The Believers Review

The Believers – Curve, Leicester

29th March 2014

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In many ways, this is all the things you’d expect from a Frantic Assembly piece of theatre – thought provoking, visually stunning with impressive physicality. Of course it was all those things.

The latest offering, a dark thriller about a couple (Goff and Marianne) who takes refuge in their neighbours (Ollie and Maud) house because their house is flooding is littered with high-quality theatricality; it’s the beautiful dimension created between the raw comedy amongst two diametrically-opposed couples in pressurised social situations compared with the then high-intensity crisis moments of the storyline.

Written by playwright Bryony Lavery, and not for the first time for Frantic, the storyline demands a brave telling – actors able to perform as recklessly as they are controlled, especially for a physical storytelling as you’d expect of Frantic. This is particularly noteworthy when a scene requires both couples to perform horizontally from harnesses in order to provide a birds-eye view perspective for the audience.

And perspective is key throughout the whole performance. Ollie and Maud are believers: in God, in prayer, in bigger powers. Goff and Marianne, on the other hand, are practical, sceptical and fun loving. They both obviously hold completely different perspectives on life: on relationships, on parenthood, on drugs, on everything. The set, by Jon Bausor, has created the perfect optical illusion on stage with numerous angular lines of strip lighting, a floating wooden door at the top, and a metal frame employed as apparatus for a number of scenes. The children are never seen or heard on stage; Ollie and Maud’s Joyous, apparently very well behaved, and Goff and Marianne’s nightmare of a child, Grace, play upstairs with very little interruption. However, everything is soon turned on its head in the middle of the night – although we anticipate this from the opening emotions, disaster strikes and Joyous and Grace were not playing nicely at all. The sound and light design here is traumatic, dis-orientating and punchy. The audience can now piece together a mixture of previous scenes; of Goff and Marianne questioning the whole evening, of the copious amounts of wine and a few spliffs consumed, of prayers, of all the different worldviews.

But there are no answers. There are no solutions. Both couples are utterly broken and Frantic make no apologies, nor should they. There are not always room for answers or solutions, most of the time, they are desperately accommodated and never arrive. In this way, the most haunting thing of this production is that is so much more than a dark thriller with elements of dark comedy. This could actually be a reality – a flood, an awkward evening, a disaster, the loss of a child.

The Believer’s, as expected with Frantic Assembly and a highly talented production team and cast, did not disappoint. But what’s important is that Frantic and company continue to take risks, continue to ask difficult questions and continue to deliver impeccable performances where neither text nor performance, writing nor acting is compromised at the expense of the other.

My Judy Garland Life Review

My Judy Garland Life Review

Wed 5th February, Nottingham Playhouse. Adapted by Amanda Whittington.

Of the mind-blowingly good productions I have seen in big cities, (I’m talking mostly about London), I still seem to have an unshakable faith in regional theatre. That’s not always an easy faith to have. There have been a good number of occasions that I’ve walked out of the regional theatre like a disappointed football fan, wishing I’d been more of a glory supporter. I’m not going to over generalise, but I’ve certainly been sorely unsatisfied by the type of theatre – not necessarily by lack of quality but by range and mostly a lack of risk-taking – at local, regional theatres.

My Judy Garland Life, a story about a Judy Garland super fan who presents her fantasised meetings with the Hollywood star throughout her life, is adapted from Susie Boyt’s novel by the Nottingham playwright Amanda Whittington. This was not one of those disappointing evenings. I wanted to be on Nottingham Playhouse’s football team. And I would not have personally chosen to watch this show. I, and probably many in the audience (perhaps the majority), was not nearly old enough to have idolised or even properly known the story of Judy Garland besides the basics. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if this show becomes a favourite in the heart of theatre fans and newbies alike.

