Author Archives: nic

Wokeness or not?

This is a bit of a Catch Up post, in that the events described herein occurred Saturday last, but I am only just now getting around to writing them down.

Saturday was a full day for Pawn with a matinee of Shuck ‘n’ Jive, at Soho Theatre, in Soho, and an evening performance of Dirty Crusty, at The Yard, in Hackney Wick. And it actually turns out to be a pretty good double bill.

Shuck ‘n’ Jive is a piece by Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong and Simone Ibbett-Brown, about two young black women named Cassi & Simone, played by Tanisha Spring and Olivia Onyehara, respectively. Directed by Lakesha Arie-Angelo, the two performers are on a single set, between two risers of seating, on a long, narrow stage. At each end of the stage are set walls, studded with props which will be used during the show, as well as a pair of video screens which grant us visibility into the character’s text messages.

The plot is simple enough; Cassi & Simone are frustrated in their intersectional lot in life. They are black in a white-dominated society, and they are women in a male dominated society. Not only that, but they are artists in a society which doesn’t deem that too important, providing a third axis to their intersectionality. We are voyeurs on the wall of their auditions, which inevitably devolve, at least in their minds, from Ophelia’s soliloquys into minstrel show rags.

They’re fed up, and they’re not going to take it any more! So, in Howard Beal meets Mickey Rooney, they’re going to put on a show, and most of the rest of out show is watching Cassi & Simone plan how to put together their ground-breaking new show about black women artists putting on a show for unappreciative white producers, and audiences.

So, how well does it work? Pretty good, if you ask me. There’s a little preachiness now and then, but the diverse audience at this Soho matinee seemed appreciative of even that. One of the show’s best bits, which pops up now and then, is a Game Show divertissement called Fine When We’re Friends in which a racial- or gender-insensitive or ignorant phrase is read aloud, and contestants must identify whether this would be generally acceptable, acceptable from a friend, or not acceptable at all. Overall there’s a very optimistic aire to this piece, well performed by the high energy duo of Spring & Onyehara, who’s bubbly energy and, at times, wide-eyed enthusiasm, infects the viewer.

So is this a minstrel show itself? Perhaps, but one with a point, and acid point.

Next up was Claire Barron’s Dirty Crusty at The Yard. I mention the playwright before the title as Ms Barron has earned top billing, with her earlier successes, Dance Nation, You Got Older, I’ll Never Love Again, and Baby Screams Miracle. Barron’s work has won her Obie awards, Pulitzer nods, Drama Circle nominations, etc. Girl got game.

This production, directed by The Yard’s founder and Artistic Director, Jay Miller, stars Akiya Henry as Jeanie, an aimless thirty-something, Douggie McMeekin as Victor, Jeanie’s neighbour and old friend, and Abiona Omonua as Synda, a dancer and instructor at a local youth club.

Photo by Maurizio Martorana

Plot? There is no real high mission on this tale of a woman finding herself in the middle of her life (in her eyes, she’s pretty young if you ask me) and feeling as though she’s just been drifting sideways, with no forward movement. She doesn’t really like her friends; lives like a slob; wants sex but not love; and feels like she’s getting out of life exactly what she’s putting into it; Nothing.

After skipping out on a party, she runs into Victor on the way home. Not having seen each other in some time, they realize they’re now neighbours. It’s not really giving too much away to reveal that they quickly decide that they want to fuck a lot, but not get too attached. Yeah, right. We all know how that goes. Meanwhile, Jeanie stumbles across Synda practicing her ballet steps through the windows of the kids club. They strike up a discussion and soon Synda is teaching Jeanie rudimentary dance, and considering her for a role in a small performance piece.

So these three people, in various combinations, bounce off of each other and impinge upon each other’s dreams and fears. That Jeanie and Synda are both black is, perhaps, totally ancillary to the story, but having just seen Shuck ‘n’ Jive, perhaps Pawn was sensitized to this fact. Victor is white, yet there is no real racial tension implied or expressed. Perhaps just colour-blind casting at it’s best?

I shan’t go in to much more depth. This is a somewhat aimless play. until it very much isn’t, but to reveal the ways and means of that would be to reveal too much. I liked this show, a lot. The performances were top notch across the board. Henry, as Jeanie, has perhaps the heaviest lift of all, as aimlessness can be so hard to portray, but she does so with viscious passivity. Omonua is somewhat a cypher as Synda, but comes into her own later in the show. McMeekin deserves special note for his affable willingness to do whatever is required of him by this script, and his director’s whims, and to do so gamely.

