Wednesday, 14 September 2016

school memories

pulling on winter tights. uniform a little too large, room to grow.

new stationary. the idea of choosing a 'cool' pencil case. friendships formed on silly jokes and an unspoken solidarity. trying not to be embarrassing. bunsen burners and lab coats, and a smell of a substance I hadn't bothered to learn the name of. sandwiches not eaten. a packet of crisps and a penguin. well-intentioned assemblies with meanings I was too bored to grasp. playing sports, unwillingly, out in the cold. the smell of the changing rooms. coach trips. having so much to take in and it being completely normal, all we've ever known. teachers that felt unknowable - and not caring, and teachers that felt nearly knowable, and all kinds of wonderful. parents' evenings, presuming the worst.

gathered together to receive news of events we were too young to understand.

safety in stories, in english class, in putting your hand up because you knew or wanted to know, all about it. the click of a cartridge into a new fountain pen. the thrill of a vending machine. gel pens and tippex. "careers advice". group school photos, laughing on unstable structures, a sense of mischief. solo school photos, feeling awkward. getting in trouble for something that everyone thought was funny, so not minding. the nurse's room, a plaster put on. friendships fall outs. new friendships formed. the awkward inbetween.

The wounds we covered up, the putting on of make up, eye liner not quite right, the smell of impulse spray. The sound of sanitary towels surreptitiously opened. Or, the silent as possible stuffing of tissue in a moment of surprise, and the absence of something better.

chunky clarkes shoes. pe kit inspections. yamaha keyboards. the soft sweep of pencil on paper, following the curve of the compass. the excitement and anxiety of a non-uniform day. trying to recover from cruel comments, carelessly thrown.

not remembering to do homework. not remembering to go un-noticed. not caring to be on time. not caring to care. letters sent home. the pressure to pass. the pressure to succeed. finding your space in a sports hall turned exam room. waiting to start. waiting to leave.

the end of day bell. the end of term goodbyes. the - what did you do over the summer holidays? the end of school shirt-signings.

the start of something new.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Jesus Christ Superstar review, Open Air Theatre

Photo: Johan Persson

Jesus Christ Superstar started with the music: a concept album from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, that led on to endless adaptations all facing the challenge of bringing this epic story (that ends in a crucifixion) to life.

This new production takes on that challenge with a real sense of excitement and energy, with fresh eyes and a stunning outdoor space to work with, and - a focus on that music that began it all.

After brilliant reviews including from critics where I wouldn't expect a positive reaction, I went in with perhaps dangerously high expectations, then came out with mixed feelings.

Where the show succeeds is in the musicality, the production values and Drew McOnie's choreography. There were so many clever touches throughout that made me smile with their simplicity and innovation: Judas' hands turn silver with the taking of his reward and his guilt, apostles pause into the Da Vinci Last Supper pose, and a microphone cord hangs in place of Judas himself.

There was unexpected humour from a bit of a boyband with Caiphas and co - their septres turning to microphone stands, swooning and swaying into the music. Sean Kingsley as Annas especially was brilliant with his slimy persona and over-the-top excitement at the task of stopping this supposed Christ - he reminded me of Timothy Spall and his energy was brilliant.

What didn't work for me was that the music, wonderful though it was, seemed to override emotion and storytelling. The musical opens with Heaven on Their Minds, my favourite song from the show, exploring Judas' anxiety and anger over the escalating situation. (Here, I should say, Tyrone Huntley is the absolute star of the show with an acrobatic soul voice like nothing I've heard before.) But, immediately I felt an unease that there wasn't enough going on behind the eyes - I struggled to believe what he was singing. Throughout the show Tyrone's commitment and conviction to the words did really come into play, giving a powerful, believable performance. But this lack of connection was felt elsewhere too, and made me think it was a directorial decision for a more gig-like event.

