Fringe Focus: The joy of theatrical box-sets

Written for The Stage

Anyone who has lost a weekend watching an entire box set of Homeland, Breaking Bad or The West Wing knows the dangerously addictive quality the TV episodic structure can have. Radio also plays this game – who hasn’t been left clinging to a cliff hanger desperate for next week’s instalment of The Archers? But what about live art? Excitingly, it appears theatre companies are getting in on the act and serializing theatre. To read more go here.

Review: The Man Who Pays the Piper

Written for Time Out

The Man Who Pays the Piper

In reviving GB Stern’s 1931 play ‘The Man Who Pays the Piper’, the Orange Tree Theatre offers Carrie Bradshaw fans a history lesson in female liberation.

In the heady pre-First World War days of 1913, suffragette Daryll Fairley is fighting with her Victorian father over her wish to work. Jump to 1926 and she’s the head of both a fashion house and her domestic one. But is she happy?

Though over 80 years old, Stern’s play feels thoroughly modern. Here gender hierarchies are decided not by sex but by money, with economic powers superseding patriarchal ones – a tension felt by many affluent women today. ‘The Man Who Pays the Piper’ may not advance the feminist cause, but by examining these tensions and probing the idea of a woman who has it all, it is a prescient dissection of a contemporary issue.

It’s also great fun and in Helen Leblique’s vibrant production the jokes come as fast as the jibes. Infused with the glamour and rapier wit that defined Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things, Stern presents a delightfully landscaped battlefield for her heroine. Sam Dowson’s design is traditional but luxurious, with costumes that wouldn’t look amiss in ‘Downton Abbey’.

Within a classy cast, Emily Tucker as the headstrong Faye glitters with devil-may-care joie de vivre, while Deirdre Mullins is superb as Daryll delivering a complex performance that both celebrates and resents this modern woman’s newfound freedom

Review: Daisy Pulls It Off

Written for Time Out

Daisy Pulls It Off

Written in 1982, Denise Deegan’s 1920s private school parody remains a popular choice for revival, though her affectionate send-up of ‘poshos’ fails to satisfy today’s voracious satirical spirit.

But – jubilate! – this reincarnation sees fringe director of the moment Thom Southerland just about pull it off with a slick and imaginative production of a dated play.

Scholarship girl Daisy Meredith (Holly Dale Spencer) strives to get into posh ‘gals’ school Grangewood. Being impossibly bright, she makes the grade only to be met by snobbery and suspicion from her privileged peers. Daisy must prove them all wrong… oh, and find some lost treasure to save the school.

Though chiming with our modern appetite for period pieces, Deegan’s play is, nonetheless, inescapably two dimensional. Supposedly written and performed by members of an actual fourth year, the play within a play format should excuse this lazy simplicity, but doesn’t.

Still, it’s not as though these cartoon characters aren’t enjoyable in Southerland’s jolly, song-enhanced production. While initially looking more shocked than jubilant, Dale Spencer – fresh from the Old Vic’s ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ – brings just enough edge to temper Daisy’s annoying perfection. She and Gillian McCafferty as the super supportive Trixie have a naturally chummy rhythm.

Amid a spirited cast, Adam Venus’s quivering Miss Granville provides rich comedic accompaniment. But it is Norma Atallah as snooty Monica Smithers who wins top prize with an array of conniving looks and witchy high-pitched giggles that are positively Machiavellian.

Runs until 14th April. For more information go here

Review: Cymbeline

Written for The Stage

In producing a double bill of Shakespeare’s least performed plays, Pericles and Cymbeline, Pistachio Choice has set itself a tough task. It is one, with the latter at least, that it has not managed to carry off. Antonio Ferrara’s production, while boasting some passionate performances, suffers from a lack of decisive direction to coax Shakespeare’s rambling romance into watchable shape.

Ostensibly the story of a triumphant underdog this tale of warring Britons lacks any of Henry V’s bombast or celebratory zeal. Instead we get caught up in a tale of mistaken betrayal that once more sees a woman’s reputation abused and her body treated as a trophy to be owned and obtained.

While the traverse stage opens up the Drayton Arms space, the unimaginative set adds little to this ancient history piece. Roles are swapped continuously within this cast of five with the Roman and British tribes discernible via northern accents and occasional hat exchanges in a pragmatic if humdrum fashion.

A forthright cast battle on through this quotidian experience. Tim Wyatt’s rich delivery is a pleasure to listen too, while Caitlin Thorburn gives a dynamic and touching performance as the put-upon Imogen. Thorburn and Wyatt inject real feeling into their turns, bringing some much needed vibrancy to this commonplace Cymbeline.

Runs until 30th March. For more information go here.

Review: Above Me The Wide Blue Sky

Written for The Stage

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Fevered Sleep’s work defies easy categorisation. The thought-provoking Above Me The Wide Blue Sky, a multi-disciplinary performance that bears witness to the importance of our relationship with nature, is in keeping with their innovative approach.

