Category Archives: Reviews


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


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


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.

Wail image

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, 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

Without Stars James Cousins

Without Stars/There We Have Been: this bird has flown

24 October 2015.

The Cambridge Junction presented a double bill of dance pieces last week by the James Cousins Company, and when I found out that the show was based on the novel Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, I went to buy the book a few days beforehand. The first, longer piece is called Without Stars and the second, shorter piece There We Have Been.

I only read the first two chapters before seeing the show, so I had the interesting experience of being told one story across two different art forms: it began as words and continued as dance. The second piece was a retelling of the story from a different character’s perspective, so it felt like seeing a single thread of story, refracted.

The performance begins with the dropping of complete darkness in the theatre, which felt like being washed with black, while a metallic, dystopian roar sounded. And then the roar stopped, and the stage lights came up to show us three people dancing to a scratchy, vintage record, ‘You Always Hurt the Ones You Love’ by an old crooner. Love, hurt and memory are the themes of this story by Murakami.

The main character is a young man called Toru, who is in love with Naoko, who was the girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki. The plot bombshell that drops in the second chapter is that Kizuki committed suicide just before they all left school to go off to university. Toru and Naoko embark on a romance that is inextricably bound up with Kizuki’s death.

At this point, I moved from discovering the story in words to discovering it through the dance. The staging played constantly and thoughtfully with light and shadow, and the dancer playing the part of Naoko, Chihiro Kawasaki, would dance alone in patchy low light so that flashes of a sinewed leg curved into a shape of perfect beauty would be both there and not there. This was a significant foreshadowing, as well as an evocative portrayal of the aching tension in the two lovers’ relationship, with Toru trying to keep Naoko in the world, in the present, via his love, as she brokenly drifts back again and again to the memory of Kizuki, to the past. It was also a beautiful way of exploring Murakami’s play with the idea of memory, and how it can be there and then…not there.

The first piece feels like it is told from Toru’s perspective, and it travels through different moods of love, depicting tenderness, sensuality, longing, and the ravages of loss. The four dancers – portraying the two main lovers, the memory/ghost of Kizuki, and another lover for Toru – twist and tangle together in patterns that form, break apart and reconfigure, melting into each other with luxurious tactility and an ethereal grace, the lightness of which felt symbolic of the emotional realms of loving. The depiction of grief is stark and powerful: Kawasaki curls and caves her chest as if shockwaves of grief are resounding through it, and her face is a perfect, shocked, mad blankness during Without Stars, as if her spirit has been spun away from her body by this trauma, and she is not really there as Toru tries to save her, to bring her back by loving her.

The second piece There We Have Been reflected differently on the novel, and I enjoyed the ambiguous energies of the way the two different perspectives combined with each other. This piece allows us into Naoko’s inner world, which is so poignantly impenetrable in Without Stars. In this piece, she tenderly returns Toru’s love. There is much more light and hope, with a bright horizontal beam of yellow light shining on the dancers portraying Naoko and Toru, and this time Kawasaki gazes lovingly at the dancer playing Toru as he holds her up, supporting her in various ways while she turns, contorts, climbs up and out, it seems, of this world. It feels as if this second reflection of the novel looks upon death with a gentler existential gaze, seeing it as a transformation, and something peaceful, in contrast to the agonisingly dark portrayal of it from Toru’s perspective in the first piece.

I really enjoyed this show, and I felt quite dreamy, sated and contemplative by the end of it. I would have happily drifted out of the theatre and home in solitude. But the lobby after the show was like a pinball machine of friends as I headed for the door, and each of them gave me their impressions of the piece. To each person I asked, ‘Have you read the book?’ And so I collected refractions of perceptions of this story that came to me already refracted. One friend said that he didn’t engage with it particularly well, but then he paused and wondered if that was because he had something else on his mind. He said that he hadn’t read the book but pointed out how important it is for the work to stand on its own. I agree, and it made me consider the power of allusion and the way our prior knowledge affects our perception of any piece heavily drawing upon another work.

Another friend said that she thought the show lacked dynamism, that it played out within too narrow a frame of expression. She also hadn’t read the book. I thought a lot about this and came to the conclusion that I agreed with her, too – because although I deeply enjoyed the expressions of the show, I could see that I already had the frame of the story in my mind – setting, characters, plot arc and themes – and they weren’t all really fully brought to life by the two pieces; part of my exhilarated admiration for many of the artistic choices came from already knowing what aspect of the original they were drawing upon – dancing with. My imagination, via the power of imported allusory material, supplied what the dance did not always provide in its separate act of storytelling. But then a third person I spoke with who had not read the book was completely, utterly besotted with the piece.

