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

 

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

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle is the tale of Mae Holland, a girl from the ‘burbs, burdened with college debt and a sick father, who blags a job at the world’s biggest internet company, The Circle, and begins to play her part in controlling the world and its data. In essence, The Circle is about the internet coming to eat us; Dave Eggers’ stern warning to the world of the fate that awaits us if we don’t get off Facebook.

The Circle is a terrifying amalgamation of Facebook, Google, Twitter and your bank details. It’s a Circle of Hell in cosy jumpers. It sounds like the Worst Place on Earth to work, like an Innocent smoothie bottle come to life with the face of Steve Jobs and ping pong tables under each arm. It’s Google run by Kim Jong-un, a scary mix of touchy-feeliness and totalitarianism.

Plot wise The Circle goes round and round. Not a lot happens; Mae gets increasingly embroiled in the inner workings of company, she’s given more computer screens, chums up with the Three Wise Men (the company’s CEOs), shacks up with some dubious sorts and falls out with her parents and her ex.

Eggers’ heavy satire and narrative rely on Mae being a complete moron. Fortunately, she’s happy to oblige, her young brain frizzled by a lifetime of status updates, pictures of her dinner and emoticons. Her parents’ health care and her desire to never go back to the grey-tinged dullness of her first office job in her hometown offer us an idea as to why she’s so crazy about this sinister company and why, beyond the odd raised eyebrow at the beginning, she never asks questions. But I wasn’t convinced as to how easily she was sucked in; where was her early 20-something cynicism? Why did she love her really tedious work so much? Why did she not think the people she was working with were humourous idiots?

The Circle tells a story that is uncomfortably close to our own world. I felt my anxiety levels rise as the computer monitors mounted on Mae’s desk and the relentless stream of zings, smiles, frowns, customer queries and questionnaires began. It is in places a very funny book. Sending frowns to military organisations in Africa in an attempt to shame them into stopping their atrocities made me chortle (sorry, LOL) and the rather unfortunate incident with her parents, the bedroom and a camera added a toe-curling, humourous touch.

The Circle is a fun read with an all too realistic vision, but its satire is little too heavy-handed. Orwell’s 1984’s dystopian nightmare was so futuristic that his vision of a totalitarian state gave us enough space for his message to strike a cord. Orwell would not have needed an over-extended, clunky metaphor about a transparent, rare shark kept in a Circle fish tank that eats everything in its way to help us understand that the internet had become an evil Pacman.

One of the scariest things about this novel is that a man (Mae’s father) with MS is denied the health care he needs as he’s unable to pay for it. Already a reality in the States, when the Coalition have done dismantling the NHS, it’s also our nightmare future. And this, even more than the monolithic internet is what I’ll have sleepless nights about.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

The Day of the Locusts

Nathanael West (1903-1940) – original name Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein – was an American writer who died in a car crash at thirty-seven. He published four novels, wrote several screenplays and two short stories.

Why have I never heard of The Day of the Locust before? It’s a cult classic! It’s referenced in a Manics song! There’s a character called Homer Simpson in it who Matt Groening may or may not have named a certain yellow cartoon character after.

Written in 1939, The Day of the Locust reads like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as narrated by the bastard child of Holden Caulfield and Nick Carraway as it follows a bunch of off-the-wall characters in a Hollywood on the brink of self-destruction. At the centre of this storm of lunacy is the level-headed and naive set-designer Tod Hackett whose infatuation with the beautiful, vacuous aspiring actor Faye Greener draws him into a world littered with monosyllabic cowboys, angry dwarves and flirtatious Mexicans.

The narrative is rather disjointed; most of the novel is seen through the eyes of Tod, but West occasionally strays and skips from protagonist to protagonist using only a pronoun. There was more than one sentence that I had to re-read before I could make sense of who or what he was referring to. West also frequently plunges the reader into a baffling scenario – a moving pile of clothes; a sudden desert in the middle of the city; an 18th century battle outside Tod’s window – with no immediate explanation, presumably to convey the alien and alienating world of Hollywood. The distant, unsympathetic tone of the novel – and Tod’s detached, analytical voice – highlights the coldness and heartlessness of an artificial Hollywood and its inhabitants. West was good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while the world he writes about in The Day of the Locust is far removed from Fitzgerald’s East Coast crowd, there’s that same feeling of a naive narrator becoming involved in a world he doesn’t belong in or understand until it’s too late.The result is surreal, funny, moving and horrifying. A cockfight towards the end of the novel was one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read (and, no, I haven’t read American Psycho). The image of the dying bird was brutal, but there’s no judgment cast by the author or the characters. Poor old wet Homer is the only one to show any emotion, and even then it’s not much more than a flinch.