Tyrone Huntley as Judas. Photo by Johan Persson

One song where this felt really apparent was Mary Madgdalene's I Don't Know How To Love Him - a quiet moment of reflection and worry on the difficulties of love. The singing here from Anoushka Lucas was beautiful and a style I enjoy - little lilts and trills that brought a contemporary edge to the song, akin to artists like Birdy and Laura Marling. Yet without a sense of emotional connection with the lyrics, or with us as audience, it felt like Live Lounge does Lloyd-Webber. Watching on YouTube that'd be fine but in the theatre, it just felt jarring. Then, during Everything's Alright we have Mary trying to soothe and calm her lover, while singing right into his face with a handheld mic. Bit disconcerting.

It feels like director Timothy Sheader decided to make the show cooler in this throw-away style of singing, which I felt in Declan Bennett's performance too, but to the detriment of emotional connection. I think there is a middle ground between what was gone for here, and over-performed musicality (the problem with the arena version a few years back). To add that real sense of connection and intensity would have made this production even more electric, and I think though I enjoyed and was impressed by the production, this frustration kept me from truly loving it. I also think it's wrong to think you can't do connection and cool at the same time: you definitely can.

With this musical completely sung-through, many argue there's little space for character development and I'd agree with that to an extent, but I also think Webber's lyrics do allow for these moments of truth and complexity, asking difficult questions like should I love him, should I betray him, how do you cope with this most extreme of crisis. That unease and uncertainty is what makes these songs so brilliant - with little time they convey so much, and it felt a shame this wasn't felt in these performances, even if they were stunning to listen to.

Then we have Jesus himself. Declan Bennett plays a hoody-wearing hipster Christ, smoking rollies and swanning about knowing he's adored. I struggled to see how he could be so liked and followed, and often you see more of a transition in the character in productions - seeing someone formerly full of love and light pushed to breaking point. Here it felt more one-note, and like Bieber on a bad day. Still, for Gethsemane Bennett really shone. He might not have reached the big high notes but he performed it with energy and conviction, and it was clear that the guitar put him back into a comfort zone where he could excel.

Credit must go to the ensemble here, as they were involved in some of my favourite moments, and with McOnie's choreography they took us from jubilation to anxiety, with a consistent intensity and energy. They were also a huge part of Sheader's focus on fandoms and downfalls - how we build someone up to knock them down, and how easily the public can be swayed. When facing Pilate (brilliantly performed by David Thaxton) the crowd shouts "we have no king but caesar!" a line usually sung as a straight forward shout. Here, the line is exclaimed with an odd enunciation on Caesar that feels trance-like and robotic, the crowd doesn't know what they're saying and likely don't believe it, and that subtle nuance vocally with the pulsating, fist-thumping choreography felt really powerful.

As night descends and darkness falls, we have a stunning lighting state and an intensity onstage that's hard to take, and that's where the production really comes into its own. Jesus' bloodied body is more visceral than I've ever seen it done, but then we have touches of genius with 39 strikes of glitter which makes more sense and is more effective than it sounds. It plays on celebrity and show, and with the crowd crying out for suffering to heighten - it's a spectacle to behold that makes the story and its message feel contemporary and really hit home.

So, as problematic as I may have made it sound, this really was a powerful production that pushed the limits of what it could be: I would always rather a director try something new with a revival, even if not everything pays off. I feel like it could appeal to those who'd normally swerve musicals, and in the particularly perfect venue of Regents Park Open Air Theatre, I'd definitely recommend this. Don't expect emotional nuances but do expect an exciting, playful, powerful piece of theatre that stays with you.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

1984 review, Playhouse Theatre

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Adaptation can be a story straight from page to stage. The first line is the first line, the structure remains, scene to scene we see what we expect to see. Or, it can be something more. Something capturing the spirit of the story. Something that knows it can't bring the book to life without really bringing it to life and letting it breathe, and play, in this new space. This is that.

As such, it messes with you. It knows what you come in expecting and it doesn't hand it over without a fight. It's intense, surreal and really rather impressive. It's not an easy ride.

We open with a man and his diary, a nervous act, and a group discussing a book. I think it's one thing then it's another. It's 1984 itself ("it changes everything, and yet the world is still the same?"), it's the book within the book, it's another book altogether. It's all of the above or none of the above: it's doublespeak in action.

I worried a little we weren't going to get to the story at all, wondering if this new adaptation is a man believing himself to be Winston through obsession with Orwell's text, but we do get there - just not how you'd expect.