The cast are relentlessly up for a good time and clearly enjoy themselves, which on this feel-good occasion becomes part of the experience. I’m almost embarrassed to admit I wished it really were Judy Garland alive once more for a one night only performance, only in Nottingham. Sally Ann Tripplett is an extraordinary Judy Garland and brought so much more than a caricature to the part. Unavoidably understated next to Judy Garland (how could you not be?), Susie played by Faye Elvin performed with buckets of dignified, classy enthusiasm for a young actress. The on-stage band ensemble, imaginatively but thankfully, subtly enough, were characterised around the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin man. At first, I wasn’t keen, I’m not always a fan of obvious stage devices but I was won over fairly quickly and prove themselves far more than mere devices, but as hugely versatile actors and musicians. On the other hand, as much as I tried to enjoy the talking heads of local residents and school children, I’m not convinced they added what the playwright might have intended them to, though it is probably part of a much bigger discussion about the relationship between reality and make-believe.

The set is very special and pretty impressive if I’m honest. Not to mention, all designed, created and painted in Nottingham Playhouse’s own workshop. It is stunningly utilised as each iconic song and dance is rolled out, ingeniously crafted into the script without any clunk, just a harmony between deep content and delightful performance.

The more I reflect on it, the more I admire the show. Not only does it excel beyond my personal taste and personal interests, it is a great example of how feel-good is not always so bad for the fussy, demanding theatregoer. A talented cast and playwright (especially one as good as Whittington) are critical here of course, but there is something about this play that appeals to any age or style. Yes it is camp, emotionally charged and sickly feel-good, but the layers of identity, reputation and ambition that are exposed and expressed at every turn creates a poignant piece of theatre, much bigger. No matter how glittery it is, it unexpectantly made me think and feel more than anything else has for a while.

Great Gatsby (2013) Film Review

The Great Gatsby film was long awaited before its eventual release earlier in May 2013. I’m late to actually write this review but since recieving the DVD for Christmas, I couldn’t resist writing up what I thought all those months ago.

For a story as glamorous as it is fateful, set in the Golden Age of New York, it needs a director known for extravagant and vivid styles, a healthy habit of modernising classics and inspirations of excessive styles such as opera and Bollywood films. This film has Baz Luhrmann written all over it.

The film narrative stays surprisingly close to all the important events and symbols in the novel. I’d say the biggest difference in the film is the effect of the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway. The thing about the book is the intentional bore of a narrator in Carraway, this nature of his personality comes through but the real narrator here is Luhrmann’s camera and sensory imagination. In this way the film is probably a lot more accessible to those who can’t get past the long, tedious chapters of the book (the first chapter is especially long unfortunately!). It’s actually a very clever use of narration through Carraway though, so I just hope Luhman’s extravagant film doesn’t mean people miss the tragic subtext . One of fickleness and identity crisis within the rich Americans of New York.

Being an artist who doesn’t do things by half, just like Gatsby himself, Luhrmann’s direction does succeed in representing the message of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. The camera shots either change so quickly its uncomfortable, or they pause and sweep for so long it’s frustrating. It creates the feeling of nausea or obsession. Similar experiences are created in the detailed language of the book.

In a story about the fickle construction and representation of the rich American identity, Luhrmann’s style, though sometimes garish and sickly, is deeply appropriate. Whilst remaining sharp and in high definition, many scenes look like they are stuck in a number of different art forms; montage scenes, a vogue magazine, an old, optimistic Western painting, an animation. On a number of occasions, there is a stark contrast between what’s in the room and the world outside. Again, all of these are such an appropriate depiction of the American psyche; one of construction, imagination, optimism, myth and reality, fantasy and dreams.

The acting is of quality, largely thanks to the characterisation of the book. Most characters being intentionally dull, boring, annoying or flat could have been a challenge for the actors but all of them live up to it and manage to shine alongside the elusive character, Gatsby. Di Caprio, of course, shines the brightest. It seems he is on top of his career if his last films are anything to go by. There is something about his portrayal of Gatsby though. Yes charming and elusive, but something else; a creepy eccentric, a percuilar oddball sort of a guy. Something which I read about less in the book, but which I think the film and especially Di Caprio embodies. He adds this new layer to Gatsby, almost like Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka interpretation. You might see what I mean in the scene he orchestrates the tea date with Daisy at Nick’s house.

