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Saturday, 11 September 2021

REVIEW: The System by the Original Theatre Company

Original Theatre are leading the way in the UK with fresh original hybrid shows that combine the danger of live theatre and the intimacy of the film media with new streamed productions available to Global audiences. The latest offering is an extraordinary 70-minute single shot unedited Steadicam capture of a fascinating one actor play written and performed by Emily Head. It's her debut script and is cleverly constructed and an ideal vehicle for the recording technique used.

The System we may believe is a criticism of the police and legal process that some sections of society rail against but as we learn from this fascinating play it is a name given to something much more difficult to understand and manage which this play engagingly and carefully pulls us into. The camera becomes the point of view police interviewer, DC Hardstaff, for a succession of suspects or witnesses who we meet across the interview table to a murder of Paul at a party in his house. But we jump from character to character in a disorientating fashion with sound effects, flashing lights or changes in camera angle signalling the change.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

REVIEW: Touching the Void at the Bristol Old Vic (Online)

Having seen Touching the Void at the Duke of York Theatre in November 2019, I was intrigued by how it would translate to the small screen in Bristol Old Vic’s live broadcast from their stage with a live vision mix and an audience in the 250-year-old Theatre. Director Tom Morris introduced the show and welcomed viewers from across the world and warned if anything goes wrong, they intended to stop the show in what he called an “experimental and exciting” evening. He should have had no such fears as the show works well on screen, indeed the second half is actually improved by the capture through multiple cameras.

It is curious that a story can be so dramatic when we already know the outcome going into the show. This is a tale of epic real-life human endeavour in a life-or-death situation as a climber, Joe Simpson, desperately attempts to survive on the remote Siula Grande mountain in the Andes with a minimum of supplies and a broken leg. It has already been a book and a film (2003), so it presents Director Tom Morris with a challenge to keep us gripped and engaged. There are plenty of very creative and imaginative ideas and designer Ti Green brings the tale to life and enables the explanation of the motivation for climbing Alpine style to be illustrated and dramatic in a clever theatrical way.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

REVIEW: From Me To Us at the N.I.A.M.O.S Radical Arts & Cultural Centre in Manchester, presented by Battersea Arts Centre (Online)

The choice to become a parent, for many, is a logical step at some point in a person's life. Whether you are in a committed relationship or single the desire to start a family comes from a primal place. Culturally, we have been conditioned to believe a future with children in it is largely reserved for those in a heterosexual relationship. Either naturally or by other means there is and has been for a long time obtainable options to make this calling a reality for those in this perceived norm. However, If you find yourself in a position where you are single or in a same-sex partnership, biologically your options become far more limited and until very recently the law has stood in the way as an added barrier. 

Performed and written by Wayne Steven Jackson, From Me to Us is the autobiographical tale of a single, homosexual male on the road to becoming a parent despite growing up in a world that told him he had less right to be one than others. In the wake of a shift in the UK law to make single father surrogacy a possibility, It is a one-man show written as an intimate letter to a future child conjured up from what had always been “an impossible story…” and is now a realistic dream.

Performed and filmed at the N.I.A.M.O.S Radical Arts and Cultural Centre in Manchester and presented and streamed online through Battersea Arts Centre, From Me to Us opens to an orderly and simple set consisting of not much more than a single table and chair, black typewriter and clothes rail with six hanging shirts. It is a modest and vulnerable setting made even more so by the pacing and earnest Jackson. It is a space waiting for a child not yet borne but already deeply loved, where time passes and plans can be made. 

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

REVIEW: Money at the Southwark Playhouse (Online)

In lockdown, we have all got used to logging on to zoom calls for meetings and experienced the difference between these virtual meetings and real face to face ones especially when it comes to difficult decisions. Isla Van Tricht uses this situation to craft a very well written debate about the ethics behind a funding decision of a small local charity. It has the feel of a cross between the real-life Jackie Weaver's Handsworth Council zoom meeting and the Kids Company Charity that spectacularly ceased operations in 2015. 

