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

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: 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 a violent father (who Murray once sees strangle his mother until her eyeballs bled), 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 to have adults in his life who 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 to his engaging one-man show that examines how we are – like Hamlet – marked by events in our lives 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-judgment? 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: 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

 

Theatre Review: A Girl and a Gun, Camden People’s Theatre

A complex, witty and thought-provoking look at the ambiguity of how women and violence are portrayed on screen

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism, A Girl and a Gun is performer and writer Louise Orwin’s challenge to Jean Luc Godard’s comment “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. It’s a witty and multi-layered show that sets out to highlight how the relationship between women and violence became an accepted, even glamorous, part of the movie experience.

Hollywood with its penetrating male gaze and fear of difference has long put women in the shadows when they’re not playing a wife or a victim (or, indeed both) and Orwin’s script aims to untangle the audience’s own coercion with this accepted narrative. A Girl and A Gun examines how the distance between what’s playing on a screen in front of you immediately gives you a different perspective on the events unfolding in front of your eyes as you sit munching popcorn in a dark cinema. Do these  images change when we’re confronted with in front of you on stage? Will the audience recognise what it means to a plot device and their own complicity in this on-screen given? There just a couple of the questions Louise Orwin is asking.

Each night alongside Louise is a ‘him’, played by a man who has no idea of the script or what will be demanded of him. The night I saw A Girl with A Gun, William Drew played ‘him’ and Drew – like those to come read his lines from an autocue and responded – or didn’t, there’s a caveat that he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to – to the stage directions. This involved him dressing as a cowboy, shooting toy guns and dancing. His responses were interesting – he doesn’t for example force Orwin to her knees as instructed and is uneasy pulling the plastic trigger.

Hollywood’s construct of femininity, of women as victims, is played out by Orwin at the end with a montage of several of the ways women in films so often meet their grisly end. This is followed by a scene where Orwin questions women’s own responses and involvement in the on-screen game. She has until that point played a sexy flirt with a Texan drawl obsessed with her hero and his gun. She suddenly drops the drawl and walks off stage, leaving Drew in the spotlight to explain her motives.

The performance is filmed and we see it on the projectors behinds the actors, asking us to confront how differently we respond to what’s on screen and real life in front of us.

This all sounds terribly worthy, and of course Orwin’s show confronts serious issues, but A Girl and A Gun is also fun, with a gentle humour and real wit. It’s a complex show that would hold up to several viewings with its unravelling of mixed messages that is an ambiguous and – at times, confusing –  as the images and screen mythology Orwin is deconstructing.

A Girl and A Gun | Camden People’s Theatre | Until 3 October 2015

Theatre review: Money Womb, Theatre503

Jon Cottrell as Peter Finch and Asha Reid as Hannah Jessop in Velvet Trumpet's Money Womb

Jon Cottrell as Peter Finch and Asha Reid as Hannah Jessop in Velvet Trumpet’s Money Womb

A darkly comic tale of dreams, failure, love and London

Full marks to the Velvet Trumpet, a small theatre company with big ambitions, who aren’t afraid to be inventive and push against the squeeze on funding and challenge the social status quo that seems to have theatre by its vice like, privileged grip.

After a string of successes, this small production company is staking its claim as “London’s finest comedy theatre company” with its original works all created, directed and performed by this band of south Londoners.

Velvet Trumpet’s latest production is Money Womb, the debut play by “man-in-crisis” Nick Smith playing at Battersea’s Theatre503. This story of one young East Midland’s boy with big dreams and small pockets, is one that many of us can relate to – maybe not the actual content which is gritty and bleak – but certainly the broad outline.

Played with force by Jon Cottrell, Peter Finch leaves his Midlands town behind to search out a future in London, persuading his girlfriend, Hannah Jessop, to follow him. It’s an age old tale, a modern day Dick Whittington, but far from finding the streets paved with gold, Peter discovers a city where the pavements are awash with powder and deceit.

Smith’s smart two-hander, which largely sees Cottrell as Peter directing bitter monologues at the audience as his dreams crumble along with his relationship, capture a London that is bigger than the people who live here. A city that will swallow you if you don’t learn to swim with, rather than against, its force. Peter becomes an increasingly desperate figure as he prowls the stage, snarling at his patient girlfriend and bemoaning his squalid east end flat and lowly status. Are we meant to sympathise with him? Understand him? Maybe not, but there is pathos in the character and Cottrell’s performance.

Asha Reid as Hannah Jessop (who also doubles up as a particularly hard-nosed benefits officer) was a softly spoken counter to Peter’s aggressiveness and I thought she captured the vulnerability and innocence of her character beautifully. Her lovely performance was helped by Hannah being a well-drawn character, a lower-middle class female who wasn’t being judged for her lack of ambition or defined by her sexuality. She was quietly strong-willed without any of the drama that can tip a female character into ‘mad cow’ territory so beloved of many male playwrights.

Perhaps Money Womb runs on a little too long (an interval could have worked) and the over reliance of cocaine as a metaphor for London’s dark heart could have been side-stepped for something more original, but this is a thought-provoking play from a theatre company committed to finding a contemporary voice in London.

Money Womb | Theatre503, Battersea | Until 8 August 2015

Theatre Review: Joy, Etcetera Theatre, Camden

Joy from Velvet Trumpet with Simon Grujich, Jon Cottrell and Thomas Jone

Joy from Velvet Trumpet with Simon Grujich, Jon Cottrell and Thomas Jones

Velvet Trumpet, a South London based theatre company who revel in the dark recesses of humour in everyday life, brought Joy to North London with this production of three bleakly funny monologues.

Written by Thomas Jones (who also doubles as a river cop in this production) and Nikolai Ribnikov each story in Joy is connected only by the deep seam of joylessness that runs through the three men’s stories.

The first monologue, Toast, is how a recently divorced man, now living with his brother, finds comfort in an unlikely place. Breaking down the fourth wall is Michael (Jon Cottrell) who vents at the audience about his frustrations and his flirtations with the mysterious kitchen companion he meets at one of his brother’s party (his reenactment helped out by a handily placed member of the audience).

Next up is Roger (Thomas Jones) in Thames Cop. He’s giving an entirely inappropriate lesson to a bunch of primary kids about life in the Marine Police Unit. His talk is laced with bitterness and resentment, and as he draws to a close we discover why a mix-up on a party boat got him relegated to giving talks to schools rather than fishing tourists out of the Thames. Equally as unfulfilled is Phil (a particularly angry Simon Grujich) in “All Change, All Change” a tube driver whose ramblings over the loudspeaker go beyond “please mind the gap” into a much blacker hole. But is anyone listening?

Well, I certainly was. Joy is a quirky hour-long production that’s bitingly funny and as dark as the tunnels tube driver Phil inhabits. Unable to connect with the world, these men are sad, lonely , socially disenfranchised and awash with self pity. Despite their sad situations, none of them are terribly sympathetic; they are victims of their own self-importance as much as their circumstances. But it’s fun laughing at them.

Joy is not joyful, but it is very funny, the monologues given greater intensity in the small stark space of the Etcetera Theatre. It cuts pretty close to the bone at times and takes us into darker places than the many laughs the pieces get would suggest. It reminded me of early Ian McEwan novels featuring plenty of sexual inadequacy, loneliness with a dose of sordidness and desperation. Joy may not feature any incest that was a feature of McEwan’s 70s work, but Toast and Thames Cop both take sexual turns that Ian would have been proud of. Quirky, dark and a little bit twisted, Joy maybe not be joyful, but it’s a lot of fun.

by Suzanne Elliott

Joy | Velvet Trumpet | More information