The Stage: Fringe Focus – Goodbye 2012, Hello 2013

Fringe picks for 2013

Looking forward into 2013 I thought I would focus on some of the ‘fringier’ fringe venues I think deserve a New Year’s mention.

Where better to start than at The Union Theatrewhich won The Stage’s Fringe Theatre of the year Award. While well known for their superb musical record I hope 2013 will be the year when their line in disputed Shakespearean works – this year kicking off with Fair Em – gets as much notice as their vault-storming hits. To read more

Review: Cooking Ghosts

Written for The Stage

Devised shows based around family memories sometimes fall into the trap of being manipulative, but not Cooking Ghosts. Beady Eye has once again created an emotionally acute piece of performance that is moving but not sentimental. But then artistic director Kristin Fredricksson knows a thing or two about autobiographical work.

After focusing on her father in her critically acclaimed 2009 show Everything Must Go, Cooking Ghosts sees Fredricksson explore even more personal territory. Inspired by footage of herself and her sisters, Fredricksson, Georgina Roberts, Seiriol Davies and Helen Mugridge try to take us back to these tumbling toddlers and through them to their suicidal mother.

Puppetry, film and dance make up a delicate patchwork of visual storytelling that is at times breathtaking. Mythology mixes with memory as Cleopatra and a female Minotaur are evoked in an attempt to understand this matriarch.

It feels like a quest, full of abstract imagery that is more psychologically led than narratively. At points it’s confusing – such as when Fredricksson enacts her Grandmother’s thoughts – and we feel lost. But it is often the strangeness of these connections that means this journey feels genuine and we trust these performers to lead us through this strange landscape.

Running till tomorrow – more information here.

Review: Frankland & Sons

Written for Whats On Stage

There’s a striking resemblance in the younger man to the elder standing next to him. As father and son one would expect this, but surprisingly it’s quite a jolt; a visceral reminder of the depth of the relationship between these two performers. It’s a powerful initial impression for Frankland and Sons, a sketchy personal biography about parents, siblings and hidden truths.

When John was left a box of his parent’s correspondence, he asked Tom to help him muddle through these letters of love and practicality. Out of this exploration a show was born. “It’s either marriage or the Bank of England” is a typical quote thrown out in this softly humorous look at relationships and times gone by, ending up in a life changing revelation for John.

The affection for their subjects is palpable in Frankland and Sons and though the secret at its centre is vast, recriminations are admirably absent. Emotion is thick on stage however with John and Tom aiming to pull at the heart strings very deliberately and sometimes even physically (the set consisting of a timeline of red strings with balloon hearts indicating years skating above). Whilst they are deeply likeable a lot is asked of their audience that they haven’t quite won and the regular attempts to draw our own secrets out feel slightly forced.

There’s a determinedly bumbling feel to the music hall style of the piece. It’s a sweet if slightly shabby rendition and on the opening night it felt too fragile to truly fly. But given some breathing space I believe Frankland and Sons will relax into the tender and effecting sharing that it could so easily be.

Runs until 28th January 2012, Camden People’s Theatre

Review: A Place At The Table

Written for Exeunt Magazine

It’s a daunting task just trying to take in all of the information contained within  Daedalus Theatre’s A Place At The Table. The dense facts and figures of the U.N. Security Council Report S/1996/682 which forms the basis of this devised piece are broken down into actions, phone calls and songs. As we sit around a giant communal table, a group of four actresses try to measure their own – and our – responses to the little known horrors that began in Burundi and spread like wild fire through Rwanda in the early 1990s.

The basis of the U.N.’s report is explained to us in clipped, clinical tones. We are told of the assassination of Burundi’s first democratically elected Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye in 1993. We hear how it led to a civil war between Hutus and Tutsis that resulted in the most ignored genocide in history. Slides flash up with the names and faces of the lead players as the company attempt to understand where the responsibility for both this murder and the 300 million more that followed it lies. This is muddy ground. The generals blame mutinous troops; Germany and Belgium are pegged as shady Machiavellian manipulators, and civilians speak of neighbours slaughtering one another – by the end things don’t feel any clearer.

But what is clear is Daedalus’ commitment to try to place this complex piece of forgotten history centre stage. The piece has evolved through a devising process which has spanned several years. Director Paul Burgess has nurtured personal explorations from his performers, turning instinctive reactions into moments of communication. Some of these are more successful than others. A witty telesales advert highlights the West’s role in this endemic tribal hatred, and the U.N. table is imaginatively unpacked to reveal soil and earth as spirits are released from the polished wood. But the piece as a whole is rather opaque and some of the movement sequences feel woolly and unfocussed. The constant bombardment of names, facts and figures eventually starts to wash over you, leaving you numb.

Even if Daedalus’ message is not always clear, the final act of coming together and sharing – a process which includes all of us –  is an arresting one. A Place At The Table sheds its slight well-meaning stuffiness, its air of the bureaucratic, and ends in a much more personal and uplifting fashion. This is a hopeful piece to come out of an epic tragedy and whilst the ins and outs of what happened remain cloudy, the idea that change is possible is very powerfully put across.