Allusion is tricky artistic material to work with… I’ve always been fascinated by it – it calls to me, too. The specific beauty of a particular piece of art is such a seductive, beckoning thing. It is compelling to want to explore, play, dance with these beauties – to pay homage, to unearth seams of gold laying unexplored in the original, to import, reflect, re-consider. Without Stars/There We Have Beenreflected much beauty and depth in its dance with another artwork, and my response was more towards the besotted end of the spectrum, and so perhaps some of this difference in perception we need to consign to the question mark that spins at the intercepts of the axes of personal taste and quality in artistic expression.

This essay was published originally in Exeunt Magazine on 24 October 2015.


Of Riders and Running Horses

Of Riders and Running Horses: the roof under our feet

17 September 2015.  It’s Thursday night in Cambridge, and the way into the show I am about to see,Of Riders and Running Horses by Dan Canham’s dance theatre company Still House, is a long climb up a winding, breezeblock stairwell to the top of the five-storey car park next to the Cambridge Junction. I eventually emerge into open sky on the rooftop, and it is real dusk. The remaining daylight is bright strips of colour smudged together over in the west, and it’s fully dark in the east. Live, energetic Afro-Cuban music is blasting from speaker towers around the perimeter of a brightly lit performance space, made by a live band of two musicians, Sam Halmarack and Luke Harney (AKA Typesun), who are nested within a tightly packed cluster of varied percussion instruments, guitars and electronic music kit at one end.

The audience settles, the drumming goes quiet, and then into the silence, Sam Halmarack sings a cappella – a beautiful, simple melody and interesting, subtle lyrics, which after a time is grabbed by electronics and amplified, sustained, and layered. And then percussion comes back in, with fierce drums and surprising syncopations, building to an intense, exciting jungle beat. The first dancer jumps in, and her movement is like an exact embodiment of the music in dance form. Then four other dancers come out of the audience one by one to join her, five women in urban street clothes, and I wish I could join them, too, because the music is so strongly beckoning.

They spin in interlocking patterns of individual movements, and I wonder how much of the music and dance is improvised, because it’s tight, but there are ripples where they catch ideas and energy from each other, clearly listening to each other with their bodies. Eventually, after what feels like a long time, they fall into unison, and this feels wonderful to me on some deep, primal level – it feels like an expression of the constant elemental progression from times of wildness into harmony.

Then the music quiets again, and together they explore small, subtle movement, stillness, pauses and they are still like a human embodiment of the percussive music – which is now slow, with shakers and rattling metal – and it is as if the women are cymbals themselves, or streams of air shaken by percussive vibrations. Then four dancers drift away, and one is left, moving quietly to a long, low, electric bass drone.

She moves like she is underwater, and again it occurs to me that this piece feels elemental, like a depiction of nature. But whenever my mind tries to capture this show and cage it within a description or theme, the abstract fights wildly back, the performance saying, ‘I just am’ and the dance saying, ‘I just am…the music’ and the music saying ‘I just am…the dance’. This piece is a lush, abstract expression and exploration of feelings.

And at this point, when I have been fully captured by the performance, and I have been prompted into thoughtful consideration of the axis between programmatic and abstract art, the dancers shift into a section of the piece that is like the interplay of different musical voices working in harmony: they line up and combine like fingers pressing down the keys of a piano, overlapping in different patterns like individual notes making different chords. Then they start calling out, noises that sound like animal calls, and the music grows bright and joyous underneath them, and eventually they break out of the patterns into pure wildness again, and I notice their dance is sending rumbling vibrations through the roof under our feet.

I loved every moment and every element of this piece. The musicians created walls and waves and trickles and forests of sound, moving expertly and creatively through Electro-Indie, Techno, Electronic, Afro-Cuban and Santaria music. The dancers – Anna Kaszuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tanya Richam-Odoi, Tilly Webber and Stephanie McMann – were brilliant and energetically, symbiotically connected to the music in a way that was extremely satisfying and fertile. The staging – the night sky, big sound and bright lights – created a sense that we were at a rare, artistic, rooftop rave. And after an hour of having all the cells in my body dancing to the music, but having to hold myself outwardly still, the thing I was hoping for happened: the last thing the dancers did after our final claps and cheers was to pull the audience into the dance, and the musicians kept playing, for us now.