Shuck ‘n’ Jive closed its run at Soho Theatre following Saturday evening’s performance. Dirty Crusty having only just opened last Thursday, runs through 30 November at The Yard, Queen’s Yard, Hackney Wick, E9 5EN; Box Office Line is 0333 320 2896.

October-fest – Pint Sized

Last evening took pawn to The Bunker theatre, Southwark St., for a mini-festival of new, short, works, October-fest Pint Sized. This annual event solicits submissions from playwrights, puts them before a jury, and ultimately a handful of pieces — five this year — to be presented, in whole or in part, on stage.

Preceding the jurying process are a series of workshops and mentoring for the writers, to try to bring people along, grant them confidence, and overcome obstacles. It’s a great idea, and it works surprisingly well. This year over 1500 new works were submitted, and winnowed down to five for the week-long series of showcase performances.

Quoting from Bunker’s website:

The winning plays are:

Bullring Techno Makeout Jamz by Nathan Queeley-Dennis
directed by Robert Awosusi
Nathaniel is getting ready for a date and takes us through the various local barbers where he can get the best haircut for his special night. A funny and heart-warming one-man show about Black British life in Birmingham.

How To Kill Your Mother by Georgia Green
directed by Emma Baggott
A subversive and irreverent dark comedy about a daughter helping her mother get through her terminal leukemia – and all the methods one takes to cope.

work.txt by Nathan Ellis
 directed by Andy McNamee
An immersive, experimental piece where the audience tells the story. Through projections and captions, the audience explores the gig economy and how the concept of ‘work’ is changing.

All Aboard! At Termination Station by Lilly Burton
dramaturgy by Tatty Hennessy
A raucous and powerful one-woman piece exploring the effects of abortion. Using audience interaction, music and surrealism, Lilly tells the story of how she deals with this episode in her life.

This Kind of Air by Vera Ion
directed by Nastazja Somers
Anna is suffering from anxiety. Which isn’t helped by the arrival of her mother, with a human dog on a leash. A funny and powerful account of family relations and immigrant life in the UK.

Excerpted from https://www.bunkertheatre.com/whats-on/pint-sized-october-fest-2/about 26 October 2019 @11:04AM BST

Bullring Techno Makeout Jamz is a monologue about the primacy of a man’s relationship with his barber, with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour about dating and family relationships thrown in. This sweet piece is friendly & jocular, and Simeon Blake-Hall was as sweet-hearted as the script. A lovely bon-mot to start off the evening.

How To Kill Your Mother is a tight two-hander dealing with a woman facing lukemia, Miriam, touchingly played by Caroline Wildi, and the daughter trying to help her, Layla, played with equal tenderness by Talia Pick. The conceit here is that mother has asked daughter to help her end her life, and this provides the vehicle by which mother & daughter can have frank, and not so frank, discussions on the topic they both desperately wish would just go away.

Wildi’s portrayal of a mother gradually losing her grip on her faculties is quite moving, as is Pick’s case of a daughter gradually losing her mother. While at times skating near predicable, the script keeps us engaged and keeps our hearts in our throats. Only an excerpt, pawn wonders where else the larger piece could go?

work.txt is almost impossible to discuss in the same column as the other pieces, and was far-and-away pawn’s favourite in this package. Nathan Ellis, with dramturgy by Andy McNamee, has given us a script, projected upon an upstage screen. The piece begins with a prompt printed on the screen, “A member of the audience reads the following aloud:”

There being no immediate reaction from the assembled audience, Pawn himself read aloud the words on the screen. My seatmate seemed somewhat shocked to hear her neighbour doing this, but this first creen was soon followed by many more, calling on us all (The audience…) or certain groups, (Those making more than £30,000 per year) or perhaps a person with a special quality (Member of audience with a loud voice).

The piece “explores the gig economy, financial instability and automation” according to an early draft detailed at The Yard’s webite, here. The early draft was presented at The Yard during their Live Draft programme, earlier this month. A trailer, which gives the viewer a sense of how this works, is available on that site.

While at times verging on tedious, in whole this piece was a rousing success, drawing the audience in, inspiring waves of laughter and flurries of giggles. One hopes that this is just the beginning of such inspired original new works from Ellis.

