sat completely entranced through the two well-over-three-hour halves of The Inheritance and have stood happily watching Shakespeare’s lengthy histories and tragedies at the Globe.

But this production felt flabby and, well, a bit pointless. What was it about this play that needed to be heard now? Shannon is the kind of man the world is trying to challenge, even eradicate – a sexual predator, an emotionally stunted man who thinks everything and everyone is his for the taking, the women around him either ridiculed or desperate to protect him in case he turns on them.

This production didn’t say anything new about men like Shannon or challenge his worldview. Owen didn’t imbue him with any real depth or give us a hint of something that would provide a glimpse of what was behind his behaviour, so it was difficult to feel anything other than contempt for him – an idiotic child-man who assumed he could do what he likes.

Plaudits to the brilliant set – the thunder and lightning and pouring rain so real I felt like diving under the seats – but, while Williams’ plays are always languid, soaked in sweat and unspoken fears, this metaphorical humidity shouldn’t dampen the drama.

The Night of the Iguana | Noel Coward Theatre | Until September 28 2019

The Swell Mob, COLAB theatre, SE1

Fun if fragmented production that immerses you in the seedy side of Victorian London 

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The Swell Mob cast a the COLAB theatre (c) Jordan Chandler

Flabbergast Theatre have transformed the COLAB theatre, a dimly-lit space along the dusty stretch between Borough and Elephant and Castle, into a sleazy Victorian saloon where gambling, bare-knuckle fighting and dubious employment rights reign supreme. Overseeing all this is the evil master – a puppet with an air of Voldemort before all those Horcruxes – whose dodgy dealings we are here to unmask.

Or at least, I think that’s what we’re here for. Each visit to The Swell Mob is different, the journey you take will depend on the questions you ask, the rooms you dare enter and the tasks you are given by the actors. But whichever route you take, you will be immersed in a world soaked in menace, your (pretend) money lost to the card table or a dodgy bet on the boxing; your courage tested down badly-lit corridors and manically grinning Mozarts.

The idea of The Swell Mob is to get stuck in – the more questions you ask the more information you’ll gather, and knowledge inside this gloomy den of iniquity is even better currency than the coins you’re handed at the beginning. There are riddles to be solved, dark corners to explore and plenty of clues lying in plain sight.

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Gamble away your money at the Swell Mob’s card table (c) Jordan Chandler

And Swell Mob is certainly fun and hugely atmospheric, the seemingly floating, ghostly head that greets us at the door setting the tone for an afternoon that relies on ambience over narrative.

As a piece of theatre, the production doesn’t quite tie together – it’s more a series of set pieces that rely too heavily on the audience to drive a story we’re not given enough backstory to invest in.

But while it lacks direction and a definitive goal, Swell Mob is enjoyable and imaginative. Go see it to be immersed in its gothic charm and cast of crazy characters – just shake off any inhibitions and follow the chaos.

The Swell Mob | COLAB theatre | until June 30 2019

Theatre review: The Chess Player, OSO Arts Centre

An emotionally charged one-hander that follows one man’s bid to survive in the hardest of circumstances

Richard McElvain in the Chess Player, interpretation of the story is all the more disturbing in a world where the Far Right is once again raising its head.

Richard McElvain in the Chess Player, interpretation of the story is all the more disturbing in a world where the Far Right is once again raising its head.

 

Based on Jewish Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s novella, The Chess Player follows a prisoner in a Nazi jail struggling to stay sane while shut away in solitary confinement with no books, cigarettes or conversation.

His unlikely lifebuoy comes in the form of a stolen chess book allows him to lose himself memorising the many outcomes of a chess game. Despite never having played a game of chess, has the prisoner become the best player of all time?

His chance to test his skills comes after he escapes his captures and en route to safety in Buenos Aires finds himself in the middle of a chess tournament featuring the great chess masterminds.

Despite the mind soothing power of chess and his new found freedom, the prisoner remains hovering on the brink of madness. Will he survive a game against the greatest player of all time? Or will it trigger a descent into a darkness that there will be no escape from?

Written, performed and director by Richard McElvain who takes on all the roles with great zeal and emotion, breaking the fourth wall at times by placing himself in the story and interacting with the audience and occasionally with Larry Buckley whose sound and light production brings a further edge to the production.

The back-and-forth between McElvain’s characters serves to heightened the madness and claustrophobia of a man who escapes one prison only to find himself trapped in his own mind. The final chess game reaches an intense climax of insanity that leads to two choose-your-own-adventure style endings, one based on Zweig’s own death from suicide and another playing out the novella’s original conclusion.

Post-curtain call Elvain explains the show is about theatre and art, how it means nothing and everything at the same time. Art lifts us and holds a mirror to us and the world we live in. Without it, we are the like the prisoner in his cell, clinging onto an emptiness with no purpose.

