Category Archives: Reviews

Meow Meow performs ‘The Little Mermaid’. Photo: Pia Johnson

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Siren and Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sparkling, Comedic Shallows…Poignant Depths)

23 August 2017.

It just so happened that my last day of seeing shows in Edinburgh this year was entirely mermaid-themed. My middle name is Lorelei, which is the name of the siren who enchants sailors on the Rhine in 19th-century German songs and poetry, so siren stories have always held an extra allure for me.

The first was Siren, the debut musical play written by award-winning comedian David Elms, and directed by Thomas Martin. It’s a song-sprinkled two-hander with serious, poignant depths and sparkling, comedic shallows. It also has a dark edge – it is an exploration of the siren archetype, complete with the murderous elements from the ancient Greek tales and the sorrow of the Romantic-era mermaid’s longing for an immortal soul.

Rosa Robson is wonderful in the title role, as a siren cursed by fate to inhabit her little island alone: ‘we’re usually in pairs’ she explains sadly to one of her sailors. Styled as a 1950s, Esther Williams-type synchronised swimming pin-up, she oscillates between bright gaiety and the slowly-revealed cracking of her mind, caused by the heartbreaking loneliness of her island. ‘I’ve built a mound’, she tells us in one of her monologues, ‘that almost looks like another person from the right angle’. Her beautiful voice brought the show’s bright array of songs to life. Nicholas Masters also gives a strong performance as Robson’s counterpoint in this pas de deux, playing the variety of sailors who are pulled into her song’s compelling aura, as the show deftly and subtly unpacks various forms of attraction, desire, and love.

This is a beautifully-written show. Its bright and dark tones, its shallows and depths, are swirled in a story that feels particular and modern, but also universal and ancient. It unearthed psychological currents running powerfully underneath the siren archetype, exploring the sadness of broken forms of attraction and loving, longing and loneliness…and also, off in the distance, perhaps redemption and hope. I loved it.

After the enchanting Siren, it was time for Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid at the Edinburgh International FestivalI walked from Pleasance Dome, where Siren took place in a humble, tiny black box theatre, to a ballroom inside The Hub, which had a huge stage draped in streams of silver glitter, luxurious booths upholstered in crushed purple velvet, two bars, a live band with strings playing sexy bossa nova, and a packed, murmuring crowd.

This show is a cabaret performance in which Meow Meow is the immortal mermaid drenched in loneliness, singing and searching for true love…and the truth about love. Meow Meow, the Australian creator and performer of the show, is described variously as a singer, actress, dancer, cabaret performer and ‘international, kamikaze, post-punk superstar’. I would describe her as an artist, above all, for the brilliance of the show’s script. It has a story arc that, like Siren, is sourced from the deeper psychological octaves of the siren story, and which dropped, non-stop, beat by exhilarating beat, words that were gilded and diamond-encrusted with poetic meaning, falling perfectly within the grandiose, comedic style of cabaret, and the show’s poignant theme – like a fountain, or rain at sea.

The show starts with a riotous thunderstorm, and then Meow Meow comes on-stage sobbing.  She starts singing throatily, through her sobs, a lurching, slow rendition of Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’ (‘Here I go out to sea again/The sunshine fills my hair/And dreams hang in the air/You know it feels unfair/There’s magic everywhere/Look at me standing/Here on my own again…’).  She is accompanied by a mournful brass-heavy band. Then she gradually transitions from sobbing and singing into her first, sweet, skittering, chatty monologue filled with glittering wordplay, in which she finally snaps: ‘I feel like I’ve been travelling everywhere for 300 years looking for true love, but I can’t fucking find it!’…though, she tells us later, sometimes finding ‘Faux Love…Flove’.

She conjures the ocean onstage, telling us, as she looks upwards from the depths of the ocean floor, that ‘many church steeples piled upon each other would not reach the surface’. This is imagery that beautifully evokes the quiet, vast depths of the ocean, but also the Hans Christian Andersen mermaid’s longing to reach upwards to heaven, to become human, to find love, to have a soul.

Her most delightful theatrical magic trick is to conjure her subconscious on stage and rummage around in it in search of catharsis, which resonates grandly with the metaphor of the mysterious watery depths of the ocean…but which also feels resolutely practical, as if this is a mermaid ready to transcend her despair and loneliness, ready to break the spell.

Published in Exeunt Magazine 23 August 2017

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Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Wild Bore (Oh My God, Look At Her Butt)

20 August 2017.

Wild Bore, the new show created and performed by Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott, is creating a bit of a stir at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I felt an intriguing, ironic frisson personally as I took my seat and pulled out my pen and notebook to take notes for this review, knowing that the show was about theatre critics. The music playing as the audience settled in was ass-themed club music: ‘Anaconda’ by Nicki Minaj (‘oh my god, look at her butt/oh my god, look at her butt/oh my god, look-at-her-butt).  That song’s riotous energy and lyrics were a perfectly thoughtful precursor to the precisely orchestrated, deliciously sarcastic, intelligent and entertaining feminist study of theatre criticism that then unfolded.

