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

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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

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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

Theatre review: Double Infemnity, Vaults Festival

A one-woman show that gives a feminist interpretation of this classic genre doesn’t ooze with quite enough noir.

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Double Infemnity, a nice twist on the title of the 1940s-crime noir film Double Indemnity, is a one woman play, starring Katrina Foster as Effie-Lou, a former sex worker forced to turn detective when her PI friend Joe disappears.

Ellie-Lou’s hunt for Joe draws her deep into a world of murder, sex trafficking, and dodgy beehive wigs.

Double Infemnity bills itself as a stylish and gender-flipped crime noir and is the product of collaboration between two female theatre companies, Little but Fierce, and Paperclip Theatre. It’s a one woman play that turns the smokey, masculine world of crime noir into a feminist fight for justice.

Foster doubles, when needed to, as other characters in this off-beat crime noir. And she isn’t entirely alone on stage – she’s backed up by a virtual young Brad Pitt who pops up on a screen overhead to add a visually comic dimension.

But a topless Brad and Foster’s on-point red lips and red nails aren’t quite enough to lift this show from the atmospherically dingy Vaults Studio Theatre to seedy 1960s Los Angeles, despite Foster’s obvious strengths.

The show is peppered with some clever gender stereotypes role-reversal from co-writers Naomi Westerman, Catherine O’Shea, and Jennifer Cerys. But one performer plays are hard to pull off – how do you move the show beyond a storytelling monologue to something more dimensional?

There is an attempt to do this by including a couple of audience interactions, which added a bit of zip, but overall Double Infeminity doesn’t quite pack a big a punch as the genre it’s riffing off. Foster equips herself well in the role, but is encumbered by a script that never really lifts us into this sleazy world, relying too heavily on the crime noir tropes to tell its story.

The rumbling trains above aren’t the only reason the plot gets lost, the show’s main themes – exploitation of women, what it means to be a woman in a man’s world – don’t ring as loudly as they should, lost amid a narrative that isn’t as tough as the world it’s portraying.

Theatre review: Reunion and Dark Pony, John Harvard Library, SE1

Celebrate Libraries Week (9 – 14 October) with sombre, but touching father/daughter dynamics 

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David Schaal and Siu-see Hung in Dark Pony

Public libraries have always been about more than books. They have laid at the heart of many communities since their inception, designed to inspire, educate, engage and thrill. In recent years, they have become increasingly squeezed and compromised as budgets are slashed and their role questioned. So what better way to celebrate Libraries Week than show what they can be and turn these silent spaces into a stage. After all, libraries and theatres share the same currency: stories.

Baseless Fabric Theatre are a site-specific theatre and opera company that create work in public spaces to encourage people to see art forms and their local public spaces in new ways. As part of National Libraries Week, they have chosen two David ‘American Buffalo’ Mamet short plays (at seven minutes, Dark Pony is a slip of a piece), both sparse enough to lend themselves well to the space between the bookshelves (it helps that John Harvard Library has a coffee shop where Reunion, the night’s first performance, takes place).

The American playwright and scriptwriter is firmly in Richard Ford and Richard Yates territory where the all-American family is revealed to be less picket fence, more prison wall. Reunion, Mamet’s 1976 two-hander features a meeting between a father and his daughter, now (unhappily) married and a step-mother, who have been separated for nearly a lifetime. Through Mamet’s hyper-realistic dialogue that is both awkward yet precise, even lyrical at times, the characters’ attempt to find those lost years. Bernie, a reformed alcoholic, has largely found peace with himself, contemplating a third marriage and content with his job in a restaurant kitchen. He dominates the meeting, explaining his life and his mistakes through some amusing anecdotes. His daughter struggles more under the weight of his absence, her future also promising little. But while they may not walk off into the sunset, the pair do find some kind of equilibrium between the past and the present.

Dark Pony is a bitesized sketch where a father tells a favourite bedtime story to his young daughter as they drive home late at night – the story of a young native American brave and his trusty horse, Dark Pony. It’s sweet, although so fleeting it doesn’t have time to crawl under your skin.

David Schaal as Bernie and the book-reading father captures the right kind of wide-eyed intensity, reeling from his hard life and the mistakes he’s made, desperate for a fresh start. And you can almost hear Siu-see Hung’s (Carol and the young daughter) internal struggle, as she tries to find the words to put her life into focus.

Reunion and Dark Pony | Various library locations in London | Until 15 October 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Theatre review: A Nazi Comparison, Waterloo East Theatre

A PR student turns anti-capitalist warrior in this bold but uneven delve into media lies and government hypocrisy

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Craft Theatre’s A Nazi Comparision at Waterloo East Theatre

 

There is no doubt a need for more people to be angry and engaged with the wild inequality and injustice in the world. There is also no doubt that there is a need for art – and theatre in particular – to question the atrocities committed by the West that go unchallenged in the media. A Nazi Comparison makes a stab at being that play.

It’s a brave production that certainly doesn’t lack heart, but it’s too uneven and disjointed, too reliant on melodrama, to be entirely convincing.

The play spins around Clare (Louise Goodfield), who is introduced to right-on ideas when she is forced to get out of her taxi and walk through a Grenfell Tower protest that has blocked her way. Here she meets Craig (Craig Edgeley), the worst kind of lefty guy, hiding a selfish, narcissistic personality behind Ideas. Clare is enthralled – whether to Craig or the cause is unclear – and soon she’s telling her mum she doesn’t understand her and dropping out of university.

Her conversion to the left is cemented when her teacher lends her a copy of Shalateger by Hanns Johst, the Poet Laureate to the Third Reich (the play was dedicated to Adolf Hitler) in which Clare can’t help but see strong parallels in how the media was manipulated then and how it is now.

A Nazi Comparison throws every anti-capitalist, left-leaning cliché into the mix and rather ties itself in knots by doing so. There is a good story in there somewhere, but it’s rather lost in the production’s attempt to give everything. The (semi-improvised?) dialogue wasn’t punchy enough to lift the play out of hackneyed territory, and the production was cluttered with several unnecessary scenes that distracted, including a couple of tonally off message physical theatre set pieces.

The media – the current en vogue whipping boy – gets a beating – not necessarily undeserved – in fact one of the play’s highlights is a PowerPoint presentation that discusses the press’ bias against Jeremy Corbyn. But to make such a bold statement comparing Western governments and the media to Thirties Germany, you need to have your argument tightly presented. Goodfield as Clare did a good job of oscillating between student and angry squat dweller, her UCL speech well-delivered and stimulating. And the material Craft Theatre and writer Rocky Rodriguez are tackling is noble in its scale. The company provides a detailed dossier supporting the content of the play and there’s no doubt the material is shocking and thought-provoking.

But despite the enthusiasm and boldness of the cast, the threads this production began were left unravelled.

A Nazi Comparison | Waterloo East Theatre | Until 29 October 2017

 

 

 

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