Category Archives: Theatre

God’s Dice

The premier play by David Baddiel, just opened at Soho Theatre, leads with this blurb:

What would happen if someone was able to prove, scientifically, the existence of God?
When Edie, a student in university lecturer Henry Brook’s physics class, seems to do exactly that, his universe – including his marriage to celebrity atheist author Virginia – is rocked.

https://sohotheatre.com/shows/gods-dice/

Hmmm, okay. Buy a ticket.

Alan Davies as Henry and Alexandra Gilbreath as Virginia

The show is not bad, but plays a little fast and loose on the science end of things. Not being religious, I cannot speak to how well it treats that side. Regardless, it is a good yarn. Henry, Alan Davies, is a teacher of sub-atomic physics — quantum mechanics, relativity, string theory, etc. — and Edie, Leila Mimmack, comes up to him after a class to ask him a question about belief. She’s a Christian, a fact she leads with, brandishing an intellectual carapace to ward off what she assumes will be his scientific arrogance against believers. Her question, when she finally gets to it, has to do with why she should believe in the wild assumptions of quantum mechanics rather than the mythology of her religion.

What ensues, then, is a bizarre bit of maths, in which Henry seeks to prove that it would take 2.5 joules of energy for Jesus to produce 100 litres of wine from water. This is a great deal of silliness, in that the entire calculation is based on the assumption that all that wine is is water with some small percentage of alcohol (it’s all chemistry — how much carbon, oxygen, hydrogen) and there’s no mention of tannin or flavour or anything else. This is a thought experiment gone haywire.

But, and this is the real stretch, this demonstration of using maths to prove that a biblical “miracle” might have happened, is enough to launch Henry and Edie into writing a book, God’s Dice, full of such wild calculations and “proofs.” Meanwhile, Henry’s wife Virginia, Alexandra Gilbreath, is a world renowned Atheist, and author of five books skewering religion. While she tries to be supportive of Henry, she is suspicious of Edie’s motives, and can’t help mocking this endeavour.

Ultimately, the book gets published, and during interval a counter on the backdrop shows us how many “followers” it’s gaining on social media. You see, a new religious movement is forming around this book, a “new” religion freed from the old ways, or so we’re told, by Edie, as she takes the helm of this new faith. She insists it isn’t a cult, by the way.

Okay, so Pawn you might be thinking, Why were you even at this show when you seem incredulous of so much of the plot? Well, you know what? It’s a really good play! The script, while venturing into wild misapplications of both science and theology, is well written and compelling. The acting is first rate, especially Alan Davies as Henry and Alexandra Gilbreath as Virginia. Her role has the widest range, as she must swoop from extreme top-of-her-game self confidence (with no small measure of arrogance) to the slouching in a sweatshirt, swilling wine, fearing social media attacks, losing hold of her marriage, professional life collapsing, being heckled during TED Talks reality of the second act. Gilbreath pulls this off with aplomb. Her performance is at once sympathetic and gripping, which is surprising since, at the top of Act I, we didn’t much like her.

The set, by Lucy Osborne, is a marvel of simplicity and effective as hell. What start out as multi-panel white boards, which slide up and down like sash windows, serve as projection surfaces and screens. They are used to great effect through out the show, being played upon by Ric Mountjoy’s able lighting and Ash Woodward’s video.

God’s Dice plays through 30 November 2019 at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean St., Soho. email box1@sohotheatre.com, or call 0207 478 0100

Heroin(e) For Breakfast

Rarely does theatre make Pawn angry, but this piece did. Heroin(e) For Breakfast is winner of the Holden Street Theatre Award, Fringe Review Outstanding Theatre Award, and sold out at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Philip Stokes wrote this in 2009, and this production is a re-staging with updates, tho few were needed, one imagines. Stokes also directed this production.

A festival piece, the stage is simple — a desolate apartment shared by Tommy, Lee Bainbridge, and Chloe, Kristy Anne Green. At curtain we find Tommy slouching on the couch, watching telly and scratching his balls. In saunters Edie, his young (too young) girlfriend, half naked. She walks between him & the telly, raising his ire, before seducing him into a quick shag, which, from the looks of it, neither of them particularly enjoy. Tommy, when he’s not shagging Edie, is spouting off about how great of a revolutionary he is, how misunderstood, how he’s going to change the world, etc.

Part I of why I got angry was the audience. Many smaller venues in London are experimenting with, or have flat-out instituted, so-called Relaxed Performances. In some cases these are specific show times/dates, in other cases it’s all performances. In a relaxed performance, audience are allowed to do all of those things which they’re not allowed to normally. The original intent was to allow autism-spectrum viewers access to traditional theatre in a setting which would not disrupt. Now it basically means Hey, we’re loose.