The stage was set with a long table and three chairs, and at the start of the show, one by one, the artists’ bare asses appear at the table, and they talk, um, out of them, in rumbling, low-throated blusters, repeating excerpts from bad reviews that each of the three artists’ have received for their work, their hands reaching up to gesticulate, asses turning towards each other to nod and jiggle, animatedly mimicking the talking heads of critics.

During the show, the three artists work their way thoroughly through of the concept of theatrical criticism, exploring its facets via the theatrical language of performance art, including abundant, thematically-ringing gestures, comic soliloquy, vignettes, dance and meta-moments. The text for the show is based on a patchwork of actual, badly-written theatrical reviews, which are mined both for significant philosophical points and straight-up comedy.

The use of the talking ass by artists to represent (bad) theatre critics is a brilliant symbolic gesture. It expresses the anger of the artist when the critic has failed to understand the point of the artist’s work and then derided the work and artist, publicly. It is a fast, funny and obvious skewer, spoken in the non-traditional artistic language that the critics being skewered seemingly struggled to comprehend: the shocking, female, nude, comic, gestural language of performance art. It’s a nuanced and blunt way to represent bluster: getting it wrong, but thinking you’ve got it right, and pronouncing judgement from a platform of power. The words of the misguided critic are blustery and muffled, because they are coming from the wrong place inside them, from error, from ego. It’s also a provocatively feminist symbol.  The three naked asses and genitalia on prominent display are female, which to me felt like a like a deeply feminist symbolic rebellion against the broken elements of a traditional style of theatre response that we have inherited from the patriarchy, which is struggling to see, accept and understand the unfolding edges of theatre, and which defaults to superiority and derision as a response to anything it doesn’t get.  Which is, aside from anything else, dishonest, and a misuse of the critic’s power.

Each of the three artists told the true story of a particular review they have received in the past that rubbished their work, in which the critic displayed an obvious lack of comprehension of the particular theatrical language they were using.  Ursula Martinez told the story of a critic reviewing a show of hers who said in his review that she began to build a breeze block wall between herself and the audience ‘for no apparent reason.’ Considering the blindingly obvious significance of the boundary and relationship between performer/stage and audience, the famous book by Peter Brook about it called The Fourth Wall, and the common adoption of this phrase to discuss this conceptual space, that is just really fucking lazy theatrical critique. This phrase, ‘for no apparent reason’ is picked up by the show and shouted as a refrain again and again, most memorably in the brilliant Shakespearean-style soliloquy performed by Martinez, dressed in a jester suit, which had the audience rolling in the aisles. The repetition of this phrase was always accompanied by a fierce glare out at the audience from Coombs Marr, Martinez and Truscott, which I read as a direct challenge to everyone in the audience to really think about what they were trying to tell us in, as they put it, ‘the secret coded language of theatre’.

I loved this show for many reasons.  It is beautifully tuned so that every detail and creative decision works in harmony with its themes.  But also, it is just hilarious, and expresses a joyous, earthy, healthy, don’t-give-a-fuck freedom, which I found totally exhilarating, and inspiring [fist raised, sisters, and brothers-becoming-sisters-or-brothers-who-also-seek-to-topple-the-goddamned-patriarchy].  Thank you, Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott.  And yes, I worked very hard on this review, because I took what you said to me via your asses really, really seriously.

P.S. The day before I saw Wild Bore, I heard an older, white, male critic begin to talk about it, and when I said, ‘I’m also writing about it and seeing it tomorrow, would you mind not talking about it in front of me?’, he didn’t register me as a) a person making a request desiring a response, or b) a fellow writer, and he carried on talking about it as if no one had spoken. I felt a little socially awkward about this and had to decide between getting up and leaving the pub table or putting my fingers in my ears, because it was important to me to encounter the show afresh, with no preconceived ideas.  I put my fingers in my ears, which I saw him dimly register, but to which he made no response.

The next day, two hours after I saw Wild Bore, a different, older, white, male critic decided to man-splain the concept of the avant-garde to me, having met me briefly the night before, and knowing nothing about me, my background, education or knowledge of theatre, culture, or the avant-garde…but obviously perceiving that I am female, blonde, and that I appear younger than him in the physical form that is my avatar in this life, though I suspect we are of a similar age (40s).  

Now that I have seen Wild Bore, the memories of their two voices has merged into a muffled, low, babbling, beyond words, having no sense or meaning, as if coming out of their asses from amidst a crumbling paradigm of outdated thinking about art, theatre and appearances…

Published in Exeunt Magazine 20 August 2017

P.S. Here are further thoughts of mine about this show, written for a feature dialogue piece amongst Exeunt critics, which didn’t end up being published in the magazine:

I thought Wild Bore was a wholly appropriate and timely theatrical bomb thrown at an already crumbling paradigm, which I have never personally identified with.  I don’t think the act of criticism, or my preferred word, ‘response’, is on its way out – just a particular style of it, that yes, has been adopted by many female writers working within an old, male-dominated and created paradigm: fairly short reviews published in newspapers and magazines that attempt to describe and give a quality rating to a piece of theatre, interpreting the work using a small numbers of words, for a specific readership, in an entertaining style.