Runs until 19 November.

Hamster Town @ Camden People’s Theatre

David Ralfe’s Hamster Town at times borders on the twee. The story of Darren, a lonely abandoned father who finds redemption through his bond with a hamster, it’s the kind of thing that – on the surface at least – might make PIXAR go weak at the knees. Perhaps, however, even the movie suits would balk at the idea of a man falling so obsessively for his pet: “It’s just you and me!” he coos rather manically.

As Darren’s relationship with his hamster grows so his one with his sanity lessens; soon he has created a Hamster Town full of Hamster Queens and Hamster Halls. Ralfe’s affability keeps this boat afloat. His facial features are the perfect fit for this cuddly critter and his transformation from man to beast is eerie. His little nose twitches, as he licks and cleans himself and shuffles around: man becomes hamster.  Ralfe is LeCoq-trained and at times you can see that he knows how good he is and the work becomes almost like an extended party piece; which is a pity because occasionally it almost seems as if an act of transformation is really taking place, but he breaks the spell by acknowledging the audience’s giggles.

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I tasted Sprint, and it’s playful.

Written for

The fourteenth Sprint festival at Camden People’s Theatre kicks off with a taster evening which embodies the festival’s lively and playful essence – and while I’d be reluctant to call it a theme, an abundance of childish delight runs through the work in this opening showcase.

The evening begins with Mamoru Iriguchi’s Projector/Conjector. Iriguchi has a projector on his head, while his eponymous heroine has a TV on hers. Projector/Conjector is a low-fi/high tech love story where boy meets girl in a world of deceptively makeshift illustrations of rockets, ponds, ducks, pieces of coral and even the piercing of a still beating heart. Clad in crumpled forensic whites our performers combine po-faced seriousness and physical prowess (some of the crouches they hold would make a yoga instructor jealous) with a wonderfully silly premise and an odd poignancy as Projector creates his own reality and Conjector captures it.

Greg McLaren

The immensely likeable Francesca Millican-Slater presents I Promise To Swim The Channel (or the story of how I might); a lovely piece of personal passion on stage. With poetic fluidity and a healthy dose of science and history, Millican-Slater takes us through each stage of her training so far, cheerfully highlighting each exhausting obstacle. Armed only with some goose fat, bowls of water and a whistle, this self-deprecating adventurer is as brave as the first channel swimmer Captain Matthew Webb and as witty as one of the most famous, David Walliams. At the end, in a brilliantly simple act of complicity, you can formalise your belief in Millican-Slater by signing an agreement stating you believe that she will achieve her mission – and I’m sure that she will.

Clad in a distinctive Chinese bomber jacket, Greg McLaren (above) combines a palpable sense of bombast with a trembling vulnerability.  Doris Day Can Fuck Off he tells us, or rather, as this is a one-man opera, he sings it to us, in a pleasantly melodic voice. A bundle of contradictions, McLaren’s silly endeavour to sing everything he would usually speak (a task he’s been accomplishing for the last few weeks) seems to have left a rather dark mark on him and his wonderfully funny mash-ups of befuddled traffic wardens and passers-by are tinged with the loneliness of an outsider.

No such darkness infects The Balloon Gardener, a children’s circus act combining tremendous skill with a touch of idiocy. Set against a hip-wiggling soundtrack of 60s TV music and performed with boundless energy, Danny the Wild Balloon-Tamer performs a series of tricks with the tacky flare of a children’s party entertainer. He manipulates brightly coloured latex shapes into a piece of artistic horticulture that won’t fail to put a smile on your face.


Physical prowess and a sense of mindless fun merge into a hundred-words-a-minute with The Honourable Society of Faster Craftswomen’s (right) mega-monologue Patchwork. This spoken word extravaganza has a throbbing punk backing-track and a thrusting energy that leaves the audience breathless. Guileless (but one suspects highly-skilled) animations fill the screen behind the performer. Enthroned on a high-backed chair and clad in a wild-thing suit with requisite ears, this is one cool chick.

This high-octane and razor sharp performance make for an exhausting but exhilarating end to an evening that’s often been punctuated with giggles. Perhaps the most resounding feeling is one of warmth, a sense of welcoming towards all this strange and wonderful work. It is sensation that may well embolden and encourage even those alarmed by the prospect of performance art.

Sprint runs at CPT from the 1st to the 27th March 2011. For a full line-up of events, visit: Camden People’s Theatre

Sprint @ Camden People’s Theatre: Matt Ball

Written for

Chatting to Matt Ball about the 14th Sprint Festival it suddenly hits me that Camden People’s Theatre are the Grandaddy of the current contemporary art festival scene. Fourteen years is quite a legacy and this longevity must be encouraging for newer endeavours like Forest Fringe and the Fierce Festival. “That’s a nice way to look at it,” Ball quietly says, “if you look at everyone who’s been through the building, it does seem to be a Who’s Who of contemporary performance.”