All Aboard! At Termination Station is a true one-woman-show, well crafted and bravely performed by Lilly Burton. The topic is abortion, and it’s dealt with soberly and not, dipping into dance, spoken word, song and outrage, in roughly equal measure. This is a deeply personal show, and as such gets uncomfortable at times. One suspects that the performer’s family was in attendance, seated in a row of chairs along stage right, which only contributed to the sense of unease one felt at times.

Lastly, This Kind of Air wrapped up the evening with ruminations on citizenship and belonging, on family ties and bizarre undertakings. Dramatically, this is probably the tightest piece of the programme, but it felt somehow hollow to Pawn, not really landing its pathos.

All in all, this was a great night of theatre and held my attention for all of its 2:15 running time. Gaps between the pieces were filled by house musicians — Royce Cronin, Laura Evelyn, and Joe Hardy — who’s contributions kept the audience engaged throughout the scene changes needed to support such a diverse group of performances. Oh, and speaking of diverse, this was a diverse evening, from the cast balance of gender, age & (somewhat) race, as well as the writers themselves.

With so many of London’s small theatres so aggressively promoting writing workshops, and the next crop of young writers, one can only imagine a great future full of diverse voices on London’s stages. In addition to Bunker, and the afore-mentioned Yard, add Pleasance (both Islington and Edinburg), New Diorama, The Hope… the list goes on.

Catch-up Photographs II

Here’s some more snaps, mostly from Pawn’s birthday.

From an exhibit at the V&A Museum of Childhood
From an exhibit at the V&A Museum of Childhood
V&A Museum of Childhood
V&A Museum of Childhood
V&A Museum of Childhood
V&A Museum of Childhood
V&A Museum of Childhood
V&A Museum of Childhood

Following the visit to Museum of Childhood, Pawn reprised a stroll up Cambridge Heath to Vyner Street, first taken a decade ago. Where once there were scads of art galleries and artist studios, now evidence exists of just a couple of each.

Artist studio on Vyner St. The door was open, and a friend of the artist, at work with a sanding block, invited me in.
A sign of the times, from Vyner St.
Creative graffiti along the roadway,

Last evening took Pawn and friend Miss R to dinner and a show, at Barbican. The show, as shown below, was works by composer Steve Reich, and a film, to a score by Reich, by Gerhardt Richter.

The first piece, Runner, was compelling and classic Reich. Richter’s film, with Reich’s score, was dense yet dreamy. It was like William Morris wallpaper was having illicit sex with an Egyptian scarab & a flapper’s beaded dress, in the eye of a kaleidoscope. You know what I mean. Like a huge oriental rug which just couldn’t decide how it should look, so keeps trying on new ones. Like that.

Mr Fox and Mr Squirrel

Yesterday I saw a fox and a squirrel in Museum Gardens, abutting my housing estate. Seeing as the “Museum” referred to in that name is the V&A Museum of Childhood, it only seems right to then tell this tale as Mister Fox and Mister Squirrel, so here goes.

Mister Squirrel in happier times

Mister Squirrel and Mister Fox lived in Museum Gardens, near the Bethnal Green tube station and Buddhist retreat. (Those are separate places, by the way.) One day, Mister Fox was hungry, and Mister Squirrel was bragging about how many nuts he had stashed away for the long winter months soon upon them. So Mister Fox killed Mister Squirrel, and dragged his lifeless corpse off into the briar to eat without the prying eyes of onlookers.

Mister Fox is a careful eater

The End.

Catch-up Photographs I

Here are a few snaps from the first couple days of the trip, in no particular order.

Juliette is experiencing a bit of a revival. A new musical, Juliette, has recently opened on the West End. Here, Juliette and some workmen strike simpatico pose 21/10/19

The show Pre-Raphaelite Sisters just opened at National Portrait Gallery. These are from my Monday visit.

Sophie Gray, 1857, by Sir J. E. Millais
Christina Georgina Rosetti in a Tantrum, 1862, by Dante Gabrielle Rosetti
Night Sleep
Portable paint box, circa 1850
From Elizabeth Peyton: Aire and Angels

A show Pawn loves to see is the annual Koestler Arts show of art by British inmates, domestic and abroad. This year’s edition, Another Me, was great. Here’s just a few snaps:

“Angie” by Ali, HM Prison Long Lartin
“Innocent Man” by Eddy, HM Prison Glenochil
“Seated Woman” by Eddy, HM Prison Glenochil

The space formerly occupied by the Hayward Gallery’s pop-up for time-based media, Infinite Mix, is now a multi-purpose exhibit and event space, known of as The StoRE X, sponsored by The Vinyl Factory. Here’s a few from their current installation presentation, Transformer.