I don’t think we are ever going to be able to restrain ourselves from describing, classifying and valuing the jewels of art/theatre, but I think Wild Bore was setting fire to the way it has been done by some: a tradition of a sort of journalism that sometimes doesn’t work very hard to discover the meaning or craft behind a work of art, especially something new and abstract, a tradition which has corseted the act of exploration and valuation with word-counts and a particular journalistic style. To me, this feels uncomfortable, restrictive, old, male.  It is a tradition that allows a critic who doesn’t understand or naturally resonate with something to dismiss it simply as bad quality, or nonsense, rather than saying, ‘I don’t understand or resonate with this. Maybe I am not the right person to act as interpreter for the wider public in a journalistic context.’  Which reminds me of values held by insecure teenage boys until they learn better: bluster and compete, bluster and compete. To me it just feels…dishonest. And there is a deep tradition of emotional remove and cynicism in this old style, which to me also feels dishonest.  Emotionally dishonest. It is not fashionable in the patriarchy-created style of criticism to love or resonate with a work of art in a warm, passionate, and well, female way.

I felt that the fuel for the wild energy underneath Wild Bore was a simmering rage about the moments of critical dismissals of the three artists’ work which were based on laziness, or an inability to peer into the meaning, depths, and the (relatively) new theatrical techniques and materials of performance art.  Remember the show’s emphatic, deliciously sarcastic repetition of a quote from one of Ursula Martinez’ critics, who wrote in his review that she built a breeze-block wall between herself and the audience, ‘FOR NO APPARENT REASON’? As I write in my published review of this show, and considering the resounding, obvious significance of The Fourth Wall in theatre, that is just totally fucking lazy thinking, which is acceptable, and normal even, in the old paradigm of criticism.  It seemed to me that they are calling bullshit on that. I don’t think they were having a pop at all criticism/response – just bad criticism, old criticism, and (with hand-on-heart, deep respect for my male colleagues who are thoughtful, clear-eyed explorers in the new style) it is a type of criticism that has been passed down to us from the patriarchy, from blustering, competitive teenage boys (and sometimes girls acting like the boys) who haven’t grown up, but who have blustered and competed their way into theatre critic jobs.

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Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Frankie Vah by Luke Wright (Lush, Transporting, Poetic)

18 August 2017.

I felt as if, having come to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to drink from the magic fountain of Art, that at the end of my second day I was still en route to the metaphorical fountain at the centre of the festival, and still thirsty… Then I walked into a small black room at the Underbelly for Luke Wright’s new verse play Frankie Vah, which lit my heart on fire and gave me a good, long drink of what I came for. This is a mature, lyrical and politically relevant piece of poetic writing and, as a one-hour solo show, beautifully performed.

Frankie Vah is the performance poet’s second verse play. It is set among the dark, sticky-floored, hash smoke-pervaded ‘skuzzy indie venues and politics’ of 1980s Britain. Audiences are told the story of a vicar’s son, Simon Mortimer – politicised, disaffected, unhappy – and his transformation into a new self-created identity, Frankie Vah, flame-tongued performance poet extraordinaire, with rolled cuffs, Doc Martens, a platform opening for punk bands and the heady power to influence political debate.

His first transformation happens via love, with a woman named Eve. One of the most powerful aspects of this show is the way Frankie and Eve’s love story winds into and around its other narrative threads: the first steps that Frankie and Eve take as young artists; their resistance to Thatcherism in the run-up to the 1987 general election; Frankie’s rebellion against his father’s values and his confrontation with his personal demons and self-destructive behaviour.

The personal, political, social and philosophical dimensions of the show spin into each other in a moment of theatre that is lushly, transportingly poetic. It is also delicately nuanced, capturing with sensitivity the moments of tension in Frankie’s life that send his story down increasingly charged pathways, culminating in a finale that broke my heart wider open. the pacing of the unfolding story is effortlessly managed to create a smooth narrative ride, and the skill with which it comes together allows the listening mind the freedom to hear the deeper philosophical resonances of the work: how art dialogues with politics, how the personal dialogues with the political, how we are young, stupid, wonderful and broken, but learning and constantly turning into truer versions of ourselves. I watched and listened in awe and pleasure, just drinking, drinking, drinking in the beauty of this show.

Published in Exeunt Magazine on 18 August 2017

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Edinburgh Fringe Festival: The Portable Dorothy Parker (Beautiful Homage)

14 August 2017.  When I walk into the small room where the play is showing, the stage is set with period furniture from the 1940s: an armchair, a desk holding a neat pile of white paper, a small, black manual typewriter, a liquor glass half-filled with amber liquid, hardback books, and a black rotary-dial telephone. The venue room is lit by daylight from large windows, but the stage lighting is a warm, antique yellow. The merging of the two areas of light felt symbolic of the way this show felt like a portal, back into Dorothy Parker’s life in 1943, the year the play is set.

