Back in London City Centre – back catalogue of Edinburgh writing

I’ve landed back in the big smoke and returned to my poorly tended blog intent on giving it some TLC. And so without further ado (and for those of you who have not already read these articles/interviews and reviews) here are a few of the favourite things that I’ve been typing away at for the last few weeks…more as a historical document than anything…It’s quite long so feel free to flick through.

A Man Apart – Written for FEST 16th July 2010

The Cry

In 2008 Steve Lambert punched a journalist. The journalist in question, Chris Wilkinson, had refused to participate in The Factory, Badac Theatre’s controversial Holocaust piece that sought to give its audience an immersive and near-real—too real, some suggested—experience of the Nazi gas chambers. Two days later Wilkinson was assaulted on the street.

Lambert’s PR has told me that it isn’t appropriate to ask him about this, and while it’s true that the incident occurred two years ago, there is still an obvious undercurrent of violence in Lambert’s attitude to theatre. While others deem it appropriate to work with young people at The Pleasance through mediums like rap as a means of expression, Lambert is “much more into the idea of getting them into a room and getting them to punch the fuck out of their energy and just see where it goes”.  I’m not sure it’s going to go well.

As Wilkinson himself has said, this is not the first time that an artist has attacked a journalist for a critical response to their work, but with statements such as “Without violence we have nothing” on Badac’s website, Lambert’s case seems more serious. But this doesn’t seem to sit true to the man sat in front of me in 2010, although the signs are there that this obsession with aggression hasn’t disappeared: “a lot of theatre is about a repression of violence. You can’t repress something that isn’t there. I just choose not to repress it – I choose to explore it.’

What is never in doubt as we speak is that he demands complete commitment from both his company and his audience; when you come to him you have to do so with utter heart and soul. It is a holistic approach that was fostered in Poland. After a few frustrating years as a jobbing actor and three interesting ones as a bookie, Lambert hopped on a bus at Victoria and ended up in Warsaw. It changed his outlook on theatre permanently. “You all of a sudden realise that theatre is actually a craft. Here it is viewed as a vehicle to go onto telly, to go onto other things but [there] the training is that you’re learning a craft that is like a life long thing, that you’re always going to be learning a craft.”

Lambert returned and was quickly bored with the “kitchen sink drama” around him. Wanting to create work inspired by Jerzy Grotowski, the innovative Polish director, he set up Badac. He was never going to compromise. “If you’re setting up a company, I wasn’t going to do it on anyone else’s terms.” Physically and psychologically demanding, Badac’s intense style comes from a suitably “extreme” source: Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre And Its Double, the bible for half the radical playwrights of recent decades. “The very first chapter is called ‘Theatre and The Plague’ and all of our work is about me trying to understand that chapter.”

It’s all beginning to sound a bit militant but he surprises me: “I know it’s not everyone’s thing. I’ve got nothing against comedy or musicals – it all goes into the tapestry of theatre.”  So you don’t think that everyone should think the way you do then? “No but it is about saying to them we’ve created something. Either join it or don’t join it.”

He seems to be aware that he’s seen as an artist whose ego is out of control and is at pains to show that nothing could be further from the truth. “I think that with some of the subject matter that we tackle if you approach it as a vehicle to sell yourself it’s not going to work. It will be very superficial and have no depth.”

It is this belief that drew Palestinian poet Ghazi Hussein to a company known more for its physicality than its lyricism. Hussein was repeatedly imprisoned and tortured from the age of 14 for being, as I am told, “guilty of carrying thoughts.”  In 2009 he approached Lambert after seeing The Devoured, Badac’s equally harrowing although slightly more conventional one-man show at last year’s Fringe. “He liked the fact that our work really tries, whether it fails or succeeds. Nevertheless it goes in with an energy and a commitment and an honesty that we’re trying to do it, we’re trying to our nth degree to bring this out and show his words.”

The Cry uses poems Hussein wrote in prison, but will still very much be a Badac show. “The way we’re approaching it is the energy and drive behind it more than it being as a poem. A couple of them are delivered as screams, a couple of them are delivered as pleading. The emotion that actually created it is more important than the text itself. People talk about light and dark, the way you’ve got to have quiet moments and loud moments. But to me you can move that barrier up and you can have completely intense theatre and it will have different levels. Its just that those levels are really high.”