Set up in 1994, CPT has long been working at blending the boundaries between theatre and live art. In 1997 Sprint was established out of a desire to widen the audience base for innovative performances with short runs. “If we put it in a festival and we package it that way, more people will see it,” Ball explains.

Running throughout March it’s an eclectic programme and one not driven by a personal taste or agenda, “this year we’ve got everything from a children’s contemporary clown show to someone suspended by their hair in space.” A quick look at the programme certainly seems to reveal a vibrant mixture of challenging and easier to swallow pieces including a one man opera, a travelling sound library, a chance to enact your own kitchen sink drama and a performance encountered entirely in pitch black.

This variety comes from a truly democratic selection process of three strands. Along with work that CPT has had a hand in developing, and work selected during the year (both from London and nationally), they also have an open submission process to the programme. “The open submission allows us to encounter emerging artists we may not have heard about. As an artist I first encountered Sprint this way and it was incredibly helpful to my development.”

That Ball himself is one of CPT’s Sprint successes is a testament to the festival’s encouragement of new artists. This year Starting Blocks has taken this ethos one step further; a peer-supported group of five artists and companies have been given a ten-week period, moulding, shaping and creating new pieces of work together – they will be featured in Sprint in a day of work-in-progress sharings on 13 March. “It’s very much a pilot year for it,” Ball says cautiously, “we’re trying it out and it’s producing some really interesting work. It’s very much not about producing finished pieces for the festival, it’s trying to support people, give them more opportunities to make work and space and time.”

I’m sure he must love all his artists equally, but who particularly is Ball looking forward to most from this year’s Sprint Festival? He laughs Analogue’s Lecture Notes on a Death Scene… they are a really good young company starting to get the recognition they deserve touring nationally and internationally.”

He thinks for a moment and then speaks as though almost to himself “Michael Pinchbeck’s The End, it’s the last piece of solo work he’s going to make so it’s going to be quite strange for me.” He recollects himself firmly, “I’ve seen all of his work, so to see it finish… will be nice to have him do that here.”

Sprint Festival – 2011 runs from 1 March to 27 March 2011. Click here for full listing details for the 2011 festival.

Mascha and Vascha – Strange Ladies

Two grotesque old ladies bicker in a small gypsy-esque living room.  Eyes roll and teeth gnash as they rasp their way through their day.  One is a dreamer and the other a doer, one a skinny hunchback and the other comically rotund, but for all their differences they are inherently tied together; being the only thing the other one has left.  Their monotonous life is full of washing and futile attempts to go outside, indeed anything to fill the gaps in the hours, minutes and seconds of each interminable day.

With the heavy ghost of Waiting For Godot hanging over its head, Mascha & Vascha does at times pay a successful homage to Beckett’s masterpiece, with a couple of beautifully existential lines but these are too few and far between.  More often than not this surreal dialogue appears forced in a piece which seems to be trying too hard. 

 Hannah Pyliotis and Lily Sykes are undoubtedly talented performers, creating intensely physical individual caricatures that are punctuated with imaginative ‘gestus’, within a sweet and present friendship that is a delight to watch.  However too often they push their random symbolism too far; at times being uncomfortably over the top and at others too naively ready for a ‘trick’ so that they are never fully convincing clowns. 

This is a first time piece of work which starts in all the right places, but somewhere along the journey loses focus and sadly ends up in all the wrong ones.  But it is also a young company who may have faltered in this show, but are sure to find their feet in future ones.  Onwards and upwards.

 Mascha & Vascha runs at The Camden People’s Theatre until Friday 21 August at 7.45pm

Exposure has everything to do with length.

“A David has emerged to challenge the Edinburgh Goliath: the Camden Fringe” The Guardian

The fourth Camden Fringe starts on 3rd August and in its three year tenure it has grown into a diverse and credible festival.  But apart from the above golden nugget from the Guardian very little national press covers the up and coming contender.  This of course has something to do with the presence of the saturated giant that is Edinburgh but there is another much more practical reason for this lack of printed promotion.

Looking through the brochure this year and attempting to pick shows to review and cover for both The Camden Voyeur and Fringe Review, I was struck by how every show, with the exception of perhaps 3 or 4, is only running for a two/three day period.  A write up is somewhat redundant therefore because you see it on the first night, the review comes out and it’s already the last night.  This is especially true for a printed publication such as The Camden Voyeur which has a turn around of 4 days making it very tricky for the printed version to be current (although it will of course be fabulous and full of interviews and Victorian witticisms!).

Now I wouldn’t be boo who-ing if there wasn’t good work to promote, but as it is there are some real gems to be found in the programme and some fabulous venues involved and it would be quite nice to shout about it.  If the fringe wants to get more national coverage and therefore boost its profile (and I’m just assuming that it does by the way, maybe it likes being David?) then it should consider programming work for longer runs.  And yes this would inevitably mean less shows but maybe that wouldn’t be a bad thing either; quality and not quantity – now that’s the way to beat Edinburgh.