Produced by MAYK

Directed by Dan Canham with associate director Laura Dannequin
Cast Includes Anna Kaszuba, Isabelle Cressy, Odilia Egyiawan, Tanya Richam-Odoi, Tilly Webber, and Stephanie McMann
Original Music Luke Harney and Sam Halmarack

[This review was originally published in Exeunt Magazine 17 September 2015.]


The BE Festival: Democratic and Delicious

3 July 2015.  The BE Festival is a gathering of contemporary European performance and takes place at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre; when my mate Nicky and I arrive we are told to go around the back of the building.  It’s a strange, deserted alleyway that we walk down at first, and then, turning a corner, we see a smoking enclosure on the pavement filled with women wearing tea dresses accessorized edgily and men in retro blazers.  We look at each other, at our own edgily accessorized tea dresses, and laugh.  I say, ‘I think we have found our people.’  And then we talk about the strangeness of the urge to join a tribe, how mysterious a thing it is to be compelled to align, to dress this way and not another, how complex are the patterns of society as they weave together.  I have always had complicated feelings about this urge in myself, because I want to love everybody, to align with everybody.  The theme of the festival this year is Democracy, and so this question of how we align, malign, agree, dissent and weave together was running through the various artistic explorations in many different fascinating and complex ways.

The prevailing aesthetic of the festival is this edgy, retro style: the festival Hub was the massive loading bay at the back of the theatre, which was dressed with curated selections of antique furniture clustered cosily in a large seating area with a bar, and antique bric-a-brac adorning the wide corridors leading off to the studio theatre and the main theatre stage. A mixture of audience, performers and festival workers were drinking, lounging and talking in the sofas. A pale rose chaise longue was enjoyably incongruous against the concrete floor and breeze block bricks of this backstage turned into a new sort of theatre.  The democracy-themed visual arts installations occupied space like wild oases, where people clustered to observe and participate.

The first show of the night was Correction by the VerTeDance contemporary dance company from the Czech Republic.  The piece began with the stage in darkness and beautiful melodic electronic music with voices singing in harmony, accompanied by a live clarinet ensemble called the Clarinet Factory.

Seven dancers were revealed when the stage lights came up, standing in a straight line, all wearing the same brown workman’s boots and dressed in casual street clothes.  The introductory music faded into silence, and the dancers began to move, with their feet locked onto the stage floor in their identical boots, swaying into each other like a Newton’s Cradle, passing the energy of motion along the line, recalling the properties of physics, the finite energies of material reality – but also the way we as people touch and influence each other with our human energy.

The dance would go on to explore the different patterns of our energetic interactions, first in sweet and funny moments of capitulation and rebellion to the charge being passed along, and then in increasingly disturbing displays of aggression.  This was a performance that struck a deep chord with all of the people I spoke to on this night of the festival, and I think this was because it revealed patterns of behaviour operating between all of us, all of the time, much of the time unconsciously, and these patterns of energy operate on both micro and macro levels of society.

In one part of the dance, one of the dancers was pushed down and left to struggle back up on his own, and then once he was back up he lashed out viciously to the next person along, in a complete tracery of the dynamic of recycled violence.  This is something that nations do (Israel, I’m looking at you, bra) and that families, friends, politicians, workmates, lovers and strangers do.  And then the dance takes the expenditure of energy on conflict to its extreme point, and all the dancers fight each other violently until finally they are exhausted, spent and lifeless on the floor.  The sense that came ringing clearly out of this moment was that violence is just a waste of human energy and beauty.

And then the music came back, recorded voices singing in harmony, and the clarinets fluttered back into a thoughtful, hopeful swell, and gradually the dancers pulled themselves up to standing.  What happened next reminded me of something Aristotle said about fiction/art/’poetry’ – that poetry is more important than history, because ‘the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be.’  I felt a frustrated exhaustion and sad recognition of the futile cycles of conflict the dancers portrayed as the piece wound to its conclusion, our sad, shared history.  And then when it felt like I/we couldn’t take it anymore, a shift happened, and then came the surprising introduction of a hopeful ‘what if?’ into the dance.