Whether all this will work remains to be seen. But Lambert’s audacious company certainly stands out in the comparatively safe Edinburgh program. Wilfully confrontational, his work assaults theatregoers’ sensibilities in a way few companies would attempt. Let’s just hope no journalists are injured this time round.

Bunny – Written for FEST 12th August 2010


With writing credits that include Skins and Shameless, Jack Thorne is known for writing snappy lines for disenfranchised teens. Quick, clever and encased in an urban poetry that both delights and resonates, he packs each sentence with a punch. No word is wasted, no repetition accidental, he has a track record of crafting pithy dialogues and Bunny is no exception.

Brought to Edinburgh by lauded new writing theatre company Nabokov, Bunny is a dynamic production of a sharp text. Rosie Wyatt’s Katie bounds into vivid and jabbering life in front of a cartoon background that mirrors her story frame for frame. Jenny Turner’s guileless illustrations and Ian William Galloway’s deceptively low-fi video design echo both Katie’s childish energy and adult knowing.

In a breathless metropolitan drawl, Katie describes an accident with an ice cream that leads to a manhunt. We watch as she slips down a rabbit hole through a sequence of remarkable occurrences. Thorne’s skill is to make each choice both the stuff of fantasy and totally acceptable; you are complicit with Katie through each decision and judgement.

Wyatt is engrossing as the lost girl at the centre of this journey. She is a bundle of teenage confidence and insecurity; one moment she’s a woman, the next a child, she plays each inflection of Thorne’s script beautifully.

There is a tangible undercurrent of desperation in Bunny that raises the stakes at each stage of this adventure; everyday situations take on the mantle of cruel victories and with a thrilling potency, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. 

Flamenco Without Frontiers – Written for FEST 16th July 2010

Listening to Paco Pena’s softly lilting mellifluous Spanish tone it is hard not to feel transported to a place of warm contentment.  But whilst this virtuoso of the flamenco scene wants to create sensuous music, he is also determined to prove that this melodic artform can be used to discuss social issues too “If you’re honest with yourself you can’t ignore certain things, it’s not that I have a political point to make but I love people, wherever they come from. Flamenco is a legitimate form of music, which has a lot, or rather combines a lot, of elements from different cultures; it is a music of people. If there is a problem right in front of me, my music is moved.” 

There is a fluidity when you speak to Pena that verbally matches his technical elegance as one of Spain’s most brilliant guitarists.  An eclecticist who has taken his solo performances from the hot coasts of Costa Brava to full blown theatrical explosions that infuse the echoey spaces of Carnegie Hall and the rounded vaults of the Royal Albert Hall, Pena has never been one to sit on his laurels.  His new piece for the Edinburgh International Festival, Quimeras, continues in his exploration into the possibilities of this traditional Spanish musical style.

“I never wanted to be a solo guitarist at all, I just wanted to participate in the whole flamenco scene – I’ve always loved the singing and the dance” Indeed for a lauded soloist Paco Pena charmingly seems to bypass any egotism constantly reference his fellow artists and collaborators; he is a participant in a much larger act.  This holistic artistic interest is just one of the things that Pena shares with his collaborator on Quimeras, Artist Director Jude Kelly. It is a partnership that has born a number of shows, with their Flamenco Sin Fronteras currently playing at Sadler’s Wells.  A powerful mixture of music, dance and stage play, their work sweeps a strong warm Spanish breeze into the air conditioned British stages playing host to The Paco Pena Flamenco Dance Company this summer.

A passionate believer herself in the potential for dialogue between artforms the collaboration is a fruitful one “Jude Kelly can sense and feel my ideas in a way that she then makes her own and she interprets [them] in her own medium which is the staging of them” Although the initial inspiration for a project undeniably comes from Pena it is also a fully developed dialogue between the two “…we talk a lot, she suggests things like any director would do in order to highlight what I’m thinking, she doesn’t interfere but her contribution is very sensitive and very musical; she communes very strongly.”

At a time when immigration is at the top of the European political agenda the timing of Quimeras could not be more perfect.  Pena speaks passionately about the right that immigrants have to try to make a better world for themselves and their families, sadly noting that their dreams often turn out to be false, crude and tragic “[Quimeras] will try to bring to life the journey of one or several of these people, creating situations along the way that reflect good and bad aspects of their dreams, the reality of their lives and the interconnection with the people on the other side of the frontiers they cross.”