As scenes repeat I felt unsure if it was the monotony of his world, a nightmare or what was happening at all. Moving on things became clearer: Winston is losing his grip on reality in a society that tells him "facts" he knows to be untrue. He struggles with memories and how they can be trusted, and stylistically that's reflected. It's a clever theatrical feat to place us with him in his uncertainty and anxiety.

As the production moves on we stay more with the story, we can settle in a little, albeit into an unsettling world. Blinding strobe lights and piercing white noise keep us on edge, as does the changing of faces, and entire scenes, during blackouts that seem to only take a split-second. The style reminded me of People Places & Things (also co-produced by Headlong) but also that of Complicité and Gecko Theatre - stretching the possibilities of theatre with physical performances and technical touches that almost make you laugh with their simplicity and genius.

The highlight of the production is Room 101. It's handled brilliantly and painfully, and is difficult to bear witness to. It's the perfect balance of what you see and what you imagine in the darkness, and through that it felt genuinely shocking and scary.

Photo: Manuel Harlan

Andrew Gower as protagonist Winston has an eccentric, electric energy to him - his feeling of being an outsider feels immediately apparent with a slightly odd vocal inflection, always seeming to be working things out with a confused but determined mind. The character's strength in the face of pressure is remarkable, even as a bloody broken man he has hope and self-belief. It's a real test of the actor that Gower absolutely rises to and excels: his embodiment of this character was kind of extraordinary.

Angus Wright gave another impressive performance as O'Brien, possessing the same sinister charisma I was entranced by in Oresteia - his rhythm and cadence is perfect in depicting power and eliciting fear with such subtlety and nuance.

The character of Julia was sweeter and more flimsy than I'd hoped. Looking back on my first reading of the text aged 16, I wonder if I really wanted her to be an incredible rebel and hero, and maybe she never was. Her activism is limited and naive and the directing and performance from Catrin Stewart highlighted this. Also with little time with her and much of that projected onscreen, she begins to feel a little 2D. Or maybe we're viewing her through Winston's eyes. Maybe he is selfish and she can't ever be fleshed out. See this is the thing with this production - it makes me question things - on stage and from the text, and that feels really exciting for a novel that came out in 1948 and that I loved and studied over 10 years ago.

As much as I loved it, I do think there is a risk that this production will push some people's patience too far at times (as it did with my Dad), with its repeating, surreal sequences - some audiences may switch off, not "get" what's happening and that will bother them, especially going in with an expectation of something quite different. I know that my willingness to wait and see, to work something out, and be messed with is pretty high. I love all that, if the point and the production is strong. Maybe that experience isn't always for everyone, but I do I think if you have patience it has a huge pay off.

1984 is one of my favourite novels and I think I would have been disappointed to have seen it in a straight-forward page to stage adaptation. The text is radical and it feels fitting for this adaptation by Robert Icke & Duncan Macmillan to feel so also, even if it is difficult to digest - perhaps especially for that reason.

It feels like lazy commentary to suggest that 1984 is more relevant today then ever, but then of course it is - with government surveillance and media manipulation, and our country at a point of rising tension. After Brexit people tied identity to politics in a way I'd never seen before ("I look and think - they could be one of them"), and stories spiral on social media of rejecting refugees and "benefit cheats", and maybe people roll their eyes at those sharing and judge, and forget to think who put the idea there in the first place. If there was ever a time for a production of this novel to exist, and to actively make people feel uncomfortable, that time is now.

And finally: this production runs at exactly 101 minutes. Brilliant.

1984 runs until 29th October at the Playhouse Theatre (London). 100 seats for every performance are available for £19.84.

Adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan (also directing, with Daniel Raggett)
Produced by Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse and Almeida Theatre

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

What to see at Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016

Image from Finding Joy
With the festival kicking off this week I thought I'd share what I'm most excited about and can recommend. I'm heading up the last week of the Fringe so any suggestions do let me know!


Shows I can recommend as I've seen and loved them before include...

Vamos Theatre's Finding Joy tells a story of a lovely old lady called Joy who has dementia. Through mime, the production flits between the present (the relationship with her grandson is just beautiful) and her past. It was so much more moving than I ever could have anticipated.

