Blog: Is Theatre Afraid of Satire (or as I like to call it: We’re losing out to the Americans on this one)

The Book of Mormon Photograph Joan Marcus


Review: Do We Look Like Refugees?!

Written for Exeunt

Alecky Blythe, whose previous work includes The Girlfriend Experience and most recently the acclaimed musical London Road,  is known for giving voices to those whose words are not usually given space in a public arena; even knowing this about her and her work,  it is exciting to see a piece about the aftermath of the 2008 Georgian/Russian war touring England. In 2009 Blythe went to Georgia where she spoke to refugees from the Gori and Tserovani, temporary camps which have long been turning into semi-permanent settlements as the conflict remains unresolved. True to form her interviews were then edited into a 50 minute piece of theatre, with each cough and repetition presented exactly as it was recorded via headphones worn by the performers.

But for all that it promises this is a strangely unfulfilling event, a taster of what could have been. With a running time of just under an hour, the piece allows no room for these voices to grow and the result feels prosaic. Perhaps this is as it should be, the day to day trials of this resolute nation not being the stuff of romantic poetry. Yet the only moment in the production where one feels really connected is when the cast remove their headphones to sing a national folk song; it’s a defiant and universal moment that highlights their iron resolve more powerfully than the edited accounts of their survival ever do.

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Ridiculusmus on Total Football and scrabbling around for national identity

Written for Exeunt

David Woods and Jon Haynes – Ridiculusmus

Two men dressed in suits stood in a suitcase filled with grass. Over the course of 70 minutes they managed to communicate the absurdity and frustration of the stymied Northern Ireland peace process without taking a step out of their turf box. Exuberant, sombre yet defiantly humorous Say Nothing was my first experience of the work of Ridiculusmus. At the time I was a student at the University of Kent, the establishment where David Woods and Jon Haynes also gained their PhDs. With doctorates in, respectively, comedy and performance art, the work of Woods and Haynes has always defied convention. The amalgamation of humour and artistry has helped to make their work incredibly accessible, winning them an affectionate place within the heart of both critics and audiences for the last 18 years.

Nearly two decades of work is an impressive legacy for a still vigorous company of two; many marriages don’t last that long. “Yes but there are three people in our marriage, the third one being the audience!” Down the phone I can hear Woods grinning. “It’s shocking when you think about it… I’ve spent more time with [Haynes] than any other relationship in my life.” Apart from the threesome aspect why has it worked for so long? The answer is refreshingly non-‘luvvie’ “We don’t hang out together (people do find this quite odd)… to keep fresh and excited about meeting we just really meet to work and perform. When we’ve got a show up and running I’ll only really see him a few minutes before the show, it’s driven on the performing.” This sounds like a reasonable statement but I actually do find myself feeling surprised by it; on stage they seem to share a sort of symbiotic understanding of each other which one automatically assumes comes from a long personal friendship.

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Metta Theatre on Pirandello in a cafe.

Written for What’s On Stage

Artistic directors Poppy Burton-Morgan and William Reynolds started Metta Theatre in 2005, joined in 2009 by producerHeather Doole. Burton-Morgan’s recent credits include the critically acclaimed Gotcha at the Riverside Studios. Past credits with Metta include Otieno, a Zimbabwean reworking ofOthello at the Southwark Playhouse and an immersive production of Blood Wedding.

Luigi Pirandello was an Italian dramatist most famous for Six Characters in Search of an Author. His work, which was often preoccupied with the problem of identity have been seen as a forerunner to the Theatre of the Absurd and led to the writer receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934.

A psychological vignette set in a café, it would be easy to dismiss Metta Theatre’s tour of Pirandello’s The Man With The Flower In His Mouth in cafes around England as gimmicky. It’s harder to do so after director Poppy Burton-Morgan talks you through the process involved “We quite substantially restage it to fit each space and we’ve had to restaged it while there were people sat there having their teas and coffees!” Sounds exhausting I posit “Well it certainly keeps me and the actors on our toes… it’s a two hander so there is a certain flexibility in the shape of it, a certain amount of stretch and give.”

Burton-Morgan is certainly no stranger to pushing the shape of establish texts, often adapting the plays she puts on so she can tell the stories she thinks need to be told. Whilst this may shock purists, her flexible approach has won rave reviews and gives her actors the opportunity to really play with each time being unique “Samuel Collings will do quite different things, he will respond to what’s in the space, in Oxford there’s lots of mirrors so we played with that, in London we slightly changed some of the text to accommodate the chandelier.”