It is a subject that has been with him for a long time “I grew up in a place where a lot of immigrants have passed by so I have been immersed in it for all my life.” Pena grew up in Andalucia where the proximity of north Africa meant that there is always an intense traffic of people crossing in one direction or the other. At 6 years old he began to learn the guitar and after 6 years of “soaking in everything musically that I could” he was performing professionally at 12.  After a productive period working in Spain in the late 1960’s he moved to London; it is a move that he counts has being one of the most important parts of his career “…because I have been out of Spain so much I have been exposed to unexpected artistic propositions and activity in the arts”. 

Many of these opportunities have allowed him to take flamenco music to an audience previously unaware of its existence outside of a Spanish construct (he once played on the same bill as Jimi Hendrix).  It is a process of enlightenment that has worked both ways “…[so whilst] you project your roots and culture in this music you are sharing…at the same time you have been enlightened by so much that you see around you that gives you an edge over someone who hasn’t been out in the world in the same way.”

It seems clear that this cosmopolitanism has given his music this elusive edge over others.  Even in the face of his indisputable expertise it seems it is his passion for bridging flamenco with diverse musical genres (including classical, jazz, blues, country and Latin American) whilst maintaining a healthy respect for it’s traditions that is the real reason for his success “It is because I am constantly moving forward, I never sit still…I’ve done many shows so you push ahead with your ideas and then they inevitably become more ambitious and accomplished in style”. 

He chuckles “It is also probably because I am very old!” There’s the trade mark Pena humility again.

Bo Burnham – Written for What’s On Stage 15th August 2010

Bo Burnham: Words, Words, WordsMy ex-girlfriend used to have a fetish where she dressed up as herself and behaved like a complete bitch all the time.’ Simple but blisteringly sharp this is only one of the insights from the desperately cool world of Bo Burnham, a 19 year old prodigy (his words) of the You Tube generation.

Like a Dadaist poet, Burnham’s understanding of the potential alchemy of random association is inspired. Words, Words, Words incorporates Songs, glitter, Haiku, triangles, dog jokes, torn newspapers, sardonic silences; each moment is tightly choreographed whilst giving the sense of free falling through Burnham’s subconscious. With pitch perfect deadpan delivery he’s not afraid to face awkwardness as well as laughs which adds an edgier performance art feel to his set.

For all this his tools are fairly traditional. A series of comedic songs and punchy one-liners, he’s working within conventional structures. It’s all the more wonderful then that he’s creating something so unique from them.

Keepers – Written for What’s On Stage 16th August

KeepersKeepers is a sweet tale of two Thomas’ who have taken on the mantle as protectors of sailors against the capricious whims of a roaring ocean. Set in an isolated lighthouse The Plasticine Men’s whimsical production details the touchingly symbiotic relationship between the two men.

With the aid of only a light, two chairs and a ladder, director Simon Day has masterfully crafted ingenious ways of representing both the cramped conditions within this tiny fortress and the enormity of the floating enemy outside.

Performed with physical flair by Martin Bonger and Fionn Gill, the central relationship at the heart of this story is infused with an palpable tenderness. Lawrence Williams’ sound design is outstanding, as is the level of synchronicity between performance and sound.

Keepers perhaps loses its way towards the end, but this is a genuinely touching show, given to us by all involved with infinite care.

Decky Does A Bronco – Written for FEST 12th August 2010

Decky Does a Bronco“I am the master! I am the master!” Decky pelts after Chrissy, his erstwhile arch-nemesis/best friend, looping a giant rope round his head. David watches on with amused irritation whilst Barry looks contemptuously at the lot of them. He is nearly in secondary school, after all, and the rest of this motley crew are a mere nine-years-old.

This is the world of Decky Does A Bronco, a vivid, dangerous, playful space that is slowly penetrated by the violent adult reality which encompasses it. A set of swings forms the focus of these youngsters, a monument to their prowess in the great art of “bronco-ing”. To bronco is to jump off a swing at great speed looping the links over the frame – a right of male passage in this Scottish council estate.

The physical prowess of the cast is cleverly underplayed but clear for all to see. Our boys clamber about the swing frame like monkeys, each ascension a victory, each bronco a badge of honour.

Douglas Maxwell’s play is now beginning to feel a bit dated. Created by Grid Iron in 2000, the central story of a tragically shortened childhood was probably more of a rarity then. Now it feels predictable.

Performed in a park, there is a rawness to Decky Does A Bronco that mirrors its external surroundings; you couldn’t cage this in a proscenium arch theatre. Frustrating then that its narrative should seem so traditional.