The dancers slowly began introverted, soulful dances all on their own, eyes shut. Then gradually they harmonised, opened their eyes, and the dance became wild, joyous, free, individual and shared.  My heart rose up, and I wished hard that all our interactions as a society ‘might be’…like this.  Another reason why the show was so powerful was its technical beauty – the movement of the dancers was precise, agile and evocative, and perfectly orchestrated according to the thematic progression of the piece.  It was brilliant.  It was hard to believe this piece was only a half hour.

The next show shocked the hell out of me, for various reasons, and explored a sharply realistic and extremely important corner of the democracy theme: if you don’t already have it, how, how, how, do you create it? How does revolution feel, what are the details, what do you actually do, what does it do to you?  This was a theatre piece for three actors called MOUVMA! by Collectif Corps Citoyen, a collaboration between Tunisian and Italian artists, presented in Arabic, French and Italian with subtitles.  It was about the beginning of democratic revolt in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

Before this show started, the festival co-directors, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun, came out on stage and read a statement written by the actors.  I hadn’t seen the news – it was Friday 26 June, the day that Islamic State gunmen from Tunisia opened fire on a beach in the Tunisian resort town of Port EL Kantaoui and killed 35 people, mostly foreign tourists.  The statement said, ‘We will have to explain to the world that we are not like them.  This show is our only tool to ask questions and keep hope alive’.

The show began with the house lights up and the three actors, one man and two women, chatting brightly, lightly to the audience: ‘Hi!’, ‘Ça va?’, ‘Hello!’, ‘Ça va?’, ‘Hi!’  This devolved into a comic confusion in different languages, with the three talking over each other, all saying ‘Are you okay? So what’s up? How are you? How are your Studies? Your job? Your family? Your Friends? For Me, it’s going so well, very well thank you.’ Then the falsity of the surface greeting crumbled, the idea of ‘being okay’ crumbled, and they were not okay, and ‘nowhere’ was anything ‘okay’.

Then the scene broke up and they scrambled into various patterns, exploring and depicting the actions and details of revolt. One of the most powerful moments was when we are told an eyewitness’s account of a man who sets himself on fire for a political protest.  We hear the details:

‘But I was close enough to see that the man was wearing glasses. He took the can and threw it. He shook. He took the lighter again with the same gesture.’

At another point, the stage lights went dark, and a film was projected on the whole of the backstage wall, which was real footage of the chaos during the political revolt.  Because of the darkness on stage, the actors in grey light blended into the moving shadows of the projection.  They shouted out, became like people in the film made real on stage.  They tell us, tell each other, ‘we have to protect our heads’, and ‘the police have orders to kill’.  One of the powerful effects of this show was that the dimensions of theatre and reality warped together, to bring the audience across the separating devices of time, distance, culture, the almost fictional-feeling remove of the news on telly and in newspapers.  The show was exploding the line between real and not-real, near and far, using the magical properties of the un-real theatre to collapse distance.

After this the scene dissolves and the lights come up again, and quietly, seriously, they ask each other, ‘Ça va?’  And this question,Are you ok? meant so much more now than at the innocent beginning of the show.  It meant, ‘have you survived?’ This circling back the idea of being okay, now heavy with the deeper weight of love and fear of loss amidst the breaking passion of revolution, was beautiful theatre.

The show ended with one of the actors staring at canisters filled with green fluid that have been on the stage all along.  He moves towards one of them, and the other two rush to stop him.  He keeps lunging for the canisters, and they keep trying to stop him.  The lights go out, and he splashes the liquid around himself, the house lights go dark, and then they start striking matches.  In the dim light of the matches, he says, ‘And so I did it, right?  Because I had a rotten life before.’

This show felt like all the words I have ever read about political protest and revolution come to life in 3-D, several metres away from me.  And what came through most clearly is that it is an edge in the mind, reached collectively, a tipping point in the mind, in many minds.  It felt like desperate, urgent reportage more than theatre, and like we were brushing up against the particular elements, the details and nuances of revolution. It was powerful and brilliant.

The format of the festival is designed around sociability, and every night during a hiatus in the performances the audience, performers and festival staff sit down together to a dinner cooked by London-based food artists Blanch and Shock. Nicky and I had Toulouse sausages, a duck egg, lentil, tomato and red pepper stew, fennel, spring onion and parsley salad and yoghurt. I kept asking myself, ‘what is artistic about this food?’ as I chewed and talked to Nicky and a lovely older couple called Liz and Peter (who were avid Birmingham theatre goers), and in the end I decided that the way each different flavour mixed with the others on the plate in perfect harmony was extremely democratic, as well as delicious.