Exploring depression in a funny and uplifting way, Every Brilliant Thing is performed by Jonny Donahoe. We watch his character grow up and navigate life and mental illness, both within his family and also his own. It's playful and profound.

If you're looking for big laughs check out Kill the Beast's He Had Hairy Hands. They're outrageous but also very clever - it's theatre that is fun while also impressive in how it stretches what the medium can do. Their new comedy horror Don't Wake The Damp also hits the Fringe this year, which I'm so excited for.

The Big Bite-Size Breakfast Show is always a great way to start day with an hour of quality short plays - varying in tone from funny to thoughtful, and accompanied by free tea, coffee and croissants!

For poetry/spoken word, Loud Poets is a really fun, energetic show at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

Then the new production I'm most excited to see is Bucket List by Theatre Ad Infinitum. I've seen four of their shows before (with their first Fringe coinciding with mine in 2008). Their physical style and skill, technical innovation and interesting choice of stories always means a surprising and brilliant production. This year's story is a fight for justice via revenge in Mexico, so think a theatrical Tarentino with added live music perhaps?

I've heard brilliant things about powerful one-woman play Fabric, and also have high hopes for Camilla Whitehill's new play Mr Incredible.

In terms of companies I have no knowledge of but think their shows sound wonderful...and speaking of Tarentino, I'm intrigued by Puppet Fiction - a puppetry pastiche of the brilliant director's work that, with previous critical claim, holds a lot of promise

Ada/Ava by Chicago troupe Manual Cinema is leading the wishlist pretty much on the basis of their stunning trailer showing puppetry, projection and live music combining to tell a story of life and death.

There's so much I want to see at Underbelly Cowgate this year. I love the sound of sci-fi dystopia The Hours Before We Wake and also My World Has Exploded A Little Bit - a darkly comic play about bereavement, with music. On the more fun side of things, Pond Wife sounds like an absolute dream - a feminist adventure inspired by The Little Mermaid, with 90's and 00's pop music.


One of my favourite comedians playing the Fringe is Bridget Christie - with her hilarious layering of real life stories and social messages. Most of her dates have already sold out so get in quick if you want to go.

Sofie Hagen we saw last year, the day after she won Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. In a charming yet cackle-inducing manner she tackled mental health, feminism and her Westlife obsession. She's back this year with a new show, again as part of the Free Fringe (queue early).

Other comedians I've seen before and loved include Nina Conti, Zoe Lyons, Seann Walsh, Iain Stirling, Daniel Sloss, Simon Munnery and Tom Toal. I was also really impressed by free improv show BattleActs.

A musical comedy act I have to recommend is Jonny & the Baptists, a two-piece act that never fail to have me in hysterics with the dynamic between them and the tackling of whichever political issue they choose to focus on. They're both silly and serious, and their music is great too - giving incredible energy in the room. Jonny is also the performer in Every Brilliant Thing, which came as a surprise when I first saw both shows - very different experiences!

My last mention goes to Get Your Own Back Live with the one and only Dave Benson Phillips - because why the hell not..!

If anyone has any comedy recommendations please let me know - would love to see some new faces this year.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Southwark Playhouse - review

Photo by Harry Grindrod

It's a silly story really, and a silly set-up. Young lovers lost in the woods, mistaken identities, a man becomes a donkey. And yet it delves deeper too, exploring the anxieties of love. Previous productions I've seen of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream have captured the magical nature of the play but never truly its playfulness, and here is where this production at Southwark Playhouse succeeds - inducing genuine big belly laughs and smiles throughout.

This new production by Go People adds another layer to the play-within-a-play construct of the original text: here we have a play within a play within a play, which is much less confusing than it sounds. We meet the actors (the "real" actors, not imagined - Maddy, Freddie et al) as they greet eachother with excitement and get allocated the roles they'll play. Then slowly, seamlessly, we move into the play itself - with everyday modern dress remaining, with a few additions of simple props.

Very quickly the issue of set, or rather - the lack of, is addressed. We're told to imagine, again and again: a shift in lighting, a fall of rain, a giant oak tree. We're told to "imagine yourself an audience capable of having an imagination" and soon, once the laughter lets up, we do.