The zoom call is the Trustees meeting of the Nyoni Youth and Community Project, a small local charity supporting young people, breaking down discrimination and cycles of destructive behaviour. Their rather clumsy motto is "Lift others up, so they can lift others up". As in so many real-life charities, fundraising has been curtailed by Lockdown, NYCP is short of cash when the Anders Corporation Foundation offers a transformational size donation of £1 million, five times the normal annual expenditure. Taking the money, it seems, is a no brainer decision as it will allow the Charity to expand to the next level, but does it matter where the money came from or how it was secured as a donation or what the donor might expect in return for the cash? 

REVIEW: Blonde - the Musical by the Kristian Thomas Company

Blonde is a thoroughly captivating biography of Marilyn Monroe, detailing her background and career with admirable clarity. The show both opens and closes with a drum roll and an announcement by an MC. These shades of Cabaret invite us to compare Marilyn with another gifted but vulnerable star, the fictional Sally Bowles.

Verity Power is set a big challenge by having to come on cold and sing Happy Birthday Mr President. It’s such a well-known moment, but she carries it off superbly and we immediately feel confident in her version of Marilyn.

The many other famous names in Marilyn’s story are heftily signposted (“Joe DiMaggio – the greatest baseball player in the world!”), so we’re never left guessing who is who.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

REVIEW: Distance Remaining presented by Helen Milne Productions

It has been fascinating to see how producers have responded to lockdown closing their theatres as they embrace storytelling in an online world. Do you retain the theatricality of live performance in a venue, do you embrace the streamed world with its social media and Zoom or do you create cinematic stories? Helen Milne Productions opts to combine all three approaches in her interesting exploration of isolation and loneliness which is amplified by lockdown. The resulting three separate stories which could so easily have turned dark and depressing as the lost souls’ grapple with their demons but thankfully chooses to end in uplifting mode, reflecting the hope that the lifting of restrictions gives us all.

The first story is Rug Rat which finds Jess played by Dolina MacLennan having fallen at home in her flat and struggling to lift herself up to reach her phone on the table while Zak rings after release from prison. It captures the isolation of being shut in a flat in a dodgy neighbourhood where the only contact with the outside is the sound of the postman at the door and banging on the floor to attract attention. Her slow crawl to escape captured in multiple camera angles is painful to watch and you fear she will not make it and die alone. I was not completely convinced about Jess’s injuries but it beautifully captured both the tenacity and fragility of being old and alone.


REVIEW: Seder by Adam Kammerling for the Living Roots Festival

The Living Record Festival was an eclectic mix of content available earlier this year which was interesting and intriguing, and I would say something for everyone in the offer. Some of those pieces like the excellent Finney’s Ghost are still available on the Living Record Productions website and later in May, they will be hosting content for the Brighton Fringe Festival. It is a lucky dip with a wide range of topics, production styles and performers. My latest dip into the offer was Adam Kammerling’s twenty-two-minute piece called Seder. He is promoted as a poet and artist examining intergenerational trauma and celebrating the rituals we make for connection. It asks how history connects us, and considers, through the annual Jewish custom of the Seder, how all of us can celebrate our survival.

I knew nothing about the Jewish Passover ritual feast marking the first and often second night of the Passover, which began on 27th March this year in which families gather around the table to retell stories of liberation of Israelites from slavery in Egypt as told in Exodus. Kommerling uses the event and the table setting in his home as the springboard for a series of short poems and recollections accompanied by Antosh Wojeck on the drums and Bellatrix on strings and vocals which are used to underscore his words or provide strange musical interludes.

REVIEW: An Elephant in the Garden by Poonamallee Productions with the Barn Theatre and the Exeter Northcott Theatre

The Barn Theatre in Cirencester has been one of the successes of Lockdown with a string of interesting and well-produced shows from their venue. An Elephant in the Garden, which was filmed at the Barn Theatre during the third national lockdown was produced with Poonamallee Productions in association with the Exeter Northcott Theatre. Although it does not quite reach the creative and innovative heights of some of their earlier shows but it is a well-produced storytelling monologue.