“New Era,” 2018 Doug Aitken
From “Blindly Touching The Flood,” 2019, Harley Weir & George Rouy

Grief is a…

Meet Me At Dawn, production photo, 2019

In April, X & Pawn attended Grief Is A Thing With Feathers at Barbican; Enda Walsh’s theatrical adaptation of Max Porter’s novel. In that production, Cillian Murphy plays a husband, and father of two young boys, as he tries to cope with the loss of his partner. It is through the intervention of, and his eventual transformation into, Crow, a force of denial and liberation, that his grief is made tangible, and ultimately…

Ultimately what? There often are no happy endings with grieving. No tidy wrapping up and stowing away of these large, powerful, emotions uncorked by the loss of a loved one. Grief Is A Thing With Feathers didn’t try to offer us one. Neither, tonight, did Meet Me At Dawn, the new Zinnie Harris piece presented by DOT Theatre and Arcola.

It’s hard to write about a show like Meet Me… without feeling as if one is giving away too much of the plot. I will tell you this much; at its core, it’s a play about grief.

Pawn first reported on Arcola over a decade ago, with The Living Unknown Soldier, a rumination on a different sort of loss; loss of self, of identity, but also the desperation of grief. Whilst familiar with small playhouses, studio work and the like, it was a handful of productions seen on that long-ago trip which fed the fire of my affection for Off-, and Off-Off- productions — be they off of Broadway of off of the West End. Another show that trip, Thin Toes, at Pleasance, prompted this comment:

Sitting in the small performance space with only about twenty or thirty other people, the theatre in the round presentation meant that we all were within feet of these actors and yet they neither dialed down their performances nor acknowledged the audience in whose laps they were nearly sitting. In such an environment it is easy to detect small flaws that a more typical theatre setting might disguise.

Arcola’s Studio 1 is not so small a space, but preserves the intimacy of the performance.  And, in this case at least, some of the most fraught scenes of Meet Me… came down on top of my front row seat, with gale force and profound affect.

Again, one feels constrained not to reveal too much of the plot, but I can tell you that this production, starring Jessica Hardwick as Helen and Marianne Oldham as Robyn, is a deft two hander, expertly directed by Murat Daltaban, which will drag you into the heart and soul of grief, and do so almost without warning. One moment you share these two lady’s prosaic, if troubled, concerns about the fallout from a boating accident — is one concussed? which direction will get them off of this sand bar and back home? — and the next you feel you have gone into the drink with them and are fighting to get back to the surface, gasping for air.

Grief is a place, a place where the rules are not the same

Robyn in Meet Me At Dawn, by Zinnie Harris

Recent months have been particularly harsh ones in Pawn’s circle of friends, and no small amount of grief is bound up inside this fragile carapace. Meet Me… broke that wide open. Thankfully a tissue (a Kleenex® brand “Mansize” tissue, mind you) was close at hand, but no effort was made to conceal the tears or near-sobs which ensued. Thankfully, at just an hour in length, the release was over soon enough. But in a good way.

Two people on a small stage, before an audience, can be a fraught enough situation all on its own. There were few props populating this island upon which our protagonists are marooned. A single table and chair; that’s all. A blank wall upstage is lit in changing colours, shifting with mood, and at times overwhelming the front lights. The lighting, by Cem Yilmazer, bore silent witness to the action on stage, never too much, always in compliment. Likewise, O?uz Kaplangi’s score slips by, just beneath consciousness, but propelling us forward.

But it is this lovely, aching, moving script by Harris (How To Hold Your Breath, Royal Court; Further than the Furthest Thing, National Theatre; Rhinoceros, Edinburgh Lyceum) which drives this piece. That, and the incredible performances of Ms Hardwick and Ms Oldham. A particularly sharp scene, deep into the denouement, brought an intense confrontation between griever and grieved right up to my seat, and nearly reduced me to a blubbering mass. Only the pure shock of the outburst prevented that meltdown, but, ultimately, that Mansize Kleenex was put to the test.

After the bows, the house lights came up, and a woman sitting a few feet from me leaned in and, with a kind hand on my shoulder, inquired, “Are you alright?”