Like Hollywood itself, this isn’t a novel with much soul, but it’s a hugely entertaining satire on a world that we still very much recognise.
by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: The Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

In my younger days I used to pick an author and work my way through their oeuvre before inevitably growing weary of their voice, becoming increasingly annoyed at the repeated themes and overused words and phrases that would crop up in many of the writer’s novels. I tired of Alice Walker’s relentless anger; J.G Ballard’s over use of similes; Jeanette Winterness’ opaque prose and George Orwell’s bleakness. (I’ve gone back to them all, and have learnt to love them again).

But despite hoovering up as many Graham Greene books as I could lay my hands on (i.e., as many as the library had) it was still never enough. There are so many Greenes, and, even with the religious thread weaving its way through many of his later novels, his narrative and themes were varied enough that I never felt that I’d heard it all before. There’s the funny, satirical Greene (Travels With My Aunt and Our Man In Havana), the shady, murky Greene of The Quiet American where as much lies in the shadows as on the page; the brutal, thuggish Green that reared its head in Brighton Rock (my least favourite) and the obsessive, love-struck writer of The End of the Affair (my favourite).

The Stamboul Train, nabbed from a friend’s bookshelf while cat sitting, introduces some of his major themes. It has traces of the same murky, secretive, claustrophobic world of The Quiet American, with a streak of violence and a smatter of religion-angst that will appear with greater force in other well-known Greene works.

The story is set on the Orient express as it weaves its way through a snowy Europe with a cast of characters each with their own demons and desires that all slot together as the train nears its destination. Dr Czinner, a Serbian dissident communist leader, is on his way back to lead a revolt, that, unfortunately for him, kicks off a few days early while he’s barely through Germany. To add to his woes, a British journalist, Mabel Warren, a ferocious bulldog of a reporter, recognises him in Cologne and attempts to blackmail him into giving her an exclusive story.

Myatt meets Cora Musker and, attracted by her slim figure, lends her his compartment and, later, his bed. But he’s also got one eye on the elegant Janet Pardoe, Mabel’s paid companion, who’s also caught the attention of cockney writer Mr. Savory.

Jumping on board at Cologne is on-the-run murderer Josef Grünlich who is a downright bad ‘un, but crafty enough to continue getting away with it. Josef, along with Cora, gets caught up in the arrest of Dr. Czinner just over the Hungarian border in the Serbian town of Subotica, which, from Greene’s descriptions, is the most desolate place in the world. Greene’s not one for hyperbole and his stark prose can sometimes stripe the humanity from his characters, but at this point, he builds the tension to the point where my heart was beating as loudly as Cora’s as she huddled in amongst empty grain sacks in a barn with only the dying Czinner for company.

There are, as is so often the case in novels pre-dating the 1960s, some uncomfortable racial and gender stereotypes. Myatt is the caricature literary Jew that you can trace back to Shylock – all big nose and shrewdness. To make it even worse, Greene congratulates both himself and his characters on liking Myatt despite him being Jewish. How kind! This is particularly ironic considering the book was published in 1932 and, as we all know, the world took a very, very large anti-Semitic step backwards.

Equally as objectionable was the portrayal of Mable Warren, the predatory lesbian who hates men and becomes obsessive about the women she loves (who are rather too beautiful to love her back). Had our Graham ever met a lesbian? From this shoddy representation, I doubt it.

There are plenty of loose ends – Greene wouldn’t want to make things too neat for us would he? Does Cora survive? Will Myatt, who did rather heroically try and rescue her only to balls it up and come back with Josef instead, now marry the glamorous (and half-Jewish!) Janet? And will Josef ever get his just deserts?

Greene originally filed The Stamboul Train under his ‘entertainments’ and admitted, in 1974, that he wrote it to make a bit of money. “In Stamboul Train for the first and last time in my life I deliberately set out to write a book to please, one which with luck might be made into a film. The devil looks after his own and I succeeded in both aims”.

So while The Stamboul Train may not up there with his very best – although he still casts a fascinating web of intrigue and duplicity – it gave him enough financial freedom to allow him to go on and write some of the finest novels in the English language.

Suzanne Elliott