The Portable Dorothy Parker is an import from America, a solo show written by Annie Lux, directed by Lee Costello and performed by Margot Avery. As soon as Avery comes on stage, the quality of her performance made me feel like we were in a fine, velvet-upholstered theatre, instead of sitting in folding chairs in an upstairs function room. One of the interesting things about Dorothy Parker’s literary voice is that it contains so much of herself in it – her identity and personality are not elided or vanished in order to become an ambiguous authorial presence. This play is a beautifully constructed and performed theatrical homage to her, and her words.

One of the great pleasures of the show is that Margot Avery does vanish herself completely into Dorothy Parker, and the script is a thoughtful lace-work of Parker’s writing and famous bon mots, in the shape of an encounter between Parker and an (unseen) young female editor from her publishing house. In fact the construction materials of theatre, in general, are vanished out of sight in this production, and it just feels like an effortless creation, whole and correct, as it is. Parker muses upon her own work, while sorting through it, selecting pieces to be included in the publishing house’s upcoming The Portable Dorothy Parker. She recalls the famous literary figures who circled around her in New York and Paris’ early twentieth century, like the Fitzgeralds (‘the gilt wore off those Easter Lilies before Pentecost’) and Somerset Maugham (‘such an old lady’).

The deepest and most interesting moments in the show for me were the ones depicting Parker’s admiration for Ernest Hemingway and her longing to be valued by him as a writer in the face of his disdain for her – it is here that the sharp steel of her wit armour gives way to a still clear-eyed, but wistful vulnerability, as she recalls the poem by Hemingway said to be about her after one of her suicide attempts: ‘To a Tragic Poetess. Life will never become her so much as almost leaving it’.

Everything merges by the end of this entrancing hour into a sensitive and nuanced biographical portrait of Parker, which reflects, via her reflections, a wider pool of ideas about literature, the lives of writers, and the creative process.

Published in Exeunt Magazine on 14 August 2017

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Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Hammerhead by Joseph Morpurgo (A Fan Letter)

13 August 2017.  A part of me would like to structure my review of Hammerhead by Joseph Morpurgo as a fan letter to him, such are the grateful, admiring and affectionate feelings fluttering around in my heart after seeing his solo hour of character comedy. ‘Dear Joseph Morpurgo, I just want to tell you that I’m so happy that out of all the shows in Edinburgh that I had to choose from, I picked yours’, is perhaps how it would begin. But, Exeunt Reader, this review is really for you, so…[wink, blowing you a kiss].

Hammerhead takes place in the little black box of Pleasance 2, and when I walk in, a giant screen behind the stage says ‘THE END’ with blood dripping off the letters, in white on a black background. The screen would turn out to figure heavily in this lovable, intelligent and hilarious multi-media meditation on the creative process. The show is structured as a post-show Q&A with Morpurgo’s character, the writer-director-actor of the show under (fictional) discussion. He bounds onto stage, cheerful, suave, commanding, in heavy horror-esque stage make-up and torn clothing, still sweaty, breathless, made-up and costumed. He’s just finished performing his avant-garde, 9-hour re-mix of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The layers of irony and meaning in this piece are stacked, flowing and structured like a futuristic utopian travel system, including hovercraft, swirling tubes and inter-dimensional rips in the space-time continuum between Shelley’s work, the fictional 9-hour re-working of it, and the show I’m talking about. As Morpurgo’s character takes questions from both the real audience and a fictional audience chiming in via Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, etc, the themes of the show emerge: the questioning vulnerability at the heart of the creative process, the price art asks you to pay, the fears that cluster around the artist…am I making something beautiful, or monstrous? Who decides which it is, and why? And will my big brother come to see what I made?

But the way these questions are explored is to me the deeper beauty and fascination of this show: it is art talking about art, with a high-concept and comic voice, tripping lightly through time and layers of multi-media materials. Its bright pace or humour doesn’t diminish the power of the descents it makes into philosophic questions and the shadowy parts of the artist’s heart. It is like a painter brightly laughing while quickly dabbing brushstrokes onto a work that in its finished form gives you joy, but shows you sorrow, too, and makes you want to just sit in front of it for a while, thinking and feeling, and to come back to it again another day.  [Grateful sigh] And… ‘Dear Joe, I really loved it.  Kind regards, Joy.’

Published in Exeunt Magazine 12 August 2017

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Edinburgh Fringe Festival: Ancient Shrines and Half Truths by Binge Culture (Interactive Whimsy)

13 August 2017. The rise of technology as an artistic material in performance has facilitated a new sort of kaleidoscopic theatre in which each individual audience member, via an interactive format similar to a video game, has a different and unique shake of the show. Ancient Shrines and Half Truths by New Zealand performance art collective Binge Culture is quite a lovable example of this kind of show, with a deliciously twisted vision.

It uses a smart phone and headphones to gives each audience member a Choose Your Own Adventure-style solo journey, creating a sweet and interesting intimacy between you and the voice coming through the headphones, your own personal local guide, who wants to show you around a new place. This relationship, however, is not at all predictable, and it was the moments when this relationship delivers psychological electric shocks that revealed interesting depths underneath the show’s otherwise easy whimsy.