I wouldn’t say I calculated my expectations of the film in too much detail, I never do that. But knowing it was in Baz Luhrmann’s hands, it was the vivid concoction I expected, and then some more. With the incredible soundtrack committed to contemporary artists, the excess, variety and intensity worked out in every scene and some of my favourite actors playing characters with all the fickleness, farce and fun created in Fitzgerald’s original, Luhrmann has created another winning film. His obsessions and intricacies are endless but it’s quite clear that a story and a character like Gatsby was always going to be his bag for a modern classic. I’m just happy he didn’t fail to use his style to reinforce Fitzgerald’s important message of desire and destruction in the development of the modern American identity.

Midsummer Night’s Dream Review

The seasons alter…

The spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which.

(Titania – A Misummer Night’s Dream, 2.1.92-99)

The days are slowly getting lighter and the weather is desperately trying to get warmer. One way or another, we’re starting to realise that spring is on its way but it’s just still too cold to properly welcome it back yet. There is that mid-season mystery in the air and what an apt time it is for LSU Shakespeare society’s production of the classic and well-loved comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Fearon Hall for February 28th, March 1st and 2nd.

 From the ceiling to the floor, the stage set was attractively decorated for its enchanting romantic-comedy; with lanterns, roses and greenery, it simply and effectively made for the intermingling of the forest and the magical underworld. The vivid colours, the fairy’s costumes, the haze machine and a particularly well-designed lighting sequence produced a consistently rich experience. First-time directors Jo Donnerly and Sarah Aguliar-Millan made full use of this magical tale and definitely proved how much of a sensory spectacle could be created with the added assistance of a willing cast and crew and plenty of shiny material.

 Another notable technique of this production was its distinctively handpicked music. At times it could have been over-used and overcompensating for the already picturesque language of Shakespeare. However, for fresh eyes to the bard and his plays, or even weary eyes tired of his works, the filmic quality it brought to the production was innovative for a varied audience.

 Nonetheless, all its atmosphere was not to take away from the acting on show. The King of the fairies Oberon (Simon Butler), Queen Titania (Lyndsey Bakewell) and the ever-favourite Puck (Joanna Leppink) played up to the expectation of such highly esteemed roles. Leppink played the rascal Puck with much loveable antics of her own that also made for a delightfully unexpected comedy-duo between herself and her lord Oberon. This was especially developed in the scene that they intervene with the lovers; a scene in which a remarkable performance from Ellen Gray as Helena was really quite something. Her natural ability to engage with Shakespeare’s language (despite the farcical routine behind her) for a modern audience was worth its weight in gold dust. The lovers are sometimes forced from center stage in versions of this crowded, feverish Midsummer madness. But, for this production, these lovers certainly earned back some of their character strength.  Each of the players individually and collectively milked every moment in order to make the last scenes look effortlessly funny to the audience’s appreciation. And, as expected for such a character, Bottom (Sam Lane) threw himself fully into the humorous role the story demands of him.

It was really evident that LSU Shakespeare Society had time to own this production and make it the final spectacle that it is. The director’s and so many actors thrived in this, so much that the performance as a whole literally embodied both the fantastical and comical essence of it, making for a very physical and visual comedy for its audience. Even though I’m a fan of seeing creative adaptations of such classical plays, this traditional-meets-quirky production stands as homage to why Shakespeare’s plays are so timelessly loved after all. 

Sleeping Beauty Ballet Review

SLEEPING BEAUTY AT LOUGHBOROUGH TOWN HALL

Originally written for Label.

fotopedia.com

 

From the perspective of an amateur eye, this afternoon at the ballet was a somewhat bewitching afternoon. The Russian State Ballet and Opera House brought themselves to our little Loughborough as part of a European Tour of the fairytale classic and favourite, Sleeping Beauty. It is choreographed by Marius Petipa and set to the equally adored music of Tchaikovsky.