Based on a book by Michael Morpurgo it is designed as if performed in a simple circus ring in November 1989 as the Berlin Wall comes down by Alison Reid as Lizzie who creates all the characters herself. She tells the story of her escape with her mother from Dresden as it is bombed by the Allies and they become refugees heading West in 1945.What makes the story different is that her mother brings a four-year-old elephant, Marlene, home from the zoo to avoid it being put down and it becomes part of the escape. Sadly, the creative team have opted for an Elephant shaped broken wall at the back of the stage and Lizzie’s stomping action to create the animal rather than a form of puppetry. A War Horse like creation would have added more interest and depth to the storytelling.

REVIEW: Saving Britney: Prologue at the Old Red Lion Theatre (Online)

As theatres are required to remain shut until 17th May, the smarter producers are using the time to create Online streamed content and Fake Escape, in association with the Old Red Lion Online, have cleverly used the time to create a prologue to their production which opens at the theatre in Islington on May 18th and runs to 26 June. Saving Britney-the Prologue is a fifty-minute prequel to the show they plan to reopen the upstairs pub venue. 

Both the prologue and the show are written and performed by a talented young actress Shereen Roushbaiani and directed by her co-author David Shopland and have been captured by Charles Flint. They envisage that we are watching a Facebook live stream by Jean Mathieson the moderator of the Britney Spears UK Facebook Group and therefore there is an assumption that we know a lot about this troubled pop star. Jean has been a fan for years and has created a timeline over the last 20 years since she was 14 of the messages behind Britney’s songs. Having not even seen the New York Times Documentary “Freeing Britney Spears” my knowledge of the background was from fragments of media stories that have followed her since she became a star.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

REVIEW: Snow White by Anton Benson Productions (Online)

Pantomime has always been a local event with families supporting their local venue each year with familiar actors returning and playing different characters “this year”. The Pandemic has temporarily changed this relationship with audiences, and it is fascinating to see how producers brave enough to put their shows online in streamed shows have adapted to the new environment. It also means it is more competitive and audiences at home can select from a range of shows and compare them without travelling. Anton Benson is an experienced producer and following his Christmas production of Once upon a Pantomime with a host of star names crammed into the show, he has returned at Easter with a simpler live stream of Snow White captured on the stage and largely directed as if the audience is present in the auditorium. The result at times with inconsistent sound and poorly illuminated areas of the stage feels a bit like watching a technical rehearsal where the hard-working cast miss the ability to feed off the audience reaction. The added audience applause and cheers sound effect simply emphasise what is missing.

Basil Brush as the Henchman is the standout star of the show, benefiting from close-ups not possible in a live show which sometimes leave the large box from which he appears out of shot. His amiable personality and silly puns were developed on TV and easily translate into the streamed medium in a way not possible when he is wheeled on and off in a live show. The tongue twister recipe sketch is neatly and effectively done.

REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland at the Motherwell Theatre (Online)

Motherwell Theatre, in association with Starbright Entertainments, regularly produce an Easter pantomime so this year they are forced to deliver their latest one in a streamed version into our homes. This has the huge advantage of making it available to a much wider audience rather than just their local Scottish one. The result is a fresh slick eighty-minute retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It is a technically very good-looking show, well-lit and costumed with a high-quality clear video and audio track.

Written and directed by Phil Norton with additional material by local Motherwell Panto legend Ian ‘Sheepie’ Smith who also plays the White Rabbit it is a combination of straightforward storytelling of the classic story combined with some very familiar pantomime routines and a sprinkling of magic. In the absence of a live audience, they imagine the responses from the virtual audience while addressing them straight down the camera. Sheepie’s comic face and energy engage the remote audience well and you almost believe he can hear the responses!

REVIEW: Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal St Helens (Online)

Jane Joseph and Chantelle Nolan, the mother and daughter team who run the Theatre Royal St Helens set the tone in their charming preshow chat reflecting on the Christmas Pantomime which was cut six shows short by the Lockdown. You sense the pride they take in their venue and the productions. We are told that the sets and costumes are all new and they look very good in the bright colours in the tradition of pantomime. Indeed, it is the combined creative talent behind this show that makes it a polished and enjoyable ninety minutes.

Directed by Chantelle Nolan herself with a script by the comic lead Simple Simon, Reece Sibbald, they tell the traditional story of Jack and the Beanstalk with a good balance of well-executed comedy routines and a great music selection. The Music Supervisor is Callum Clarke, and the choices allow some excellent dance routines by Choreographer Nazene Langfield with the leads and a chorus of four girls and two boys. As a result, the well-paced show has many highlights.