The Chess Player | OSO Arts Centre, SW13 | Until May 26 2018

Comedy review: Sarah Kendall, Soho Theatre

Entertaining and engaging, Sarah Kendall’s observation on bad luck/good luck is an amusing, poignant look at our lot in life

Sarah Kendall3 - credit Rosalind Furlong

Sarah Kendall’s One-Seventeen deals with the theme of luck, based on a Chinese proverb about what constitutes good luck/bad luck, where one can be disguised as the other. Kendall explores how our lives can change in an instant, and how we may not even be aware of that moment’s significance until later when we take back and unravel the strands.

One-Seventeen isn’t your typical comedy show. There is a sad seam that runs through the hour-long show that moves between time and place as Kendall weaves together tales from her past and present.

This isn’t a show that provokes belly laughs, although there are plenty of funny moments. It is a show that is as poignant as it is humourous, where moving moments collide with amusing undercurrents – for example how her brother reacts to a real-life – nearly fatal – car crash as if he were in the Dukes of Hazzard (a favourite show of the siblings).

Kendall is at her funniest when doing impressions of her hugely pessimistic mother who in contrast to her more pragmatic, star-gazing father, sees everything as doomed. That, and the stories of her nouveau riche neighbours in Australia who bonded her quarrelling mum and dad better than any marriage counselling.

Star-gazing is a theme that runs through the show, from reminiscing of standing on the lawn in Australia pretending to see Halley’s comet, to fast forwarding to her life today in south London as a married mother of two, and her father, the other side of the world, asking her as she stood on her tiny London patio what stars she could see.

Kendall’s great skill is as a storyteller. Each of these individual tales is engaging and absorbing, told with genuine warmth and a captivating cadence. There’s an argument that perhaps each anecdote works better as an individual story than as an all-encompassing take on life and our place in it.

But overall, One-Seventeen is a beautifully crafted show that is as touching as is it funny and moves away from comedy clichés to take a wry and thought-provoking look at how fate trips us up with stealth.

Sarah Kendall | On tour across the UK | Until 20 June 2018

Theatre review: Great British Mysteries?, Soho Theatre

An offbeat comedy two-hander that is wonderfully silly but lacks a little substance

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Will Close and Rose Robinson in Great British Mysteries?

 

An amusing, slightly chaotic and quirky comedy, Great British Mysteries? sees Olive Bacon (Rose Robinson) and her untrusty sidekick Dr. Teddy Tyrell (Will Close) clumsily attempt to solve a series of the UK’s most compelling unsolved crimes and suspicious sightings.

Together they host Great British Mysteries? a documentary that sets out to shine a light on such enigmas as Jack the Ripper and the Roswell alien landings without such pesky things as evidence and facts. They are the Michael Gove and Boris Johnson of dubious documentaries.

The first half is a greatest hits of their greatest mysteries, as Olive and Teddy stumble through their ‘findings’ aided with video projectors and some real-time ‘rewinds’.

The humour comes from the pair’s clumsiness and ineptitude that at first produces some riotous laughs from the audience. Close and Robinson are sparky performers and elicit great comedy currency from their repertoire of funny faces and comfortable chemistry.

But this enjoyable and undemanding comedy began to flatline a little as the second half – a full-length unravelling of the Loch Ness mystery – rolled on. Unlike the famous lake, Great British Mysteries? lacked depth, the irreverent humour never really developing from the baseline silliness.

There are still moments of excellent comic timing and clever flashes of what could be with a bit more character development and structure. Taking a plunge into comedy’s darker depths would have sustained the monster laughs into the second half.

Great British Mysteries | Soho Theatre | Until 19 May 2018

Dance review: Macbeth, Wilton’s Music Hall

A haunting, gripping dance adaptation of Shakespeare’s sinister masterpiece

Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval as the Macbeths

Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval as the Macbeths.

Dancing to Shakespeare may sound a bit like dancing to architecture, to (badly) paraphrase a famous phrase, but in the hands of the fantastic Mark Bruce Company, one of the bard’s greatest – and bloodiest – plays becomes a piece of absorbing and captivating art in its own right.

Macbeth lends itself well to dance, the inner turmoil of a man and his wife willing to commit regicide to be king and queen of Scotland, create an energy that is both powerful yet intimate. Unearthing the hidden meaning behind what drives this ambitious couple to commit murder in order to get their bloody hands on the crown has long fascinated directors, and in this production their angst, greed and lust for power. and their subsequent all-consuming guilt, seems even more stark.

From gentle beginnings grows a performance of great drama and passion. Bold, clever lighting washes the stage in blood-red and casts a banquet in stunning aspic, while well-placed symbols create a brooding atmosphere as the score – largely comprised of Arvo Pärt’s multi-layered music – enhances without smothering. But as sharp as the visual spectacle is, it’s the power of the dance that brings Shakespeare’s words to life.

The choreography is wonderfully realised, with every hand gesture and head turn revealing the characters’ passion and emotions. Shakespeare’s big scenes are all there: there’s the dagger and Lady Macbeth’s hand-wringing; a sinister reactment of the witches’ prophesy of Banquo’s descendants long rule over Scotland, and the banquet scene where the murdered Banquo haunts Macbeth with a terrifying intensity.