The show turns The Meadows near Summerhall into an interactive, outdoor theatre, and throws wild, unpredictable fairy dust over the mundane and material fixtures it finds there. A statue, a bench, a lamp-post, a bare patch of grass are transformed through the voice’s spiky and whimsical artistic perspective, as it led me towards mysterious beings and trees who wanted to sell me their leaves.

The show contemplates the ideas of home and belonging and explores the different states of being you experience relative to your knowledge of the place you are in, as either a traveller, a tourist, or a local. Its insights into the invisible social inequalities involved sometimes stung a little, but in a good way – a way that pierced some unconscious complacency in me – and it was extremely fun, to boot.

The one slightly disjointed aspect of the show, in my opinion, was that the voice in the headphones is supposed to be a local guide to the place around us, Edinburgh, but it was a New Zealand artist’s voice with a New Zealand accent. The voice assured me that she had been living in Edinburgh for five years and was now a local.

This element distracted me, and kept bumping my mind up and out of the theatrical tapestry being spun around me. And, knowing that the show is an import from New Zealand, this one element gave the impression that the show was simply lifted entire from New Zealand and shoe-horned into a different country’s local setting. I can see that the show’s overarching theme is the movement of people around the globe, the relationship you feel to the spaces around you, and the process by which you create or discover a sense of belonging to them. In that sense, the accent of your guide shouldn’t matter.

But to me, it did – like a transposition in a piece of music, all its harmonies changed slightly. However, it is a testament to the overall quality of the show and its artists that despite this, its texture was still rich, sparkly, deep, intricate, and the show captured and delighted me, anyway.

Photo of Illustration by Igor Oleynikov

The Emperor and the Nightingale at Theatre by the Lake

2 December 2016.  The Theatre on the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria sits on the shore of Derwentwater, encircled by the snowy peaks of the Lake District National Park. On Saturday night I went to see their new Christmas show, The Emperor and the Nightingale, written by award-winning playwright Neil Duffield and directed by the theatre’s Artistic Director, Ian Forrest. Among the children’s shows I have seen the past few years, there appears to be a fascination with the non-material: with bare stages, stories conjured from empty air, deconstructed fourth walls, and backstage transparency, with propboxes, costume racks and musical instruments strewn about in plain view. In our current theatrical moment, there is a lot of conscious play with audience expectation and the traditions of the theatrical contract between performers and audience, and this is a delicious sort of fashion in theatre… but we live in a relative universe, where black allows us to know white, and The Emperor and the Nightingale is like an enjoyable trip back to solid ground, with a lushly realised material world and all the traditions of theatre firmly intact.

The Emperor and the Nightingale is based on the Hans Christensen Andersen story The Nightingale, and gives longstanding Theatre on the Lake Designer Martin Johns the opportunity to revel in the expressive aesthetic of ancient China. The production design is a bright, visual harmony of Chinese architecture and art-inspired backdrops, props and costumes. It gave me a simple and childlike sense of enjoyment to watch richly painted sheets drop down from the fly loft: an Imperial Palace, a hand drawn map of Ancient China, a sacred and magical mountaintop.

Against these, the ensemble cast sing, dance, play music, and tell the story of Emperor Wu, a young boy kept ensconced in the Palace in The Forbidden City by the baddie regent Li. That is, until Wu rebels and leaves the Palace to search for the most valuable treasure in the Empire: the humble, little brown bird with the most beautiful song. Wu is led on his quest by a servant girl called Xiao, and the dramatic tension comes from their unfolding friendship and Wu’s lessons about power, freedom and the real treasures of nature.

The script is engaging, thoughtful and faithful to the gentle spirit of the original tale, and Duffield weaves in many vivid threads that beautify this strong and elegant main story. I enjoyed his expansions and innovations, for example when Wu is challenged by a fierce peasant woman who gives him a piece of her mind about laws and taxes (not knowing he is the Emperor), and who, although she is barely able to feed her own family and has exchanged angry words with him, gives the hungry Wu a fish. Duffield sets up a dichotomy between two different styles of power with the backstory of the Tiger King and the Dragon King: the Tiger King loves war, and the Dragon King loves art, music and nature. Wu, played ably by Martin Sarreal, is the son of the Tiger King, and Xiao, played by Sally Cheng, turns out to be the daughter of the Dragon King.

Sally Cheng’s performance is one of the standout beauties of the show. She brings grace and intelligence to her performance, inhabiting her role with a real sense of effortlessness, and she creates a gentle, strong and interesting character. Added to this, of course, is music and the song of the Nightingale, as one of the most important elements of the show. Amy Gardyne, who sings the part of the Nightingale and performs puppetry and movement with the little bird in her hands, sings rich and true, and performs her movement with mature skill. The music is evocatively pentatonic and well-composed to curve sweetly around the story, and the ensemble cast play all of the musical instruments and sing, ably.