Friday, 2 April 2021

REVIEW: Now or Never at the Barn Theatre (Online)

The creative team at The Barn Theatre in Cirencester who produced the brilliant modern reimagining of the Oscar Wilde story of The Picture of Dorian Gray have again shown their innovative approach to the challenge of Lockdown and streamed content with this new musical work, Now or Never. Described as a nonstop one-shot song cycle, the 38-minute video does what it says but does it in a technically wonderful way that just has to be admired. 

The seven songs are written by Matthew Harvey who also plays one of the seven characters we meet as the camera sweeps around the Barn venue. Every song is a delight with a different message, tone and style reflecting each character’s response to the news that a solar flare will hit earth in seven days threatening extinction. What would you do as the news breaks and a cacophony of news and speculation hits the airwaves? 

Freddie Tapner (of the wonderful London Musical Theatre Orchestra) is the Musical Supervisor and brings his love of musical theatre and infectious energy to the cast. The Director of Photography Benjamin Collins (Barn Theatre Media director) and Sound Designer, Harry Smith (Barn Theatre) capture the whole sequence exquisitely with delicately arranged lighting perfectly illuminating the characters as we meet them and capturing the vocals perfectly. Ryan Carter effectively stages and directs the piece as a seamless response to the News Report.

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

REVIEW: Chronic Insanity's Flavour Text (Online)

Read the comments! Something I steer well clear of these days, however, Flavour Text, Chronic Insanity’s latest instalment of their ambitious year-long digitally-focused project 12 plays in 12 months, mandates that you take the plunge and do just that. Your reward will be falling into a vortex of carefully curated dark corners of the web on a unique, virtual journey to uncover the truth about why your favourite Italian restaurant is closed!

The Nottingham company aim to tell stories about digital worlds that are becoming increasingly important in our lives. Launched on March 29th, Flavour Text is described as an internet-wide narrative treasure hunt written by Megan Gates, Charlotte Holder, Ruth Mestle, Harry Smith and Sophie Whitebrook with design and direction from Joe Strickland. As stated above, it begins with finding out that your favourite Italian restaurant has closed and somehow ends up making you complicit in a web of lies, government cover-ups and the story behind a series of missing persons via the convention of falling into an internet rabbit hole.

REVIEW: GHBoy at the Charing Cross Theatre (Online)

GHBoy was originally due to play over the Christmas period at the Charing Cross Theatre in London, but sadly due to another wonderful lockdown (I say that with the greatest sarcasm), it had to close on the 16th of December, cutting this wonderful production short. Filming this on 15th the team for GHBoy did a wonderful job getting it all filmed and released this on 1st March to be streamed. So first off a fantastic job getting this together and finding a way to keep this story being told!

Paul Harvard delicately delves into dark topics by writing GHBoy as a response to a chilling true story of the Grindr Killer, who killed four men and raped many more people whilst they were under the influence. It’s not the easiest of topics to address, but without going too dark this production addresses the aftermath that one of this Killer’s rape victims experiences, battling self-sabotage, addiction and hoping he’ll break the cycle of infidelity. 

Sunday, 28 March 2021

REVIEW: Scaramouche Jones or The Seven White Masks, Online at Stream.Theatre

On the evening of December 31, 1999, we are invited into a dressing room of the ageing clown Scaramouche Jones. Born on this very day in 1899 at midnight, on the brink of his 100th birthday, he recounts his life story full of tall tales that stretch across the globe. From the time he was born to his gypsy prostitute mother in Trinidad, to his time on the high seas and enslavement, dalliance with Italian royalty and sobering experience in the concentration camps of Europe, his story is one stained by the turbulent 20th century. Being a peculiarly white-faced boy, he is also condemned to the life of a misfit from the start in a time where stability rarely exists. It takes 50 years to make the clown and 50 years to play the clown.