Jonathan Goddard as the titular character reveals Macbeth’s ruthlessness alongside a vulnerability – this is a man who seems aghast at his own capacity for murder, astonished at his lust for power. But, as with so many Macbeths, it’s Lady Macbeth who draws the eye. Eleanor Duval is wonderful in the role, a hugely captivating dancer who conveys the character’s steely-eyed ambition and her descent into madness with an incredible force, recreating Shakespeare’s words with compelling charisma. Together the two dancers are beguiling and compelling – this is a couple who are destined to rule.

Mark Bruce Company’s Macbeth | Wilton’s Music Hall | Until 17 March 2018

 

 

 

 

Theatre review: Murder, She Didn’t Write, Leicester Square Theatre

A lively, witty improv show with a deathly turn of phrase

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Degree of Error’s Murder, She Didn’t Write

Improv can go one of two ways: it can be toe-curlingly awkward, or skilfully quick-witted and pacey.

Murder, She Didn’t Write, brought to us by Bristol-based improve specialists, Degrees of Error, rifts off Agatha Christie murder tropes, including clipped accents, a butler called Jeeves, dubious motives and dastardly morals.

The performance is completely unplanned and unscripted with the audience – to a degree – playing scriptwriter and director.

The scenario is chosen by a shortlist compiled from the audience’s shout-outs, so on the afternoon we were there, the murder setting is a hen night – with a twist. For this is no ordinary hen night – and not just because it’s set in England in the 1920s when hen dos were as common as mobile phones: this one features actual hens (or rather imaginary actual hens). Meanwhile, the murder weapon is a very unlikely wet tea towel.

The audience member who is lucky enough – or perhaps unlucky, depending on your approach to participation – to catch the deerstalker hat thrown into the crowd by the inspector-come-narrator becomes Jerkins – the detective’s rather rubbish sidekick, who will help to solve The Case of the Wet Tea Towel.

The Cluedo-style colour coded suspects are a nod to another classic of the very English murder-genre and include Agatha Pink and Scarlet Scarlet. Then there’s bride-to-be Violet Violet, a well-known chicken scientist  (obviously) who will found dead in the chicken coop, surrounded by the plucked corpses of her beloved hens.

The hen setting is ripe for innuendo, especially in the first few scenes as the actors find their feet among the quagmire of scenarios and results in an over-reliance on cock jokes.

But the actors soon inhabit their flamboyant characters and the action moves along at a rapid tempo, reducing sections of the audience – and the inspector – to eye-watering levels.

There were obvious plot holes, and some scenes fell flatter than others, but it gathers momentum as the story develops, held together by wit and clever riffing. The length of each scene was wittily dictated by the lighting technician who – along with the musical accompaniment – often drove the punch lines. There were some great running gags and its sharp denouement is plausible thanks to some clever detective work by the stage-left sitting inspector.

Murder, She Didn’t Write | Leicester Square Theatre | 25 March to 29 April 2018

Theatre review: Dead and Breathing, Albany Theatre

A darkly comic look at age, gender, race and class

Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn (foreground) and Kim Tatum as Veronika in Dead and Breathing.

Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn (foreground) and Kim Tatum as Veronika in Dead and Breathing.

 

Cranky old biddy (although, she’s actually only 68, surely a spring chicken in baby boomer-terms),  Carolyn is a very rich woman with a very nasty streak.

Diagnosed with cancer years ago, she was meant to be dead within months, but she keeps on living to complain for another day.

Set in her big, expensive house (the set, featuring a real bath and a very comfy looking bed, is great), Carolyn snides from her place of huge privilege.

Cancer hasn’t so much turned her crankiness up to 11, but given her an excuse for it, sneering and sniping at the endless rounds of hospice nurses sent to her plush house to help and support her. Carolyn’s gone through 16 nurses in the past couple of years, and she’s proud of it.

But she hadn’t banked on Veronika, who’s her match in caustic words and silent strops. Carolyn is so enamoured with her new nurse, she’s soon phoning her lawyer to change her will, bequeathing her whole estate – $87 million plus the house – to Veronika.

The catch? Devoutly Christian Veronika has to kill an-on-the-bring-of-suicide Carolyn to secure her life-changing inheritance.

This two-hander is taut and engrossing, quietly – and darkly – comic, Chisa Hutchinson‘s script sharp and spiky. It zips along with a speed that defies Carolyn’s slow dying, occasioning lessening up as the two women’s pasts reveal themselves in the carpeted bedroom.  

There’s one misstep – a reveal towards the end of the last quarter is too easily and inadequately resolved. It would have packed a bigger punch if it had come earlier as it would have tested Carolyn’s personality further and revealed a great deal more about the two women and their relationship.

But this little trip is expectantly handled by Lizan Mitchell as Carolyn, who gives a fantastic performance, inhabiting the role as comfortably as she does Carolyn’s big bed. Kim Tatum is a little less confident as Veronika but burns brightly when the pace slows and Carolyn’s snippiness sends sharp arrows into unhealed scars.
Dead and Breathing | Albany Theatre | Until 3 March 2018