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I Am The Wind @ Young Vic

Written for Exeunt

Tom Brooke (The One); Jack Laskey (The Other). Photo by Simon Annand

Jon Fosse’s I Am The Wind is a meditation on acceptance and resistance; an exercise in philosophical manoeuvring around the subject of death. It is also a text which nearly drowns under the weight of its own wordiness. Even in Simon Stephens’ no-frills version the pun is intentional: this play is full of hot air. But, that aside, Patrice Chéreau’s dynamic production isn’t completely sunk; the addictive performances of Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey inject enough life into Fosse’s existential posturing to see you through.

They’re both pretty gaunt, these two men on a boat, both physically and mentally, at the edge of their reason. Brooke’s character (they have no names, they are simply The One and The Other) dallies with the idea of death while Laskey acts as a friendly and increasingly desperation inquisitor. Described by the Young Vic as a ‘contemporary fable’ it’s hard to see what moral lesson is to be learned here; the piece may anthropomorphize the sea and air but it does very little beyond that. “I didn’t quite understand it” a woman in front says, troubled, “That’s OK, I don’t think anyone did,” her friend says comfortably, “that’s not the point”.

But what is the point? Apart from some truly committed performances and some cool, calculated direction, the point of the piece is hard to see. Fosse’s text may scream but it never goes beyond anything other than amateur psychology. As such it feels pretentious and worse, slightly preachy.

Richard Peduzzi’s industrial design turns the sea into a muddy pool which is initially inviting as you watch the sodden splendour of the two duelling companions. After a while it comes not to seem so harmless and after their boat emerges you feel increasingly glad to be sat safely in the auditorium with dry socks on. There is something epic about watching Brooke and Laskey cling to and gamble about on the sophisticated hydraulic platform which represents their vessel; at times you feel quite off balance. Chéreau’s direction allows these two performers to flex their muscles and the stage positively heaves with a tension that almost makes you forget about the measured pauses that dog the script. Brooke fights a valiant battle, playing a character one just wants to slap, and giving him a down-to-earth practicality. Laskey’s slow descent into desperation is also beautifully played; he never overdoes his building hysteria and it adds a genuine bite of anguish to the piece.

Éric Neveux’s score creates an emotionally suggestive landscape which attempts to manipulate its audience into responses that the piece perhaps does not deserve. It’s a pity Chereau simply didn’t leave things be, and let the sound of rippling water, the characters’ laboured breathing and the slow heaving of the hydraulics speak for themselves.

Troubled theatrical waters then, but Chéreau steers a none-the-less compelling ship. It is strangely upsetting watching Laskey trying to both make sense of and save his increasingly cracked friend; it’s a struggle which stays with you despite the self-importance of the ending and even after you have emerged from the gloom.

Runs until 21st May

Q&A with Little Bulb Theatre

Written for What’s On Stage

Soho Theatre kicks off its spring season with last summer’s Edinburgh hit, Operation Greenfield, from the award-winning Little Bulb Theatre – a tale of sexual awakening, Christian folk rock and forest fruit squash.

Formed by graduates from the University of Kent – Alexander ScottClare BeresfordShamira Turner and Dominic Conway, Little Bulb Theatre combine innovative character work, beautiful imagery and exciting homemade music to create performances with humour and sadness that will touch, startle and entertain.

Operation Greenfield – a touching, funny, bizarre and visually fantastical exploration of faith and friendship – captures the confusing, awkward and beautifully naïve time of adolescence. We spoke to the company about their upcoming Soho Theatre run, which opens on 19 May (previews from 17 May) and continues until 4 June 2011.

You use a lot of original music within your shows and you’ve said Operation Greenfield is your most ambitious mixture of theatre and music so far. Why is this such an important part of your process?

We feel that music can evoke something different than what watching a play does, and find the result of combining them yields such exciting results. Developing characters is a big part of what we do, but also we often find it easier sometimes to express ourselves through music. Many early performances of Operation Greenfield were as a music gig, and some people thought we were actually teenagers as we looked even more awkward outside of a theatrical context.

Talk us through a typical day of rehearsal for you.