After re-reading this, it’s clear I wrote too much about myself and not enough about the play. It is most important that you see that it wasn’t just that I was thin skinned to the subject matter; it’s that the play does such a good job of bringing us inside of Robyn’s grief. I would have been reduced to sobs regardless of my own recent losses. This play is just that effective, like a fortune teller or cheap medium, of persuading us that it knows how we feel, and we do know how she feels.

Meet Me At Dawn in performances at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, London E8 3DL, through 9 November 2019. Tickets at the website. #MeetMeAtDawn @arcolatheatre

Haptic Memories

Of Pixels and Voxels and nervous messes

In 1995 I was employed in exhibit development at Discovery World, a museum of science, economics and technology. My job led to my involvement in several vastly different technologies and scientific fields, from hydraulics and lasers to electricity and health. One particularly interesting piece of technology with which I became involved was a “Haptic” interface, called “The Phantom.” Haptic, from the Greek, means touch, and the Phantom was intended to provide the user with virtual sense of touch via a single finger tip.

It looked much like a miniature architect’s lamp, an arm with several degrees of freedom, terminating in a thimble-like cup at the end, which, in turn, was attached to an armature governed by priceless little motors and sensors. The entire design intended to allow the user to move their finger as freely in space as any of their other digits, until they encountered a virtual obstacle. This might be something as simple as a simulated piece of paper, or sandpaper, or perhaps something more complex, a billiard ball, or banana, a wrist, or a wrist with a pulse.

Via the thimble, the controlling computer system could convey texture, viscosity, pressure, vibrations, movement — the entire range of things we can feel with our fingers, albeit not heat nor cold nor the pin-prick of pain. But one might pluck an invisible guitar string, and feel its harmonics, or palpate the back of a virtual patient.

My group were unsure just what we would have the device simulate, nor how we would allow a visiting public to interact with it, given the inherent fragility of the device (and the largely reckless tendencies of the public). But as this was very new technology, having just been invented a year earlier by an MIT grad student, there was a scholarly conference about it, held near MIT, in suburban Boston, and I was to attend. In fact, when I received my conference credentials I was pleasantly bemused to see that I was credited, on MIT stationary, as Doctor Nic Bernstein. Doctor indeed!

Upon arrival at the conference assembly I was greeted by a curious assortment of engineers, scientists, investigators, doctors, physicists. Oh, and a three-star General from the US Army; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same people who invented the Internet. Other than myself, and a geologist from Australia, everyone else there was, in some way or another, in the pocket of this General, something I pointed out during our plenary introductions. At the next meal break, said General sought me out as a dining companion. How, he needed to know, was I not also on his payroll?

There were several obvious implementations of the Phantom being discussed, such as a medical school using them, along with surgical dummies, to help physicians learn proper technique for administering epidermal injections & draws.

The Australian geologist was working with seismic stimulators to probe for deeply buried oil & gas deposits. This being done by amassing the vast amounts of three dimensional data produced by seismic stimulation — essentially carefully calibrated “shakers” attached by outrigger arms to long, low trucks, like massive insects, which would slowly advance along a grid work, shake the ground a bit, raise, advance some more, lower, shake, etc. Once a full grid had been worked, and the data assembled into a three dimensional model, the investigator would probe through the data, feeling his or her way along veins of ore or into voids filled with gas or oil; each substance represented with a different virtual viscosity.

During a field trip to the labs of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industry corporation, a friendly scientist showed me the system they were developing to help orthopaedists feel their way around (“appreciate” in the parlance) the knee joint of a prospective surgical subject, prior to wielding an actual knife.

Here’s how it was done. The patient would receive a scan — PET, CAT, MRI, whichever technology would best image the tissues involved — and the data would be loaded into a computer model. Rather than the pixels (Picture Elements) we think of from the two dimensional world of television or video, or printing, this data were rendered into Voxels, Volumetric Elements. In addition to the X, Y, & Z coordinates of a datum, there was also information on the density of the matter, rendered to the “viewer” as viscosity or resistance. A doctor could thus feel around the back side of a kneecap, for example, to appreciate the condition of the soft tissues there (if any remained), such as cartilage or muscle, each rendered in a different haptic manner.

It was fascinating. This was 1995 remember, long before these sort of things were depicted as routine in movies and on telly.

Unreported Stories — London 2018

Battersea Arts Centre, the Great Hall, before the fire

Battersea Arts Centre, the Great Hall, before the fire

Friday morning and I haven’t written a thing since Tuesday.  Must fix that.