Both acts provide your money’s worth in the number of dances and characters, including some ambiguous appearances from other well-loved fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. If you can get your head around the actual dancing – it is a ballet, after all – the performance is a lovely concoction of enchanting variety.

However, the quest to find and wake Sleeping Beauty was over within a matter of minutes after the opening to the second half, which was disappointing for the narrative lover that I am. Instead of a more familiar storytelling, the second act was full of (admittedly) beautifully pleasing duets by the volume of other characters besides our traditional protagonists. Thankfully, of all these charming dance routines, the principal dancers Sleeping Beauty and the Prince did have the best.

As for the somewhat vibrant (or garish) costumes and set design, they instantly painted a perfect picture for a pantomime, even though the dancing and choreography is far, far more desirable than your local Christmas knees-up for certain. During the majority of the performance however, I did find it difficult to escape this initial frame of reference. On reflection, this could largely be due to the capacity of the stage at the Town Hall. Whilst it is a generous proscenium theatre space, the cast looked crowded and sometimes uncomfortably smiling when stepping too close to someone else. This is unsurprising when a company thirty dancers strong performs on a much smaller stage than ballets are often choreographed for.

It is special though, that Loughborough Town Hall deliver such an assorted programme of events, including the ballet which is often sadly missed out of regional theatres and other performance venues. It’s perhaps a shame that there were not more children in the audience to be charmed by the traditional tale in a captivating form other than pantomime or the Disney film. Thankfully, the adults seemed to be willingly caught up in the magic of the performance nonetheless.

Jesus Christ Superstar Arena Tour Review

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR: A REVIEW

Originally written for Label.

Tim Minchin as Judas

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, is a well-known and much-loved show, but it has not been on our stages for a number of years. First written and produced as an album, this rock opera musical had its first steps on Broadway and the West End a little later on in the early 1970s. Running for eight years in London, it became the UK’s longest running musical in its time. Earlier this year, Lloyd Webber announced the TV Show Superstar would allow the public to vote who would play Jesus in the new and updated Arena Tour later this year.

In the packed arena, I’m sure most people have not only come to see ITV’s winner Ben Forster but the rest of the star-studded cast. Comedian and musician Tim Minchin, who near enough cast himself plays Judas; ex-Spice Girl, Mel C is Mary Magdalene and the Saviour of Radio 1, Chris Moyles, takes to the camp King Herod.

Clearly this was going to be a very different experience from a more intimate theatre in London. Instead, I’m what seems miles away from the stage, surrounded by thousands of pin-dot bodies and my seat is not even facing in the right direction. The theatrical experience is certainly warped, but the production still has everything it needs for a spectacle, which I suppose is what ultimately sells the tickets and packs out the arenas.

Director Laurence Connor’s modern revival is somewhat predictable, but it fits. Relocating Rome to St. Pauls Cathedral steps, Jesus and his hippy friends cause a buzz after the opening scene of London riots, sharing the gospel via protests and social media. The stage is seamlessly accommodating of its changing locations, whilst the challenge of iconic images like the Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion are met with technically and aesthetically inspiring stagecraft and lighting.

The use of the camera and visuals on the large screen behind the set was possibly the best and worst thing about the production. Its ability to create more intense scenes was slick and impressive. Unfortunately, the live camera feed of actors needed for facial actions and such were sometimes badly framed, and at other times disrupting when merged with too many other visuals.

As for the star-studded cast, their contrasting backgrounds and skill set actually worked to their advantage. Jesus, Mary and Judas who own the story, had warmed my heart by the end. Too common for musicals with this new X-factor-esque casting however, is that most or even all of the acting is compromised in favour of big voices that can deliver song after song, night after night. Its lack of acting ability seems acceptable and probably irrelevant for an arena tour like this though, especially as it modernizes and opens up a whole new kind of theatre audience (which is certainly important and can’t be a bad thing).