This stripping back to the bare bones of theatre feels refreshing. As wonderful as sumptuous sets can be, here power is given to the absence of a visual set-up and to imagination in its place. This got me thinking about the difficulty of realistically depicting most Shakespeare, with magical woodlands or battlegrounds ("exit pursued by a bear" anyone?), and I appreciated the playfulness of this being so knowingly explored.

The laughs watching a Shakespeare are usually expected and gentle, but here it's more varied, and often hysterical - in the best way. Humour came from the play-within-a play set-up, sometimes reminiscent of The Play That Goes Wrong, and also from the sheer commitment to Shakespeare's words (Bottom as bawdy as he could ever be, acted intensely, hilariously by Freddie Fox). There was more subtle humour too via little shifts in the speech, a speedy delivery or unexpected emphasis giving laughs where you wouldn't imagine them and a more contemporary feeling in this fresh look at the text.

Freddie Fox as Bottom. Photo by Harry Grindrod.

Laughs also came from the audience interaction. With just seven actors performing a play with 17 roles, a wonderful opportunity was given for directly involving the audience in the action. One man found himself led by hand around the stage acting the role of the transformative flower. If that was me I'd be dying inside (beware the front row!) but he was a good sport and it added extra excitement - getting us all onboard and not quite believing what was happening.

What I was most impressed by in this production though, other than the sheer energy of the cast, was the balance achieved between comedy and drama. The deeper issues and feelings in the play exploring the pain of love, and ideas of truth, came to life in a way I didn't expect.

The thread that runs through the production letting both humour and emotion work is the utter conviction from the actors in believing in what is happening in their world, magical and ridiculous though it may be. The look of disbelief, relief and joy from Helena (played by Lucy Eaton) as she is finally loved by her Demetrius is layered and completely believable.

Through this energetic commitment of the cast, alongside the meta fun and audience involvement, I felt closer to the action than I ever have before with Shakespeare. As well as the theatrical devices we're also literally close with the intimate, traverse stage, and actors moving seemingly as close to the audience as possible at times. We share laughter but also in the suffering of the characters - and I think this sharing feels key, that the audience is truly part of what's happening.

In his programme note director Simon Evans acknowledges this intention, talking of a growing frustration with "a move towards a solipsistic type of play-making in which something elegant happened on stage, but from which an audience was emotionally held at arms length." In his mission to amend this distanced state to something more truthful and communal Simon Evans has absolutely succeeded.

Early on the actors jokingly apologise to any purists in the audience for the modifications of the play, and yet it feels that in this contemporary production Evans has landed on something much more akin with Shakespeare's intentions and the feeling of experiencing his plays at the time than any traditionally played out productions with period dress could ever reach.

My one draw-back to the evening was a slight craving for an interval. Usually I like plays straight-through to keep the momentum going and not lose the effect of the world-building but here the energy and humour felt almost tiring as we neared the end (the production sits at 110 minutes).

Still, to complain of being so entertained a production becomes slightly wearying is really no complaint at all, and with the final performance of the royal play the production reached its outrageous, wonderful climax leading to a standing ovation and cheers at curtain call.

Energetic, playful and wildly funny - this new production brings to life the Bard's work in the most genuinely engaging way on this 400th anniversary year. So many shows have claimed to celebrate this milestone year and yet this really does feel like a celebration - full of laughs and a new appreciation of this classic, often-performed play

This is without doubt the most fun I've had at a Shakespeare and the most I've laughed at any play in a long time. Hugely entertaining and highly recommended. 

Go People's A Midsummer Night's Dream plays at the Southwark Playhouse until Friday 1st July.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

What I read in May

Amidst moving house and enjoying London life while I was still there, I read a lot less this month - but what I did read I loved.

Crossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe - Wolfgang Bauer ★★
I realised recently that while I know when the media are giving prejudiced misinformation about refugees, I know very little about what is actually happening and why. So I was keen to pick up this book by Wolfgang Bauer, in which he goes undercover and joins a group making the journey from Syria to Europe, and I was glad I did.