Tuesday evening was Bryony Kimmings’ I’m A Phoenix, Bitch at Battersea Arts Centre, itself a bit of a Phoenix.  Friday the 13th March, 2015, fire broke out in the roof of Battersea’s Great Hall.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX (4527938a)
Fire at Battersea Arts Centre
Battersea Arts Centre on fire, London, Britain – 13 Mar 2015
A major fire has broken out at Battersea Arts Centre, a leading independent theatre and arts venue in south London.

The entire rear third of the building was lost, but with steely grit and unflagging determination, and loads of support from the community, BAC rose from the ashes.  It held a public event in the (relatively) unscarred front of the building just 26 hours after the fire was extinguished, and this year marks their “Phoenix Season.”  More of the building than ever before is open to the public and in active use.

Byony Kimmings is a performance artist.  In 2016 she was beset by a series of tragedies which, together, nearly broke her.  Her and her partner bought a tumbledown cottage, in the middle of nowhere, to settle their new small family, but post partum depression had a grip on her.  Then her son, Frank, began to suffer unexplained seizures, and she and her partner began to disintegrate.  This is the story Bryony presents to us through an intriguing and fascinating set of theatrical devices.

Not content just to talk to the audience, ala Spalding Grey, another performance artist best known for turning life into narrative, Brynony has four small “sets,” initially covered by sheets, around the performance space, and the back wall is black scrim.  One by one she undrapes the small sets, one a kitchen counter with backdrop, another a bed, etc.  She rolls a camera on tripod up to marks before each set, settles into the set, and on with makeup, wigs, etc.  In each she performs a mini-sketch which brings us into her mind for the “morning after the night before” with her new love (kitchen) or the pregnancy and birth (bed).  We can watch her working within the cleverly designed sets, or watch her on the video, projected onto the scrim.  We can enter her story, or observe it, or both.

The most interesting of these small sets is a model of the small cottage and the hill upon which it stands.  Fans of model railroads will recognize the construction materials; Norwegian moss, sawdust drass, etc.  It’s strikingly realistic, and we are brought into it by Bryony wielding a small video camera as she narrates their occupancy of the home, acting it out with small dolls.

I’ve described some of the tools and techniques Kimmings uses, but what I cannot do is describe much of the story, or the more awesome stage effects.  This is due to my respect for the artist’s prerogative that the show not be revealed too much to prospective future audiences.  I will say that it was a deeply moving story, told with unique story telling tools, and bursts with vision from a singular creative mind.  Some day I may post a photo or two, but for now this will do.

Much thanks to a pair of Phoenix; Battersea Arts Centre and Byony Kimmings.

Clouds, Clowns and Oresteia — London 2018

Pawn has come frequently to London in the past decade, spending about six months here in that time.  Along the way, one builds up a list of go-to venues when looking for new, edgy, fringy, performance.  Arcola, Bunker, Menier Chocolate Factory, Pleasance, among them.  Pleasance and Arcola stand out in this list in that they are a regular part of Fringe.  Pleasance have a large and popular venue there every year.  With their Caledonian Express program they are short-circuiting the old six-month process of bringing new work from Fringe to London stage.

For those not familiar with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it’s a loosely organized (one of their founding by-laws is that there are no rules) annual showcase, running for most of the month of August.  It’s become one of the foremost producer’s showcases in Europe, alongside events like ITS Festival (focusing on recent European arts academy grads) and has long been a critical component in bringing new works, performers and troupes to the stages and screens of the world (the popular television show Fleabag, for example, originated as a Fringe production).

With Caledonian Express — so named for Pleasance’s North London venue, off of Caledonian Road — they are now presenting promising Fringe acts just a month or so after the festival.  An act one sees during this phase is not really finished, per se.  A full six month development cycle would lengthen many shows, refine them for a more formal theatre setting, things like that.  In the Fringe, every act must find their own venue, many in tents or other pop-up spaces, with severe limitations of technical aspects, like lighting, sound, video, etc.  And time.  A Fringe piece is an hour long.  That’s tradition.  In many newer “fringe” festivals (outside the Edinburgh original) the rule is 50 or 55 minutes.  To become a full-scale show, suitable for the stages of the world, much work is still needed.

Pleasance are a mainstay in that process, as are many other presenting venues throughout London; Battersea Arts Centre, The Bunker, Arcola, etc.  These venues don’t just provide a space to perform, but they provide mentorship, connections, designers and the friendly surround artists need to make a successful transition to the stage.