Beautiful Burnout – Written for FEST 18th August 2010

Beautiful BurnoutIn a festival more renowned for its breadth of choice than its universally high standards, the National Theatre of Scotland is as close to a sure-fire bet as you can find. With worldwide hit Black Watch tied neatly under their belts, they have teamed up with movement specialists Frantic Assembly to create the masterful Beautiful Blackout, a sophisticated and thrilling look at the world of boxing.

Set against the backdrop of strict guru Bobby ‘I’m God’ Burgess, Beautiful Burnout follows five boxers as they go from ordinary street nobodies to masters of the ring. Bryony Lavery’s script offers an insight into the dynamic world of amateur and pro boxing, charting each power play with an envious lightness of touch. 

She revels in the glory and potential glamour of the sport with poetic monologues that carry tones of religious devotion. This is mirrored in Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s luscious movement sequences performed against the pumping orchestrations of Underworld. It’s an exhilarating performance, if a tried and trusted story of the tragedy implicit in such a violent world.

The cast are at their physical peak and there is a palpable sense of bodies being pushed to their limits and back again. But Lavery’s easily anticipated plot gives them little to play with in terms of emotional muscle, falling instead into two dimensional stereotypes, with the show’s conclusion feeling frustratingly overwritten.

It all looks and sounds incredible, however, and for all its predictability, Beautiful Burnout is a holistic feast for the senses.

Des Bishop – My Dad Was Nearly James Bond – Written for FEST 22 August 2010

Des BishopDes Bishop smiles cheesily from his poster, dressed in black tie and looking slightly like a used car salesman: it doesn’t bode well. But My Dad Was Nearly James Bond defies expectation to be a deeply moving and amusing monument to Mike Bishop, Des’s terminally ill father. 

Having grown up mercilessly teasing his dad about his bit-part roles in classic ’70s movies, Bishop has found his position in relation to his father reversed; it is his father who now seeks to undermine Bishop Jnr’s attempts at being responsible. With this show, he’s turned his father’s filthy sense of humour into a testament to the man of whom Bishop is so obviously proud.

A mixture of quick Irish wit, American confidence and English self-deprecation, Bishop is a potent force on stage. His smooth delivery is peppered with well-placed pauses in a show that seems both natural and expertly executed. 

His jokes pack a mean punch but he’s not afraid to have periods of nothing but family reminiscing. You feel like you know Bishop’s family, which raises the emotional stakes and draws you into this tribute. Aided by some period ’70s slides we get a palpable sense of his relations: his powerhouse mother, his mischievous brothers and, of course, his ridiculously good looking father. 

Beginning with a photo montage of Mike modelling, ending in a standing ovation, this show could be construed as a manipulative exercise in plucking heartstrings, but instead feels powerfully honest and full of raw emotion.

News from The Burgh: Solid but not exceptional

So I’ve been here for 5 days now and the general trend seems to be for good solid but unexceptional shows.

Whilst everyone likes to see well constructed work they also want to be able to rave about something on a deeper level.  Apart from The Author at The Traverse, which frustrated the hell out of me but was at least deeply thought provoking, nothing is being whispered about in the breathless almost religious fervor which surrounded OG’s Internal last year.

Another standout in 2009 was Midsummer at The Traverse which garnered rave reviews. This year David Leddy’s Sub Rosa is being spoken of highly (going to see that tonight – review on What’s On Stage tomorrow) and I loved Bunny by Jack Thorne but the breakout beastie is still to be found (saying this, this year I have a feeling the Forest Fringe is going to be the most talked about part of Edinburgh; the place is practically bursting at the seams with wacky creativity – highlight William Shatner karaoke.)

If you’re up here and have seen something exceptional please let me know, with Beautiful Burnout and Teenage Riot still to come for me I’m not giving up the chase just yet.

Review: The Black Maze & Revolutionary Steps

The first thing you notice when you approach The Black Maze is that it’s a lot smaller than you may have been led to believe a ‘lorry’ would be. But don’t let that fool you it’s still a pitch-black labyrinth in there. An air of mystery surrounds this experience; the calming gentleman who explains the instructions is as slippery as a politician when it comes to describing what we’ve got coming and people’s reactions as they exit vary from fury (in teenage terms) and befuddled smiling to genuine fear.