The Bunker, Battersea Arts Centre, and others have these. All shows at The Bunker are relaxed, and many at BAC. This show was at Pleasance, and wasn’t advertised as Relaxed, but almost as soon as the show started, so did a stream of whistles, cat calls, and other outbursts from some audience members. If that wasn’t disruptive enough, the resultant procession of ushers trying to sush, warn, cajole, these unruly audience, who must have though they were in an Edwardian-era music hall. Finally, after opening a bag of crisps, and proceeding to crunch them, the offenders were banished, entirely or just to the back row is unknown to me.

The show, meanwhile, is descending into further decrepitude. Chloe, Tommy’s roommate and ex, has shown up, and is picking fights with Edie when not complaining about Tommy. Tommy goes off to the store for breakfast goods and heroin. Oh yeah, that. We’ve been warned that this is a show about wasting youth and drugs.

In this case, Heroin(e) is also a person, or appears that way; a large brash blonde struts into the flat and in crass fashion by turns insults and seduces the occupants, until finally, with a vampire’s kiss to their inner elbow, enters them.

Along the way, racial slurs and other epithets are hurled — Paki, the “N” word, slag, whore, towel-head, etc. — without the slightest flinch. These people are horrid and completely uninspiring of compassion. Part II of my anger.

The play ends with a pile of overdosed corpses, and that’s well enough done for me. The programme tells us that King Brilliant Theatre, a producer of this show, “…was founded in anger in the summer of 2018 as a positive platform for working-class actors with the theatre industry. King Brilliant works in engaging with communities and young people in a language they understand and through work they respond and connect to…” Right o.

Pawn continues to enjoy the ready stream of Edinburgh shows coming down to London stages shortly after the festival closes, and will keep coming to the showcase presentations put on by venues like Pleasance, Bunker (soon to close and hopefully pop up elsewhere), The Yard and others. Sometimes, like tonight, what you get can be unpleasant.

Vassa

Maxim Gorky wrote plays from 1901 – 36, seventeen in all, and Vassa Zheleznova started life in 1910, but was not performed until after he rewrote it in 1935, making it, in a sense, the last he wrote.

In the new production at Almeida Theatre, little seems altered from the original, and, in a sense, it doesn’t really need it. Corporate corruption, family infighting, gross inequality, tension between the sexes; what’s so different now from then?

Here’s how Almeida’s website describes Mike Bartlett’s adaptation, directed by Tinuke Craig:

It’s 8am and a revolt is underway.
The father is dying. The son is spying. The wife is cheating. The uncle is stealing. The mother is scheming. The dynasty is crumbling. 
One house. One fortune. One victor. 

https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/vassa/7-oct-2019-23-nov-2019

Spot on! This is a comedy which breaks the rules; there are deaths, and everyone doesn’t end up married in the end. As a matter of fact, few marriages survive in this tale. Pawn has seen a lot of theatre on this trip, and not even had the time to write about it all. I will say that this is a lovely and spirited production. The ensemble is strong, with no particular standouts, other than Siobhán Redmond in the titular role, the family matriarch. She dominates the stage, in a good way, right from the start, and never lets go. Amber James, as daughter Anna, returning to the family homestead just in time to bid her father rest in peace, turns in a nuanced yet powerful performance.

Siobhán Redmond as Vassa

Due to the dual blights of war and alcoholism, Soviet women from the era of the original production were left to run things, by and large, as so many men had been removed from society — via WW-I, the revolution, and drink. So strong female leads is no shock for a Russian play from the era, and it resonates well today.

Sophie Wu, Siobhán Redmond, and Amber James in Vassa

Well designed and presented within Almeida’s cozy little space, this is a crowd pleaser, and it certainly provided a light end to my evening, after the matinee of Death of a Salesman, earlier in the day.

Oh, and the dinner Pawn had in the adjoining Almeida Cafe was lovely. Chicken stew with fresh-baked bread, and a Negroni to sip with it. Delightful!

Vassa plays through 23 November at Almeida Theatre, Islington. Booking information at https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/vassa/7-oct-2019-23-nov-2019

Death Of A Salesman

Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman is certainly an American classic, having been in virtually continuous performance on stages across the country since it’s premier in 1949. A favourite from college theatre programmes to Broadway or regional repertory companies. That the Young Vic chose to produce it for its Off-Westend space on The Cut, in Waterloo, isn’t then a shock. That it chose to do so with a mostly black cast (the entire Loman family, and some others) maybe was. That the Young Vic production, co-directed by Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell, and starring Wendell Pierce as Willie Loman, went on to be a sell out, and transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre, on the West End, is no surprise at all.