In the story, Wu falls in love with the Nightingale’s song and tries to keep her locked in the Palace, but she begins to sing a sad song instead of a song of happiness. The evil Li-Si sees this as his chance to regain power over Wu, and he has a clockmaker construct a beautiful, bejewelled clockwork nightingale who always, always, only sings a happy (though mechanical) song. Wu becomes fascinated with the mechanical bird, and the real bird flies back to her home on the sacred mountain of Tai-Shan. But the mechanical bird can bring no lasting happiness to Wu, and when he realises he has lost the real treasure of the Nightingale’s natural and beautiful song he falls very ill. The Nightingale hears he is ill, and flies as fast as she can to the tree outside his window, where her song heals him.

One of the rather important but melancholy echoes of the production occurred to me the day after seeing the show, when I was walking around Hope Park in Keswick, listening to the birds singing there. I remembered recently overhearing a conversation between my friend Sheila, 84 years old and a local resident of Keswick, and her best friend Meg. They were talking about the birds that used to visit their gardens, who they never see anymore. A page in the show’s programme is devoted to describing the gradual vanishing of the nightingale from the world and cites a survey from 2012 that showed their numbers fell by 57% between 1995 and 2009. It was sad to think that this is children’s theatre, but it’s the innocent young ones in the audience who might lose the sound of songbirds in their lifetime.

Sigh. But this show is visually delicious, with elegant storytelling and strong performances – it is a delicate evocation of a wonderful children’s tale, on solid theatrical ground.

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Singing with the Whales at BAC: I review WAIL! by Little Bulb Theatre Company

14 April 2016.  I have always been curious to see Little Bulb Theatre Company, because I have noticed that whenever their name comes up, people who have seen them perform will pause for a moment, put their hand on their heart, close their eyes briefly, take a deep breath and say, ‘Oh, Little Bulb’. So on my way to see their new show this week, I wondered, ‘What sort of theatre prompts this kind of uniform and reverent response?’, and, ‘Will I feel the same way?’ Reader, hand on heart, sigh, I did.

WAIL is described as ‘part-gig, part-lecture, part-your-lips-and-WAIL!’, and it is a gorgeous cabaret piece of devised theatre and original songs framed by the watery questions, ‘Why do whales sing?’ and ‘Why do humans wail?’ At the start, the space is lit with a low, blue light, the stage dark, and whale song is playing faintly, just under the decibel level of audience murmur. The stage holds a motley array of instruments: an upright double-bass sticking out of a low, blue-painted box, two timpani next to a large splash cymbal, a mandolin, two guitars – one electric and one acoustic.

Into this musical playground, Little Bulb’s writers/performers/directors Clare Beresford and Dominic Conway bound as the lights come up. They open with a song in aural primary colours with lyrics charmingly composed of facts about whales, jokes falling on the same beats as the rhymes, and the audience is thereby promptly whisked right under their spell. When the song finishes, they begin the first of the witty, intelligent, poetic and riotously funny dialogues in which they explore the large themes: Whale/Song/Why?

This is bare theatre, stripped back to essentials, with naked staging and a pervasively, purposely childlike aesthetic, from the plain grey t-shirts and jeans that Beresford and Conway wear, to the varied musical instruments strewn across the stage and the paper cut-out letters spelling ‘WAIL!’ taped against the wooden-panelled back of the stage. One of the interesting effects of this back-to-basics, lo-fi approach to production is that the pure craft of Little Bulb’s theatre shines through like the sun. No extra production is necessary, because Beresford and Conway conjure a rich, entertaining, subversive and comic theatrical tapestry out of the air with just words, performance and songs.

This choice of childlike aesthetic chimes in support of one of the finer and more subtle currents running through the show: the evocation of a pure, innocent wonder in the human at the sight of a whale (which also works as a symbol for all of Nature – one of the ways this unpretentious, lovely show opens out to larger ideas). Their sweetly comic series of sketches and songs sweep around the circumference of their questions, exploring angle-by-angle, the Big ‘Why?’ of whale song, and of human song.

The show burbles along like ocean foam, light and bright, with a mature sure-handedness of performance from Beresford and Conway. Beresford is an enchanting dynamo of a performer, and a beautiful and accomplished singer. There was a limitless feel in her range of expression, and I thought, ‘she could probably play anything or anybody, any character, colour, feeling or…sea mammal.’ Conway is likewise charming and plays the notes of comedy and poignance in his character with as much sure-fire skill as the ‘hot riffs’ he rocked on his axe. One of the delights of the show, in fact, was how rich the homemade songs and music were, and I kept feeling like it was an ur-musical, with all the pure theatricality and quality of a big show, but with, well, grey t-shirts and paper cut-out props. They involved the audience, who were turned into a whale chorus at one point, and play a game show with us at another point, which ramped up a light-hearted feelings in the room. And there were several moments of enjoyable rebellion, where, having created a tapestry of theatre, Beresford and Conway would comically unravel a few threads in a playful subversion of their created reality.