Well, as we’ve been living on the road for so long now, on rehearsal days we tend to wake up wherever we are together, have breakfast together and set out to the space wherever that may be – we try to make a temporary home for ourselves wherever we are, and that includes in the rehearsal space, so when we walk in of a morning, we’re also walking into the world of the show and all the feelings that go with that. As a company we’re fascinated by process, and we try and find fresh approaches to our rehearsals depending on the show, an entire day could be spent writing, improvising, moving, composing songs, or obsessively discussing the intonation of a specific line. Collectively we tend to be night birds as when we come home, we’ll spend a long time cooking, making plans for the next day and playing music, so because of that rehearsals tend to begin around 10ish or just after but go ’til about seven or a bit later, depending on when it feels like its good place to call it a day.

You are becoming known for quirky stories which delight in eccentricity and feel truly original. Where do you get your stories from?

All our stories come from many hours of being in a room in character and building their world through lots and lots of improvisations. Our director, Alex, is extraordinary at creating exercises that will bring out some texture that until that moment you hadn’t realised was there. After hours and hours of inhabiting someone else’s physicality and thoughts, the stories tend to write themselves – we don’t know what the end will be when we start, and we often don’t know what it will be until the very end.

Operation Greenfield deals with growing up – a topic also covered with immense imagination in Crocosmia, as a young company do you feel this is a topic close to your heart?

Yes, I suppose it is close to our hearts, maybe its because we, as a company are growing up, and when we were very young and naive we made Crocosmia, and at the time when we made Operation Greenfield it really reflected our adolescent phase as a collective. On the one hand we were still very much newcomers trying to find a sense of identity, but on the other hand, we had a very clear sense of who we were and the work we wanted to make, all the while feeling the pressure of living up to expectations. Also, we personally have been both ages, and all have very strong memories of what it is like to be at that age, so we can use those memories and experiences to develop characters and make them more truthful.

What excites you about theatre at the moment and who or what has influenced you in the past?

There are loads of inspiring companies making work at the moment, and it would be impossible to list them all, but in the past we have been inspired by the likes of Improbable, The TEAM, The Shunt Collective, and more recently we very much enjoyed seeing Kneehigh’s revival of their Red Shoes, but we often find inspiration in other mediums as well as theatre; books, poetry, people and in particular music all have a great affect on the work we create – last night we saw Sufjan Stevens at the Southbank – what an incredible man, his music is just beautiful and the show itself is a real spectacle, we were all blown away, in fact, we’re going back again tonight!

After Soho what’s next?

Well, we will be rehearsing for a new project for just under a month, and then we will be hitting the festivals and performing there in various guises (Lounge on the Farm, Latitude, Secret Garden Party) etc, then we will be going up to Edinburgh and playing music every night as part of the BAC at Summerhall venue in the last week of the festival, and then finally we will be taking Operation Greenfield on a national tour, dates of which will be available on our website very soon.

Operation Greenfield opens at the Soho Theatre on 19 May (previews 17 May) where it runs until 4 June 2011.

Cleveland Street The Musical

Written for What’s On Stage.

There’s a lot of jolly bum slapping happening Above The Stag and one gets the feeling its not only occurring on stage as a jovial Friday night audience positively laps up the chipperCleveland Street. Full of ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ cleverness Glenn Chandler’s new musical is brimming with good natured, if incredibly bawdy, charm; children avert your eyes.

Chandler’s book centres around 19 Cleveland Street, a brothel with two madams and a purely male menu. Set four years after homosexual acts were made illegal in Britain, number 19 became the centre of a Victorian scandal that almost shone a light on aristocratic homosexual hypocrisy. Almost but not quite, the upper classes it seems have had decades of getting away with it.

As the telegraph boys at the heart of the uproar (a delightful quirk being that these were Royal Mail uniformed sex workers) Michael AndersonAdam Elliott and Ashley Martin do a sweet job of portraying these doe eyed delicacies. Anderson gives a particularly layered performance as the childish Thomas Swinscow but all three portray a knowingness that belays any claims of manipulation or abuse.

Josh Boyd-Rochford and Fanni Compton are deliciously salacious madams, their strong comedic performances tinged with a touching affection for each other. Compton is a fine comic actress, nearly bringing an audience to tears with her turn as a rough and ready hot chestnut seller.

Matt Devereaux’s music is polished and the band, led by musical director Aaron Clingham, add to the overall sense of music hall which typifies this score.

Cleveland Street hangs on in there for a little too long and its style is as thick as a Matisse brush stroke. But it is just as vibrant too and the fascinating source material makes this an interesting, as well as smirk filled evening.

Runs until 29th May