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

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: 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

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: 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: 1984, The Playhouse Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get 64% off ticket prices here.

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

by Suzanne Elliott

 

 

Theatre review: Fury at Soho Theatre

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Fury at the Soho Theatre

 

Light on plot, but full of passion and – well – fury, Soho Theatre’s modern retelling of Medea throws a cold eye over class and misogyny in today’s London

Sam is a 25-year-old single mum living in a council flat in increasingly gentrified Peckham. Her ex, Rob, hovers on the sidelines of her life, benevolent but busy with his new, pregnant, wife.

Sam’s meets her neighbour, Tom, a student swept in on the wave of gentrification one fateful day when she bangs on his door to ask him to turn his music down. There are barely two years between the two of them, but there’s a lifetime of experience. Sam scrapes by on benefits and a cleaning job she struggles to hold down, Tom is studying for an MA he can barely remember.

The friction that their two dramatically different lives creates sparks a spiral of events that leads to Sams sense of reality fracturing and an increasingly unstable grip on her family and mind.

Fury is a modern re-telling of Medea, and, like Medea, Sam is not cut from the likeable female mould, nor is she one of the saintly poor that writers through the generations have portrayed. She is hugely flawed: she sleeps with her friends boyfriends, hits her children, backchats to employees. But she is in a very modern trap, just about surviving in a city bloated with wealth, she is forced into a life where she has neither money nor choice, where society demands her to be perfect in exchange for what little help and sympathy they allow themselves to give to a single mother who doesn’t seem grateful for the miserable lot life has given her.

Fury is more than a Greek re-boot; Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s script examines class in modern Britain where the poor, stuck on welfare, rub shoulders with the All Sainted-ed shoulders of the middle classes that are increasingly encroaching on Londons traditional working class areas – and homes.

The staging is punchy and Hannah Hauer-King’s director fluid, the chorus circling the stage telling Sam’s story through words and song. The cast are all superb, Sarah Ridgeway as Sam carries her character’s weights with such intensity she looks done in at the curtain call. Alex Austin as Tom straddles the line between creepy and caring so well you never really know what you think of him even when his part in Sam’s downfall is laid out so starkly.

Fury does rather creak under the weight of its own issues that somewhat derails the narrative. Eclair-Powell’s message heavy writing is powerful, but the light plot didn’t quite capture Sam’s life with quite as much authority as the weighty subject matter demanded. But Fury remains a punchy, fiery, necessary and entertaining production with an impressive cast at its heart.

Fury | Soho Theatre | Until Saturday 30 July 

Theatre Review: The Master Build, Old Vic

Ralph Fiennes shines in this uneven, uneasy Ibsen

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Ralph Fiennes as Halvard Solness and Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel in the Old Vic’s The Master Builder

Ralph Fiennes, once so synonymous with villains and buttoned up English men, has more recently revealed his talent for comedy behind that clipped delivery. In his latest release, The Bigger Splash, he plays a mischievous, cavorting old soak with such heart, wit and merriment that it’s impossible not to love him, even though, if Harry Hawkes isn’t quite Voldemort or Amon Goeth, he’s pretty morally bankrupt. And then there was that scene stealing role as Monsieur Gustave in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel where he was a comedy revelation as the eccentric, charming concierge.

In the Old Vic’s Master Builder, he blends his talent for note perfect wit with his long acknowledged skill for delving deep into the psyche of a flawed man. Ibsen’s late play was first performed in 1893 to muted reviews and has been adapted for this production by the unstoppable David Hare. The play starts of deceptively lightly. The first third (this is a play of three halves) is funny, almost breezy. Fiennes as Halvard Solness the master builder, practically glides around the stage, seeming a man with few concerns, joshing with his junior Ragnar Brovik and flirting with his secretary Kaja Fosli (played by Charlie Cameron, inexplicably doing a baby voice).

But this is Ibsen, a man so brooding he makes Voldemort look like a laugh. Naturally, things get progressively darker as we move towards The Final Tragedy, and ending that is so red lit that it looked like a visual interpretation of my viciously underlined GCSE copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Solness is the master builder in a Norwegian town, having built his way up – literally – from nothing. But his successful career has been founded on tragedy and his life and marriage unravel further as he seemingly sinks further into madness and paranoia. The arrival of Hilde Wangel, a rosey cheek paragon of Norwegian innocence who Solness first met 10 years before, when she was just 13,  is seemingly the portal he needs to enable him to escape; a free spirit who will help him “build castles in the sky”. But Norwegian’s finest playwright has other ideas.

If you like Ibsen (I do), you’ll love this. It’s full of foreboding, both past, present and future that smothers the original lightheartedness with full on tragedy. This production is largely very good, mostly down to Fiennes’ tremendous skill as an actor. He’s a joy to watch, effortlessly embodying the complex inner world of the flawed Halvard Solness, the titular master builder whose imminent fall from power and grace is the plot on which the play spins.

There were a few wrong notes. The two intervals may allow time for Rob Howell’s stunningly impressive set to be changed, but they do break up the continuity of the play. The interval always breaks the spell of theatre, especially in a production where the tone shifts so dramatically between each break.

While Fiennes is magnificent, he’s brilliance rather overshadows the rest of the cast. Linda Emond as his wife Aline Solness is graceful and poised, embodying a grief so heavy you can practically see her dragging it around the stage. Martin Hutson does all he needs to do as Ragnar Brovik, who is less a character more a moral compass point, but while Sarah Snook’s takes on the twee Hilde with enthusiasm, she looks self-conscious next to Fiennes effortless study of a man with a fear of literal and metaphoric falling.

Ibsen perhaps tries to ask too many questions in The Master Builder and doesn’t give the actors the tools to answer them, but this is still an arresting production with a bright star at its centre.

The Master Build | Old Vic | Until 19 March 2016