Besides, it is not to say that the cast do not provide notable, emotional presences on stage, with the help of a superb lighting design. Mel C shines out far brighter in her solo performances, holding the entire arena as she sits alone on stage, heartbreakingly questioning this man Jesus and how she loves him so. Tim Minchin steps up to the challenging role of Judas with a mature conviction, and Chris Moyles’ short-lived scene still offers all the comic relief the British public expect from him. As for the ITV-viewers vote, Ben Forster can definitely sing and proves himself in the second half of the performance far more than the first.

For an audience who is probably rare to engage with neither the gospel nor the theatre, this is a flashy spectacle with enough of an emotional idea that might dwell in their minds and hearts long after they leave the arena.

New Writing: Creative License or Financial Risk?

Originally written for Fringebiscuit.

It’s my first time at the Fringe, and what really excites me about this place is the new writing. The same thing can also be a disappointment. It is overwhelming that the majority of this year’s (and undoubtedly most other years) new writing have similar forms: shows with small casts, driven by monologues and multi-roling. At least three out of the five new plays representing Old Vic New Voices at the Underbelly – B*tch Boxer, Chapel Street, Strong Arm – employ this model.

It’s not hard to work out why. Even before the economic downturn, the Fringe has been shaped by the financial risks for all involved. It’s not cheap to put a show on at the Fringe, especially when no one has seen it before. Unlike Shakespeare, new writing is a much bigger risk. Given all the costs involved, venue limitations and risks undertaken, it’s no real surprise that new writing keeps production cost minimal. No set, no props and no changes equate to a cheaper, simpler show, with a lone actor who can perform all your characters in whichever small, stuffy venue you’re allocated.

Besides venue, facility and financial drawbacks, many of these shows are the work of new, newwriters. There are numerous new writing initiatives that seek to support these up and coming playwrights, and encourage them to the Fringe. The few playwriting courses I have personally attended have frequently used monologue exercise as a means of developing characterisation.

So, there is little surprise now that the vast majority of the new writing here at the Fringe looks the way it does.

Irrespectively, the content and talent revealed in these new writers and performers have not failed to impress me. To assume that new writing is unpromising because it frequently falls into a well-tried and tested format is an assumption too quick for me to make.

I asked Luke Barnes, writer of the one-man play Bottleneck, whether he’d always envisioned this as a solo play: ‘This play has to be told by one man. If we had tried to stage it on a larger scale it would have been ill mannered… For me, because of what happens in the story, this is the only language I could use to tell this story. In my view, anything else would become grotesque.’ It would seem there is the possibility that this style can in fact be a choice removed from financial risk. Bottleneck would in no way be as climatic or as poignant as it should be had it been staged or performed ‘naturalistically.’

Then there’s Nggrfg, a moving story about a boy growing up both black and gay. It’s a play about being marginalised and struggling with sterotype. Its unlikely that having the protagonist, Buddy (Berend McKenzie) surrounded by playing the characters in his story would produce the desired effect; it’s hard to convey the feeling of being an outsider and being alone if the performer were not actually isolated and alienated by the stage.

A different kind of one-man show is Bane. Arguably, it’s not new writing, since this year he’s showcasing each of his previous three shows as a trilogy. Nonetheless, what he has written and created has proved hugely popular. His one-man shows surpass a 40-strong character line-up; it’s a kind of phenomena in itself. But what’s more is that Joe Bone’s style has been an aesthetic decision that would not work in the same way had it not been a one-man performance. Bane owns the stage because his detective, film-noir genre demands the solo suave that only a single shadow can cast.

B*tch Boxer is programmed in the Iron Belly – a damp and dripping venue, a glorified cellar at best. A venue that might have been unfortunate for a solo show: it’s dark, cold and likely to echo. In the case of B*tch Boxer, however, what could have been a bummer is a in fact much more of a blessing. Writer and performer, Charlotte Josephine, tells the story of a female boxer training for the London Olympics. Instead of being intimidated and understated in the space, she creates one of the most cinematic moments I’ve ever seen in a performance. In the dark and cold cellar of the Iron Belly, the steam from the physical demand of her show literally rises from her hot and sweaty skin. The aesthetic quality of a one-person show can be far more important than the financial restrictions that otherwise shaped it.