But the show also paused at times, its lightness juxtaposed with depth, to allow moments of contemplation on the sublimity of the ocean, as well as the complex relationship and history between humans and whales. At one point, Beresford sings an old Scottish folksong about the sea, ‘Farewell to Tarwathie’, with a delicate and subtle accompaniment on mandolin from Conway, above a traditional celtic drone, created here electronically: ‘I am bound out for Greenland, and ready to sail/In hopes to find riches/In hunting the whale…The cold land of Greenland is barren and bare/No seedtime or harvest is ever known there/The birds here sing sweetly on mountain and dale/But there isn’t a bird there to sing to the whale’. It was an interesting moment of depth, darkness and quiet that rounded the show.

This fascinating theatrical exploration of a large idea, ‘whale/wail’, arrives in the end at a fine moment of coherence in a final song about why we sing, with all the poetry of their beautiful writing tuned to finest form. All the riotous conceits of the sketches, large questions and songs come home at this point, and it is a profound and fulfilling mixture of all the energies they had conjured in the show: ‘A song is a place where you need not pretend/For there’s times when relief isn’t easily found/Then you just sing the same song for round after round/And start it again when it gets to the end’.

The rest of the audience loved it as much as I did, and amongst the thunderous applause at the end of the show, there was a spontaneous happening of the whale song they had taught us, a melee of ‘door creaks’, ‘moans’ and ‘woops’ laced into our clapping, which felt like a fitting homage to the brilliance of the show. And I just thought, ‘Oh, Little Bulb’.

[This review was originally published in Exeunt Magazine on 13 April 2016]

 

Snow White and Rose Red

Snow White and Rose Red: RashDash’s Dazzling Alternative Panto

15 December 2015.

Snow White and Rose Red, one of the lesser known fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, has two sisters as the heroes, making it a natural choice for RashDash. The result is entertaining, brilliant and feminist alternative panto.

In the original story, the sisters welcome a friendly bear into their home and do kind deeds for an evil dwarf who curses them even though they have helped him. Snow White falls in love with the bear, who turns out to be a man enspelled by the dwarf.

The design by Lucy Sierra combines dreamy fairy tale atmosphere with interestingly naked stagecraft. The narrator, the Snow Angel, is beautifully played by Becky Wilkie with an ancient-feeling storytelling cadence in her voice that effectively conjures up this magical world.  She stands on a platform constructed of bare scaffolding, the poles artfully arranged into arcs and whirls around her. As the show begins, she is surrounded by mist and sings a haunting melody about ‘a place where snow always falls, and the light can’t breathe…’, while looking into a large, clear glass ball, filled with mysterious looking light. It feels incongruous, but it also works, spinning the ancient and modern into each other.

RashDash – theatre makers Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland – play the two sisters, young women living happily together in Bluebell Cottage, with its green Chesterfield chair, colourful circular rag rug, warm fire and collection of storybooks, watched over by the Snow Angel.

One day they discover a new storybook in their cottage, about a small town high up in the mountains which is buried one day in an avalanche. The town’s only survivor is Graham, a Very Small Man with a Very Long Beard. When he discovers the deaths of his family and community, his heart freezes, and he goes searching for other people to make as miserable as he is.

This show doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of this tragedy, and the dark thread of this other story runs importantly through the show and is woven into the larger story’s resolution. Of course Graham is the evil dwarf of the original fairy tale, and RashDash’s production amplifies his backstory in order to trace the psychological origins of dark human behaviour. As the sisters contemplate the blank pages at the end of the book and realise the story is unfinished, a knock comes at the door. It’s a bear, and the rest of the story unfolds, with ensuing romance and adventure.

As in the original fairy tale, the two sisters represent different aspects of femininity: Goalen’s Snow White is a gentle, whimsical daydreamer, and Greenland’s Rose Red is brash, physical, and loud, dressed in a mini-tartan kilt, zebra pattern leggings and red roses in high-up alt-girl hair bunches. They are both rambunctious, strong, brave, and kind, and their femininity is thoughtfully presented as multi-faceted and valuable: Snow White’s gentleness sits alongside her bravery, and Rose Red’s physicality sits alongside her deeply felt emotions.

The show is stuffed full of delights: bawdy jokes, excellent songs (including a Joan Jett-esque rock number about danger by Rose Red), shadow puppetry, and perfectly tuned performances from the entire company, which also includes Tom Penn as a charming, urbane Bear, who has ‘a predilection for flowery notes in [his] tea’ and a beautiful singing voice, and Ed Wren as the Very Small Man, who had us rolling in the aisles, practically, with his effete, posh, evil cringing and spluttering, and hilariously lush hip action during the twerking section of the rap song. The show is so well-written that the bright bursts of brilliant wordplay, which were delightful surprises at first, felt normalised by the end, like having a firework display that keeps going for two hours.

But what I loved most about this show was the way it wove its modern moral fabric out of the old story: women are heroes, love may appear in contours that surprise us, and being loving in response to hate is the only way to heal the darkness in the world.

Originally published in Exeunt Magazine on 15 December 2015.