Available to stream on Stream.Theatre until April 1, this latest digital production of the one-man show written by Justin Butcher and directed by Ian Talbot is an immersive and spellbinding storytelling experience. Following in the footsteps of the late great Pete Postlethwaite who made the role famous, Shane Richie (EastEnders; The Entertainer; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here), stars as the titular character and takes complete ownership of it with all the innocence, pathos and tragedy required. Butcher’s lyrical prose dances effortlessly through Richie while the simplicity and restraint of Talbot’s direction and the production design by Andrew Exeter create an intimate portal into a century uncertain in every way.

REVIEW: Inside at Orange Tree Theatre (Online)

After one whole year, yes you read that right, of the Orange Tree Theatre being closed due to the pandemic they have re-opened with a pool of new plays, written by a handful of fairly new writers, pooled into two different nights; Inside/Outside. The show I watched was ‘Inside’. Three different plays revolved around the stories of the elderly women and the things they have encountered during a pandemic.

The first show was ‘Guidesky And I’ by Deborah Bruce, a one-woman show, that highlights the loneliness of an elderly woman and her connection to a scammer online. 

Samantha Spiro manages to keep the pace of the show inviting me into the characters personal life, as we watch the daily conversations we all have with ourselves when we imagine no-one is watching us.

REVIEW: Trestle, presented by the Maltings Theatre in St Albans

The Director Matthew Parker was due to stage this play at the Maltings Theatre in November 2020 but Covid 19 delayed it so that it became this streamed version from the venue. Like him, I saw Trestle at Southwark Playhouse in its world premiere in November 2017 and enjoyed Stewart Pringle's play which won the Papatango new writing prize. The play explores how an older generation choose to live their lives through the developing relationship between Harry and Denise as they meet each week in the changeover from one use of the Yorkshire Village Hall to the next over twenty-one episodic scenes. 

It becomes a sort of Groundhog Day experience as each of the first twenty scenes explores the relationship at the weekly changeover of the Billingham Improvement Committee which Harry chairs and the middle-aged Zumba class which Denise leads. We never meet the rest of the committee or the class attendees and therefore the action is restricted to the five minutes or so between bookings and the removal of the trestle table used by the committee. In each scene, we learn a little more about their lives outside the village hall. 

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

REVIEW: Celebrating Sondheim at the Chichester Festival Theatre (Online)

Chichester Festival staged this celebration of the music of Stephen Sondheim last November in front of a socially distanced audience, just before another lockdown was announced and streamed it live to those who booked in advance. If you missed it, this encore is a chance to enjoy a selection of songs from shows that the cast have been in or wished they had been in. It is essential viewing for any Sondheim fan.

Our first encounter with his music was in the fabulous Side by Side by Sondheim in May 1976 at the Wyndham Theatre with Julia McKenzie, Millicent Martin, David Keenan and Ned Sherrin in a revue-style show and of course, many shows have been added to his catalogue since then. Daniel Evans has assembled a modern-day equivalent of this talent for his concert and half a dozen of the songs from Side by Side survive the passing 45 years although disappointingly there is nothing from Gypsy, West Side Story or A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. 

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

REVIEW: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Online)

The 12 months of Lockdown has forced the more inventive producers and directors to reinvent their creative processes to continue to reach their audiences who are unable to attend their favourite venues for a live performance. Five regional venues led by the team at The Barn Theatre in Cirencester have coproduced this modern reimagining of the Oscar Wilde story of The Picture of Dorian Gray in conjunction with nineteen regional partner venues to promote to their audiences’ bases. The resulting ninety-five-minute film is an extraordinary disturbing modern retelling of the story of obsessive desire for beauty and sensual fulfilment. 

Henry Filloux-Bennett, the artistic director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, has written the production taking the core characters from the original book and placing them in the social media world on 2020/21. Dorian Gray becomes a second-year university student Vlogger obsessively trying to build subscribers. The artist Basil Hallward becomes a married developer and part-time photographer, usually represented as an avatar on a youtube channel, acting as a social media avenger discussing anxiety, stress and depression. Lord Henry Wotton becomes the self-obsessed Harry being interviewed and reflecting on his relationship with Dorian. The actress Sibyl Vane becomes an eighteen-year-old actress creating Shakespearean videos for her @sibvane2000 channel. When she gets a big break to appear with RSC stars on stage, she dries mid-speech with dramatic consequences.
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