I gained an understanding of what was happening, and was gripped by the stories of the people within the group. Bauer unflinchingly explains the horror and the necessity of these dangerous trips, taking you along the journey with them - the waiting, the fear and uncertainty of it all.

At just 144 pages, I feel though I learned a lot, and was shocked by what I did, I was still only getting a glimpse into the situation. I'd like to read more about what is happening back in Syria and the journeys involved. Still, it's a difficult read and so in a way the shorter length is helpful, making the read more of an accessible and plausible pick-up than a lengthy book.

The writing is strong and it's an important book which I really would recommend if you want to know more about what's happening with the refugee crisis - the worst since the second world war.

Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy - Irvin D. Yalom ★★
I'm training to be a counsellor soon and and have always been interested in books exploring psychology, so I knew these stories of clients in therapy would be of interest. What I didn't expect though was the quality of the writing, with the "characters" and their situations brought to light so compellingly.

There's a quote from the New York Times on the front cover which says "Dr Yalom demonstrates that in the right hands, the stuff of therapy has the interest of the richest and most inventive fiction" and I think that's absolutely right. For that reason I'd recommend this even if you have no interest in therapy.

As well as being a genuinely enjoyable read, what I found fascinating was the intimate invitation into this usually private situation. You get to bear witness to what the client would only share in this safest of spaces, but also to Yalom's thoughts about the client and the process itself - acknowledging his own weaknesses and regrets through his career.

I already want to read this again, not just because I want to soak up everything you can learn from this really masterly therapist, but because there's incredible depth in the stories and explanations. It's not a difficult read, but one you can get so much from.

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt ★★
Oh man this book! I knew its reputation was strong but I had an assumption that I would be more impressed than entertained but it was absolutely both. This is probably the longest novel I've read (773 pages) but I still didn't want it to end. Telling the story of a young boy who survives an awful, traumatic situation, we see how he moves on through his life, still carrying the weight of what happened with him.

The writing reminded me of John Irving. I've only read one of his books, The World According to Garp, but the ability to capture the intimate, believable details of the day-to-day as well as the wider scope of a life over time, is what I loved about this too.

I've also been reading The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett which I'm enjoying - more on that in the next round-up.

Let me know if you've read any of these and what you thought, or any other recommendations! And you can follow me on GoodReads & Twitter.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

a dad & his girl

I see a dad and his girl
Suncream applied in streaks of white they sit - waiting.
As the train moves off the girl braces herself, excited
She whispers something inaudible to her dad
She's shy and she wishes it was just them
Her and her dad
Beneath Mickey Mouse sunglasses, she believes it to be so

I start to fill in the blanks
Let the mum become a mystery

I imagine she's a nurse
That she's sleeping after a night shift
That they've kissed her goodbye and made their way
She wishes she could go but knows she needs her slumber
So she drifts into dreams of sea and sand and lets them be

And I imagine a divorce
Gone their separate ways, they struggle but survive
Have special Sundays and quality time
They keep smiling, and settle into a different way

And I imagine she's a writer, working to a deadline
Stressed but reassured thinking sometimes
Dad and daughter need their time too.
She shuts out the world and keeps typing

Or she's a long time passed

That this is their life but they're doing ok
They've made peace with sadness, it lingers still,
but they carry on

They talk about her, always.
She says mum would like this, too young to know if it's true,
but then of course she would

She's with them still, he knows,
and yet he can't help feeling alone
But he's not.
He's got his giddy whispering girl
and memories that make him smile, but make it harder too

the distance between what should have been and what is

But the sun is shining and they're off to the seaside
So he lets that be his world for today

I imagine her turning 18
A photo of that day placed on birthday card,
With words about his girl, now all grown up.

She's not seen it in years, it takes her back

She remembers those glasses, and pink jelly shoes
An ice-cream melting in the sun, making a mess,
And her dad, chasing waves with her, laughing

She tries to play it cool, make a joke,
But she's moved by the memory
She's felt a chaos lately but this brings her calm
Brings her back to what she knows and what she needs

And I settle back into my surroundings,
and remember it's not real,
But I smile, anyhow, at hypothetical hope
And the possibility of glancing at strangers