Rotterdam

Rotterdam, a new play by Jon Brittain

6 November 2015.

Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam is a play which makes you contemplate the nature of labels – ‘gay’, ‘queer’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘transgender’ – and the way language clusters around our self-definition, the different ways we say ‘I am this’ or ‘I am not that’, and the fixity or fluidity of actually being or becoming ‘this’ or ‘that’.

Rotterdam is a brilliant, subtle and engaging exploration of how these questions and pressures are activated in a couple who are in love, but at a point of radical and honest change. Alice and Fiona  have been living as a couple for seven years and are very much in love. Brittain’s play explores what happens to their relationship when one of them transitions into being a man.

Ellan Parry’s set is a bright and flexible space that does a good job of feeling like a stylish couple’s flat in Rotterdam, with a distinctly Dutch-feeling, sub-Ikea aesthetic and a weightless plasticity that helps it transform at will into a club, office, coffeehouse, and winter’s night frozen canal. The overarching feel of the piece is comedic, with the bright colours of the set and warm lighting suggestive of the playful tones of sitcom, but this doesn’t limit the expressive range of the show, and it descends poignantly into the deepest, darkest and most sensitive places in intimate relationships. At those points, the comedy continues to drop sublimely into the depths carved into the story.

Alice and Fiona are English expats living in Rotterdam. The opening scene, which takes place the day before New Year’s Eve, sees Alice sitting in front of a computer in their flat, trying and failing to send her parents the email she has written to explain that she is, according to spell-check at least, ’a Lebanon’.

Fiona teases Alice about her reluctance to send this email, and the first lines of their characters are drawn: Alice is hesitant and struggling to define herself as a lesbian to the world at large, and Fiona has an easy confidence and has been out since she was seventeen. The plot is set in motion right away as Alice tells Fiona, ‘You’ve always known who you are, you’ve never felt like you had anything to hide.’ And then Fiona reveals something that she has been hiding – that she feels she is meant to be a man, to be Adrian. This sends Alice down her own rabbit hole, wondering, ‘then what does that make me?’

The central pairing is supported by Lelani, a 21-year-old Dutch lesbian who works in Alice’s office at a shipping firm, played wonderfully by Jessica Clark, and Josh, Fiona/Adrian’s older brother as well as the ex-boyfriend and current best friend of Alice, equally brilliantly played by Ed Eales-White. Together the four characters are a relational quadrangle, and as the play moves into increasingly serious territory and shows the painful, angry stages of breakdown between Alice and Fiona/Adrian, both Clark and Eales-White bring a deliciously reliable humour to their roles, which is a bright counterpoint to the darker themes.

But beyond the humour they bring to the piece, both Clark and Eales-White thoughtfully portray the more difficult nuances of feeling that arise as the bombs keep exploding in the main relationship, and the two of them experience the collateral damage. Clark’s sexy, bold, creatural and straight- talking Lelani is recognisably Dutch, very funny, and yet still young, still vulnerable. And Eales-White’s comedic timing is spot-on as Josh, the sort of character you fall a little in love with, because he emanates so much kindness for both Alice and Adrian.

This is a very fine production, with different elements spinning together to make something magical. The performances of Alice McCarthy as Alice and Anna Martine as Adrian are superb, with McCarthy trembling on poignant verges between prim English repression and inner unravelling, her tightly controlled exterior masking extreme sadness and rage, as she experiences the arrival of Adrian primarily as the loss of Fiona. Anna Martine brings real artistry to her performance, from the delicate balances required on the gender/sexuality tightropes she walks, to the heart-rending moments at the plot’s climax, which brought me to tears.

The play has echoing significances that are only lightly alluded to but which make the explorations of society, gender and sexual identity feel rich, real and tangled, like the way in which the fear of parental abandonment for breaking sexual or gender moulds is set at different intensities for Alice and Adrian.

The choice of setting is important too; the play takes place in a time and location which are both symbols for change and upheaval: Rotterdam is described as a place where ‘You’re not supposed to stay…It’s a port. Everything’s moving on, it’s all just passing through, nothing’s standing still. It’s all on its way somewhere…else.’ And the main scenes take place around New Year’s Eve, with its resonances of endings and beginnings, and later, the Dutch national holiday Koningsnacht, or ‘King’s Night’, which until recently had been ‘Queen’s Night’ in the Netherlands.

Another powerful element of this show was its constant engagement with the question of who a person really is: Alice and Adrian’s questioning dance with the labels which they have chosen, but also the labels assigned to them by our culture. Underneath this the play, beautifully and importantly, keeps pointing out that they are just two people, who are vast in the fullness of their humanness, and searching for the truest and most fulfilling expressions of themselves in terms of gender and sexuality, and frustrated by a society that won’t recognise or accept their specific, innate way of being human. And this thoughtful philosophical inquiry isn’t incidental embroidery – it is the whirring engine that drives the plot and characters.

Rotterdam unpacks the tender complexities surrounding self-discovery, self-definition and love in a way that honours the paradoxical glimmering of universal human beingness with the expression of specific identity. It is a brilliant piece of writing and I am still thinking about it all.

Originally published in Exeunt Magazine on 6 November 2015