New writing is not only about risks but also new voices. Too many voices would distance the audience from the protagonist-based storytelling and instead makes it something much more superfluous and distracting. This form, whilst common, is bare and minimal, which puts a lot more pressure on the writing and acting to not simply succeed, but be exceptional. It forces an actor to give everything, and for the monologue to be fluid and emotive, despite encompassing multiple characters. This form is in no way underrated, so long as it continues to take the brave, aesthetic risks alongside the more unfortunate and unavoidable financial ones.

Songs of Lear ‘divine interpretation’

Originally written for Fringebiscuit.

I arrive early, confused as to where the crowds stop and the queue begins. They must be popular, I think, naively, and hold my precious five-stars in a clenched fist.

A smartly dressed man stands before us. He says something profound about landscape paintings and hastily proceeds to welcome his goats. They literally march in the room, regimented, formally dressed in black.

This is not a traditional adaptation of Lear; this is a divine interpretation. Phenomenal harmonies create narrative, conjuring landscapes, emotions and sensations that other works would envy.

Each movement is more than a song; it’s a hymn, a lament, or a battle cry. My clenched fist weakens finger by finger, song by song. The director, Grzegorz Bral, conducts his company like a classical orchestra. They outperform; reinventing conventional forms of character and plot, and theatre altogether. Though fresh, it is fearlessly archaic in its grandeur. The performance is ceremonial, consecrated and sanctified, rich in the essence of the play.

My five stars were laid bare on outstretched palms, offered in reverence.

Songs of Lear, Summerhall. 24 Aug, 7.15pm.

Rainbow ‘a brave eighty-five minutes’

Originally written for Fringebiscuit.

Rainbow is a production that relies on the perceptions and prejudices of its audience; a brave eighty-five minutes of three asymmetrically opposed characters and their interchanging monologues. At an hour and twenty-five, it’s no easy form to keep a Fringe audience convinced.

The script is littered with winning observations – Vaseline pot etiquette and pointless suede elbow patches – enticing the audience into the terrifyingly mundane characterisation of strangers: a sexually-repressed school teacher, a sensitive assistant hit-man and a school boy with mental disabilities. A play that might become tedious, with each actor barely moving, showcased on podium-style blocks, rarely does. Instead, the way that writer Emily Jenkins leads us down different roads is purely gripping.

It’s dark and utterly bare. A writer once described the best theatrical writing as figuratively stripping a character down, one layer at a time, leaving them naked by the end. Rainbow achieves this, creatively manipulating our preconceived expectations of plot, and consistently digging deeper into the murky personalities of ordinary people.

Rainbow, Zoo Southside. 3-27 Aug, 4.45pm.

Facehunters ‘more than hip; it’s forward-thinking’

Originally written for Fringebiscuit.

If anyone is dealing with East London hipsters with nuance, it’s The Hungry Bitches. There’s an itch about their new musical Facehunters: it’s satirical and expressive, but also steers clear of some of the more outdated, conventional musical forms. It’s more than hip; it’s forward-thinking.

A daring decision is to infuse the narrative with The Picture of Dorian Gray: whilst not as integrated as possible, it begins to turn predictable hero and villain plots into more twisted ones, granting gothic transgression a captivating theme. It just about holds together some questionable subplots – the narrative is sterling, but a few pennies short.

Frequently crowding the stage like some troupe of GaGa’s Little Monsters, the ensemble are a farcical success: derisive, sharp with social commentary and bringing some genius comic relief, but they awkwardly overshadow the leads somehow. Choreography gets repetitive and messy at times which, unfortunately, cannot always be excused as hipster drug-fuelled euphoria.

Underneath the messy distractions, it’s an impassioned venture. A topically fresh, synth-fuelled score sustains the nightmarish demand of this musical, addressing the crazed ‘live fast, die young’ mentality.

Facehunters, C. 26-27 Aug, 8.50pm.