Today brought Pawn back to Pleasance for the second time this trip, having seen the Edinburgh hit In Loyal Company here just the other day.  First was a late matinee performance of The Oresteia,  “  is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BC, concerning the murder of Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra, the murder of Clytaemnestra by Orestes, the trial of Orestes, the end of the curse on the House of Atreus and pacification of the Erinyes.” in the words of Wikipedia.  In the hands of Splendid Productions, it’s hip-hop meets vaudeville by way of British music hall.

Three performers, Nuala Maguire, Grace Goulding, & Tanya Muchanyuka each perform multiple roles, starting with the Furies, whose role in the lives of men are marginalized by the events enacted in these three plays.  Given the 60 minute time frame, the stories are severely shortened, as one might expect.  The story telling was fast and furious (no pun intended) as we whipped through the background of all of the various murders, slights, infidelities, patricides, matricides, etc.  Some of this involved a not-so-strong fast-forward/reverse conceit of fake reverse motion.  One hopes that gets worked on, or eliminated.

All in all, most of the piece was strong.  It moved along, had moments of great beauty, and got us involved (quite literally) in the story.  It’s hard to flag individual performances, since the three women so often were acting in unison, but Macguire, as Clytemnestra, was exceptional.  That she had arguably the best part certainly helped.  But, too, she resisted mugging and gave some of the best straight performance of the show.

I saw this show with a handful of regular theatre goers, those one might expect in a late-afternoon (16:30) matinee, and about 150 schoolkids.  The kids were a noisy bunch, but fully engaged by the music-hall aspects of the show, and not the least off put by the history.

Things would be different for A Clown Show About Rain, by Silent Faces.  This small show was performed in the much smaller Downstairs venue, a small thrust space with minimal wings, no flies, and about 40 seats.  Silent Faces is a female clown troupe – a rarity – with a sense of politics and a hopeful, optimistic mein.  This show is a take on depression, but you wouldn’t know it for most of the hour.

The performances are crisp and smooth.  These women know how to share a stage with each other, and with five of them in such a small space, that’s no mean feat.  Most of the time, however, it’s just two or three at a time.  We have three sailors, or are they fisherwomen?, weathering a gale, in their macs, being blown to and fro, fighting over the ship’s wheel, or frantically trying to place buckets under an invisible leak.

Or we have two mates, off fishing, having a light snack and listening to the shipping forecast on the BBC.

These may or may not strike you as funny, or potentially funny, situations, but Silent Faces find the humour.

And slyly, ever so slyly, they start to introduce the issues of mental health which lie at the heart of their work.  We don’t see it at first, it may just be there on the fringe, but it’s there, and it’s devilishly clever.  Given that this is mostly physical theatre, and very well done physical theatre, it’s intrinsically hard to describe.  So I’ll take the coward’s way out and punt on that.  I can tell you that there are moments of great beauty here, and striking pathos.

Watch Your Neighbour, Redux

[This post has been updated both to reflect my evolving thoughts on the performances, and to correct a glaring oversight of description.]

Back in 2008, I wrote about both the prevalence of CCTV camera throughout London, and of the guerilla marketing campaign for the Ausie-import on the telly, Neighbours.  Last night at Menier Chocolate Factory, Pawn attended Pack Of Lies, which, set in the cold-war-heightened intensity of the early 1960s, brought that guerilla marketing campaign’s chief slogan, “Watch Your Neighbours” a quite literal meaning.

It was a savvy bit of genius to revive this play now.  Originally written for a BBC playhouse series in 1971, as Act of Betrayal, when the original events were still fresh in the public mind.  Playwright Hugh Whitemore then adapted it to the stage for its original 1983 run, starring Judi Dench and Michael Williams (real life marrieds).

Highly appropriate in our own times, this story seems ageless.  While we bridle at the thought of spying on our neighbours, we read daily newspaper accounts of Russian agents offing people with poisons, stealing secrets on-line and in-life.  The events of this story could just as easily have transpired today, but by leaving the setting historically accurate (and then some), director Hannah Chissick has chosen to give us a little breathing room, some distance from our own reality.

Based on a true story, action takes place in the northwest London suburb of Ruislip, Middlesex.  The set itself is a near perfect recreation of the classic British two-up/two-down semi-detached homes so common both in London and in the bedroom communities all around England.  Ruislip, itself, is just 5 kilometres from North Harrow, where Pawn was born, at about the time the events recounted in this play were actually playing out.