David Harradine and Sam Butler have curated a delicately balanced installation that is underpinned by the acts of random coincidence only found in nature. Layers of lighting, original composition, film and text intertwine to create a testament to the environment. An ever-changing sky is projected onto large panels set above the banks of chairs that surround the stage. Films of water and fields flicker onto white stone, a nostalgic whirring that brings you in time with the meditative experience to come.

Laura Cubitt enters with a canine companion, Leuca, and begins to speak. She is a primordial storyteller, gathering us close with nuanced looks and inflections as she recites a prose poem constructed from conversations on nature gathered from interviews. Her narrative skates through the centre of this installation just as the Thames weaves a “ribbon of nature” through London.

Poignant yet playful, Above Me The Wide Blue Sky cuts through our urban lives and asks us not only to reassess the role of nature within them, but to confront how impoverished we will become if we continue to distance ourselves from the world around us.

Runs until 28 March. For more information go here

Franko B: Because of Love – Volume 1

Written for Total Theatre

Franko B, Because of Love – Volume 1 | Photo: Hugo Glendinning

At first Franko B’s new work Because of Love – Volume 1 appears as resolutely non-theatrical as his previous offerings. Incorporating an uncompromisingly opaque mise-en-scene and sections of unblinking repetition that lead nowhere, it very politely puts both fingers up at the proscenium arch that surrounds it. Yet it also weaves a story through our subconscious through a highly crafted use of emotive projections, a rousing piano score, an animatronic dancing polar bear, a glitter ball, and the most effective use of Canidae heads since the bombastically theatrical Three Kingdoms.

During the first section even some ‘fans’ in the audience appear flummoxed by this new turn of direction from their hero and seem to lose interest. But, for all its unwillingness to explain itself, this is not a frustration I share, Franko B’s dignity as a performer holding my attention from the outset. He begins, against a slideshow of historical snapshots, by running through silent mantras and movements. Each pause and look at the audience, each jog or skip clearly mean something to him but there are no easy answers for us in these strangely mundane actions. But there is something hypnotic in the purpose he infuses into each position, and once again the body, in all its sweaty and panting glory, is at the centre of this holistic experience. Slowly it becomes more theatrical and the pared-down aesthetic and discordant soundscape explodes into visual and melodic splendour – with a witty song, a duet with a bear, and moments that would put Robert Wilson to shame.

Although captivating at first we are bemused by this overload of semiotics and the piece feels fractured and obtuse. But post show the experience has grown in my mind and the friction felt between the theatrical and non-theatrical elements has fused into a new appreciation for this piece. In my memory the silences that were flat have become charged and links have been made between the minimalism of the beginning and the florid nature of the end. Questions around the sentimentality of memory have been unavoidably confronted as my own memory performs such an act. This is a central concept to Because of Love – Volume 1 and as such makes me feel a part of Franko B’s explorations.

Inspired by experiences that have affected its performer, the piece nods to many artists opaquely – Rothko, Ron Athey, Dazuo Ohno, Raimund Hoghe, Anselm Kiefer. Some moments feel acutely personal to Franko B, while others appear more presentations of residual emotions left in him from these encounters. As such the composition of this theatrical collage is made up of a mixture of ‘organic’ and ‘man made’ emotion, meaning Because of Love – Volume 1 is both a revealing love song to, and a curated exhibition of, memory.

Throughout, Franko B dances between the objective and subjective delicately, creating a swirl of dissociative iconography that swims around your head before settling into melodic harmony. Do we romanticise our memories of cultural events? Because of Love – Volume 1 leads me to believe that we do and has encouraged me to interrogate if we should.

For further information about Because of Love – Volume 1 go here.

Review: Mydidae

Written for The Stage

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Kier Charles

 

A master of dialogue that is both funny and brutally revealing, Jack Thorne is one of the most sharply empathic writers we have in film, TV and on stage today. New writing company DryWrite have performed an act of theatrical grace in commissioning this intuitive and witty playwright to create their first full length play, Mydidae.

In a clever move this two hander is set entirely in the intimacy of a bathroom – here fully plumbed in Amy Jane Cook’s minimalist but impressive design – as a modern relationship is stripped bare. Against this clinically exposing setting, Thorne shines a spotlight on a young couple with more to hide in the bathroom mirror than merely the onset of age. What begins playfully soon sinks into darker territory as a tragic anniversary threatens to suffocate Marian and David a year later.

In Vicky Jones’ courageous production, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Kier Charles have nowhere to hide. Waller-Bridge is utterly compelling as Marian. In a fearless performance she imbues this witty, damaged woman with a complexity and depth that feels endless and completely human. Charles does an admirable job as her duelling partner and the chemistry between the two is palpable.

This confident production pierces the heart of Thorne’s bitter-sweet study of humanity. The only act of hesitancy comes when Thorne continues the play for too long. What has been an opaque and potent exploration of modern intimacy comes dangerously close to becoming an issue piece. Even so the writing and performances remain peerless throughout making this superb show unmissable.

For tickets and more information go here