It’s just that good.

Joining Pierce in the cast are Sharon Clarke as his long suffering wife Linda (of course, as every wife in a Miller play), Sope Dirisu as son Biff, Natey Jones as younger son Hap, Joseph Mydell as Uncle Ben (a dream device), and Trevor Cooper as Charley, the neighbour; Ian Bonar, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt, Emmanuel Ogunjinmi, Matthew Seadon-Young, Carole Stennett, Nenda Neurer, and Femi Temowo round out the cast, some playing multiple characters.

The set is a lovely piece of spatial trickery. Massive, foreboding walls ring the stage, pierced here and there with passageways, and mostly just sink into the background. Suspended in air, however, are door & window frames, tables, chairs, mirrors, lamps, wall sconces, etc. The entire insides of a home, from the water heater to the window sill; all hang in silence, waiting their turn. There are a couple of set pieces — the fridge, a filing cabinet — which slide on from the wings, but pretty much everything else flies in and out, but never leaves our view, due to the total lack of drapery — the teasers and tormentors of a typical proscenium production.

Somewhat fuzzy view from the second row, before the show.

Not having seen the original Young Vic staging, Pawn cannot state this with certainty, but strongly suggests that these choices by designer Anna Fleischle was based on the more flexible space available there.

No synopsis should be needed for this show. Willie is 63 years old, has been working for the same firm for more than half his life, and has recently lost his salary and now only earns commissions. He’s been feeling shaky lately, having a harder time driving his territory, which takes him from his Yonkers home to the far reaches of New England, selling whatever it is he sells (not important to the story). He’s not been the best of men, but he has to tell himself that he is, it’s part of what a salesman has to do to keep himself going.

Sope Dirisu as Biff, photo by Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Likewise, his boys, Biff and Hap (shortened from Happy, nickname for Harold), the former a football star in school, who blew his chance at a scholarship by failing maths, the latter a fast talking accounts clerk, imagining himself heading his department by years end.

Wendell Pierce as Willie Loman, photo by Brinkhoff Mogenburg

The essential conflict in this story is between Willie’s overly high expectations for Biff, and Biff’s struggle against an unspoken scar left from some event fifteen years past. I shan’t ruin that, for those unfamiliar with the story, but I will say that as gifted as Wendell Pierce is in his portrayal of WIllie, it is Sope Dirisu’s turn as Biff which brings down the house. His performance is one for the ages. Not to take anything away from any in this all star cast.

Cooper, as Charley, provides both a comedic and observant counterweight to Loman’s overwrought angst and hyperbolic outbursts. His performance as even as his character’s patience and affection for the voluble Loman. Clarke’s Linda is the other counterweight, on the domestic front, always abiding her husband’s outbursts and suffering with him in his silent descent into whatever is gripping at his soul. Her final scene is sure to bring tears to many eyes, a fact proved by the people in the row ahead of me digging for tissues in their purses.

By the end of the play, the stage pieces (above), have been flown to the height they would rest at in the real house, creating the illusion of a physical first storey where no floor exists. It is a fitting metaphor for a home (final payment made just as the final denouement occurs) which looks solid while melting into air (to paraphrase Karl Marx).

Oh, and that bit about race? That thing where the Loman family, and some secondary characters are black, not white as in the original? What does that matter? Ultimately, it means nothing. Some may well seek and find racial allegory in this choice, but Pawn feels that it just doesn’t matter, and that that is the point of the casting choice. Or it could be.

During interval, a discussion with an older couple seated just down the row found them asking whether Pawn felt it mattered, not being as familiar with American race relations as they are with British. They were genuinely curious, and it lead to an interesting discussion. My main thought, at the midway point of the show, was that more theatres should pursue this casting so both to provide more meaty roles to actors of colour and the make manifest that, underneath such differences, we are all the same. A father’s dreams for his sons is a fierce driver.

Pawn loved this show. That it ran three hours (with 15 minute interval) puts it at the edge of most modern productions, but it was well worth it. Heavy for a matinee? Yes, but still well worth it.

Death of a Salesman runs from 24 October at the Piccadilly Theatre. Booking information at https://www.youngvic.org/perfs/2276

The Lovely Bones

When the email from Hackney Empire first arrived, back in September, announcing a new adaptation of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, I didn’t know what to think of it. I’ve not read the book, but was well aware of it. After some thought I booked a single in stalls for Friday night’s performance, and am now well glad that I did.

This production, by Birmingham Repertory Theatre, uses an adaptation by Bryony Lavery, and is directed by Melly Still. Starring Charlotte Beaumont as Susie, with a dozen other cast members, it’s a big show. The staging, by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita, set & costume, and Matt Haskins, lighting designer, is absolutely brilliant, and easily puts Bones into the same camp as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as far as visual innovation.