Pack of Lies — Set

The Portland Spy Ring affair involved a Soviet spy ring gathering intelligence and stealing secrets related to UK & allied (NATO) naval operations and capabilities, and smuggling that out to the KGB, via micro-dots and radio transmissions.  The central figures were businessman Gordon Lonsdale (Canadian), civil clerk Harry Houghton, his moll, Ethel Gee, and others.  Lonsdale was tailed, and observed to make frequent visits to Ruislip, to the home of antiquarian bookseller Peter Kroger and his wife Helen.

MI-5 proceeded to make contact with the neighbours across the street, Bill & Ruth Search, and it was from their first storey window that MI-5 surveilled the Kroger home, and ultimately collected enough evidence to arrest, charge and convict the whole ring.

Agent Stewart talks to Bob & Barbara

Agent Stewart talks to Bob & Barbara in the sitting room

In our play the family is Bob & Barbara Jackson and their daughter Julie, but all of the other names, or, aliases, really, are left as is.  The Krogers, Canadians, are really the Cohens, Americans.  Lonsdale, the Canadian businessman at the center of the ring was, years later, revealed to be Konon Trofimovich Molody, a Russian agent.

The central conflict in the story is that the Jacksons are being asked, if not to “spy” on their neighbours, their best friends, at least to facilitate spying on them, and lie about it, to their friends and their own daughter.  Bob seems ready to accept this; he’s a civil servant himself, bound by secrecy for his work, and is used to submitting to the state on these matters.  Barbara, who admits she has a hard time making friends, just cannot abide that she must lie to Helen.

Barbara and Helen during a dress fitting

Barbara and Helen during a dress fitting

In the moral calculus of the story, the state is to be trusted and the neighbours are not.  That Barbara takes so long to come around to see this almost makes her a Polly-Anna, but is that so healthy a message in a world where it seems our every undertaking is watched, observed, catalogued, accounted for, by someone?  Grocers track our every purchase via our “Club Card” (or the like), Amazon know everything we buy, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter compile vast storehouses of knowledge on us, for sale to the highest bidder.  Cambridge Analytica steal into these storehouses to figure out how to get millions of people to vote against their own self interest, throwing elections for Brexit and US President.  The Russians, not to be left out, stir the pot too, but, at least in the present cases, their targets are email servers instead of submarine plans.  And, amid all of this, one might not be blamed for thinking that our own government is the least of our worries.

Maybe, maybe not.

The most remarkable thing about this production is easily the total verisimilitude achieved in all aspects.  Paul Farnsworth’s set and costumes are stunners!  The flexible Menier space has been configured to support the single set laid out lengthwise along a long wall.  We see the entire ground floor, from the bay windows in front (stage right) past the staircase up, the sitting room, and kitchen, finally the door to the back garden (stage left).  The upstage rooms are fully formed, the downstage rooms represented by their baseboards and door frames.  The furniture is spot on accuracy — the comfy chair, settee, telly, dining table and sideboard all perfect, as is the coat stand in the hall, the kitchen appliances; everything!  Costumes, similarly, are perfect.  Barbara is a home seamstress, and many of the clothes would have been made by her, other than Bob’s suits and the knitwear.  A 1954 Ford Consort sits in the front garden, a proud possession.

The Ford Consort sits out front the home

The Ford Consort sits out front the home

Accents, language, tea ritual, it’s all just right.  Homework was done, and done well.  Not a thing is wrong.

The performances are all quite serviceable, but it must be said that Finty Williams shines as the troubled Barbara.  Her struggle with the competing loyalties to country and friend, her chafing under the constant presence of MI-5 staff, and her effort to persevere and raise her daughter not to lie, are almost too much for her to handle.  Williams makes us ache for her.  Similarly, but with less of a splash, Chris Larkin as Bob brings us a perhaps overused canard of a submissive British husband, ruling over his home while submitting to his wife and cow towing to his superiours.  He delivers this less than complicated character with sufficient realism to bring us along, and he is obviously troubled by the jam his wife is in.  Jasper Britton, as Agent Stewart, seemed to muff a couple of lines, but that may just have been affect.  Otherwise this was a tight ensemble, midway through a six-week run, comfortable in the piece and their roles, but not sloppy comfortable.

All in all, this was a lovely night at theatre, and a potent story for our times, even if it is based on facts nearly 60 years old.