In actuality it is all these things (except maybe the fury, not sure what that girl experienced). Stan’s Café have placed just the right amount of external treats and tricks to keep you on your toes throughout your journey, teetering between excitement and nervous palpitations. It may not be a ghost train but there are strong carnivalesque and Victorian overtones to this Black Maze, along with distinct echoes of submarines and some CCTV star gazing. But there’s nothing to fear except fear itself and really the only thing you confront in this maze is yourself (and some glorious trompe l’oeil illusionism).

Revolutionary Steps takes the strict foyer spaces of the National Theatre and turns them into an improvisational playpen. Cheerfully coloured vinyl footprints and speech bubbles wink out at you from stairs, lift doors and window frames depicting 13 scenes in a simplified version of Danton’s Death.

If The Black Maze is best done alone, Revolutionary Steps has to be done in a group. It is a piece which lives or dies by how much you put into it, as you are the performers and (if there are too many of you to perform or some don’t want to) the audience. And you need balls, because these are spaces full of the theatre going public and they will watch you. But the bravery pays off and it does feel as though Danton’s Death is leaking out of its theatrical constraints.  In a sweet twist there is a cracking monologue at the end like a jewel in the crown “I’ll scream so everything will stand still in shock” Camille cries. You feel that if someone actually does, the whole of the National actually will.

The Black Maze runs until 8th August

Revolutionary Steps runs until 30th August.

Written for What’s On Stage

Craig Stephens On … Stan’s Café at the National Theatre

A house of mirrors in The Black Maze

On Stan’s Café’s website they mischievously proclaim “Forget ‘1-on-1′ Theatre, here’s ‘Just You (and maybe your mate) Theatre.'” It’s a teaser to The Black Maze, one of the shows coming to the National Theatre’s Watch This Space festival this August. They have every right to make such a cheeky statement with their 1998 project It’s Your Film sitting like the Godfather at the BAC’s One-on-One Festival last month. Remarkably prescient this Victorian illusion piece for an audience of one, gave this newish art form a historical context. Associate Director Craig Stephens laughs, “In a way it’s a nice little period piece… no one in the film has mobile phone because when we were creating it no one had one!”

The Black Maze follows on from It’s Your Film in that it places the audience at the centre of the experience. A solo trip through a series of pitch-black corridors encased in a lorry, The Black Maze sends your senses into overdrive through external stimuli (it would be cheating to reveal what these are but suffice it to say they sound exhilarating) with each story and adventure being uniquely forged by us.

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Response to Earthquakes In London

Earthquakes In London is a sprawling mess that parades its wears like a fashion show but lacks heart.

Whilst I need to preface this response as one that’s been taken from a preview performance, I can’t get away from the thought that Earthquake’s In London is a mess.  By attempting to tackle apocalyptic environmental and societal issues whilst reclining uncomfortably in a dysfunctional family saga Mike Bartlett seems to have hit some massive stumbling blocks.

The fragmentary structure certainly gives a sense of fast car urban existence but with characters coming in and out of focus like bored commuters, its hard to care about any of it or them.

We follow three daughters all careering around London trying to make sense out of their jumbled lives as both their environment and time itself disintegrates around them.  It’s a massive departure for Bartlett, known for doing pared down, razor sharp indictments of modern life with a minimum amount of actors.  Here he turns his eye to generational responsibility.  It’s a promising and meaty conflict but one that gets lost in the whirl of a confusing narrative structure that attempts to hurtle in all directions at once without having tied itself to anything solid from which to fly.

And whilst you have to admire its epic ambitions, Earthquakes boasts a cast of 17 taking on 50 roles and incorporates the ambitious stylings of Enron director Rupert Goold, you can’t help but feel it’s actually a very slight piece of work.   It’s all too easy to get fed up of the same old naturalistic dross and ‘economic’ castings that so suit our current financial predicament but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and become nothing but spectacle either.

Because at its heart, Earthquakes In London seems so concerned to not lecture its audience with its central theme that it has avoided having one at all.  At 3 hours long it’s tiring not exhilarating.  I hate to sound boring but the whole thing could have benefited from someone cutting through all the theatrical bullshit and saying something much simpler, but with some actual weight behind it.

It’s a great first draft (and I’m not intending to patronize when I write this), there are some moments of spine chilling poetic beauty in Bartlett’s dialogue and Goold’s direction delivers the expected visual punch.  But whilst Bartlett has said ‘I wanted to see whether you could throw everything at it and still maintain a structure and coherence.’ I think on this occasion the answer has to be that he couldn’t.