One thing which is almost immediately striking about this piece is how sparse the stage is. Even before the show begins, we see a mostly bare stage, with a row of corn stalks far upstage, and a wooden swivel chair. That’s all. Above the stage, however, starting just above the row of corn, and extending high into the fly gallery, is a Mylar mirror, providing a clear over-head view of the stage, from our perspective in the audience (one wonders how well this plays in circle and balcony seats?).

The Lovely Bones, photo by Pamela Raith for The Hackney Citizen

As the action begins, we first see a woman start to pour from a bag of salt, a thin line, in a large rectangle, around the centre of the stage. In that centre is Susie, who is recounting for us the story of how she was lured by her neighbour, Mr Harvey, into a newly dug bunker. Once there, he rapes and murders her. She is telling us all of this as if a bad memory, this teenage girl, for she is dead, she knows she is dead, and as the woman completes the rectangle, Susie faces her new reality; that her new “heaven” is circumscribed by this line on the floor around her.

The woman who has poured out this salt is Franny (Avita Jay), Susie’s “intake counselor” in heaven. Franny explains the rules of this heaven to Susie — The line on the floor surrounding Susie is the limits of her “heaven” and she cannot go past it — who immediately tries to break out and go back to real life. She fails, but does succeed, from time to time in these attempts, in “touching” someone from her life — her father Jack (Jack Sandle), her classmate Ruth (Leigh Lothian) — and planting a connection which may lead them to important information or influence.

So for most of the show not only is Beaumont on stage, but confined to this small part of it, unable to hide upstage, let alone exit into the wings. Kudos to her, then, for not just a brilliant, compelling performance (and totally believable as a teenage girl), but for her endurance and ability to remain on stage, not drawing focus, for those sections in which Susie isn’t the focus.

The cast is large, and multi-cast, so there are even more characters than cast members. Those paying double roles do so deftly, especially Samuel Gosrani as both Ray, Susie’s boyfriend, and Holiday, the family dog. This last bit involves the use a a “cone of shame” collar, as used by vets to keep dogs from picking at wounds, as a signifier of Holiday’s dog-hood. It’s a simple yet brilliant piece of costuming, letting the audience see the dog, yet not trying to convince us some fur suit is dog-like enough.

I shan’t recite the entire plot here; the story is well known. And, as I haven’t read the book, I cannot speak to how accurately the play tracks it (or the film, for that matter). What I can tell you is that the script propels the story forward, turning it into both a detective story, which we see from the victim’s eyes, knowing the perpetrator from the get-go, and a story of loss and love, of affections missed, and of the inevitable progress of the lives of others in our absence.

Jack, Susie’s father, is stuck; he can’t move past her death, and his conviction that Harvey is guilty. Abigail, mother, is bereft, not just of her daughter, but her husband too. She turns to the lead detective, Fenerman (Huw Parmenter), himself a widower, for comfort. Lindsey, sister, keeps growing up, starts a romance, goes to college, and settles down. The list goes on, as people move through their lives, seemingly teasing Susie, who doesn’t even get a change of wardrobe as they gain years.

Some casting is confusing at times. Color blind is so common these days as to be expected, but gender blind can leave one unsure who is who, and this is at times the case with the choice to have a woman, Leigh Lothian, play both Ruth, Susie’s artistic friend, and Buckley, her little brother. Especially as Buckley progresses in life, it is sometimes hard to track just who is who. Otherwise, none of the casting caused trouble, and the multi-role casting did allow for a wealth of characters without breaking the bank.

Story telling is what drives this piece, and here, again, the set lends a huge hand. That angled mirror mentioned earlier is also not fully silvered, so action on small sets, behind the mirror, shine through when lit properly. This allows for many layers of set to be in play at once, as Susie tells a bit of story, for example, a room lights up behind and above her, showing Mr Harvey working on a dolls house, his hobby. This is used to wonderful effect at several points through out the show, to augment to available spaces on the main stage, and is of tremendous effect to draw our gaze off of the stage floor, and create a more complete heaven/earth scenario.

The audience loved it. This is the fastest standing ovation I’ve seen on this trip. The Brits are more sparing about standing Os than American audiences, at least off the West End, where, alas, automatic ovations are becoming more common. This ovation was spontaneous, and well earned. This is a scrappy cast in a scrappy production which punches above its weight class and wins. Pawn won’t be surprised to hear someday that this show moves to the West End, or ends up on Broadway.

The Lovely Bones completed it’s brief run at Hackney Empire on 1 November 2019. This review was of the final performance of the run.

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.

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

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.