The festival programmed lighter offerings post-dinner; the first was a thoughtful and humorous solo circus performance by Darragh McLoughlin, called The Whistle, which was produced by Squarehead Productions of Ireland.  Darragh asked us to close our eyes then open our eyes in patterns as he blew a whistle hanging around his neck, playing with illusion and perception (and our honesty) in charming and interesting ways.  The piece had the feel of gentle clowning and juggling mixed with a sort of zen minimalism and showed some touches of real abstract artistic brilliance.  At one point when we were supposed to have our eyes closed, Darragh asked us, ‘Am I still performing if no one is watching me?’

The show traced the trajectory of learning and failure in the moments where Darragh allowed us to open our eyes to the backstage moments of a juggling trick, to the dropped balls and failed attempts.  He reminded me afterwards, during the disco party in the festival Hub that closed the night, that circus is an art with an intensely crystallised focus on perfection, and it was poignant to be shown the circus performer’s private moments of struggle, out of which radiated a more expansive philosophical significance.  It was a lovely show.

The final performance of the night was my personal favourite.  It was a contemporary theatre piece called Of Miracles and Wonders, Optimistic Conference by Fundación Collado Van Hoestenberghe of Spain, which is the artistic partnership of the two performers, Ernesto Collado of Spain and Barbara Van Hoestenberghe of Belgium.

Ernesto was dressed in a powder blue suit, and Barbara in a white minidress.  Onstage there were two desks with laptops, some musical instruments on Barbara’s side of the stage, including electric guitar and small bar chimes, and on Ernesto’s desk a pitcher of red juice.  There were some potted plants scattered around and a large projection screen at the back of the stage.  The show begins in silence, with text appearing on the projection screen, in imperfect English, one line at a time:

‘I love this moment.

All this expectations…

It’s like a pear.

More precisely like the stalk of a pear.

Because the stalk of a pear is not yet a pear.

It’s still the branch.

This is to say, the tree.

And this is to say a fractal infinity of possibilities.

And this takes us directly to quantum physics.’

After each line appears, the audience laughs, and this is the first sound of the piece.  I started to feel the building of an irrepressible exuberance and delight at the way these ideas were unfolding, and this only deepened with every revolution of the show, which was a succession of sweet, absurd, comic, poetic vignettes.

After the silent dialogue and laughter of the beginning, Ernesto takes over as our guide through the show, and we are whooshed down many more rabbit holes and twirled through dancing concepts, which left me feeling pleasantly drunk on ideas.  We go though philosophical contemplations of loss – lost words, lost time – via  a lost lighter; through consciousness, dreams, conscience, and peaceful societies via the Spanish siesta; through the inscription on the Delphic oracle’s temple, ‘know thyself’ via Ikea, with interjections of Shakespeare and musings on John Wayne.

The show was so eclectic, allusory and sporadic, that it is natural to question its unity, its framing, which narratively was the ‘Optimistic Conference’ of the title, but the wildly veering angles felt oddly well connected – I think by the thickness of the sense of wonder, the other material under consideration in the show, which was being quite consciously and deliberately spun by the staging, the wonderfully poetic text and thoughtful performances by Ernesto and Barbara.  At one point Ernesto quotes Montaigne: ‘If we give the name of miracles and wonder to everything our reason cannot comprehend, are they not continually presented before our eyes?’, and I felt this was the unifying element of the show, the contemplation of the quality of wonder.

Aftewards, talking about this show with Nicky, she said, ‘I wanted the crazy to flower more’, sagely guessing that this was a longer show cut down to fit the parameters of the festival.  The design of the festival is structured so that the shows are about 30 minutes, to fit four performances into each evening more comfortably for the audience.  Ernesto told us afterwards that the show is normally an hour, and they found it difficult to cut it down to a smaller size.  It was, ahem, wonderful, anyway, but I would love to see the full version sometime.

We felt this was true for ‘MOUVMA!’ as well, and we reflected that most contemporary theatre pieces are about an hour, and that it is rare to see shorter ones – but interestingly, I felt the power of both shows despite the truncation, and I deeply enjoyed all of the shows I saw and was grateful to the festival for giving me such a generous offering of brilliant European performance.  I was also grateful to the festival for giving us a disco in the festival Hub with DJ Glyn Phillips until 2 a.m. after all the shows finished. I was crackling with wonder, with art, theatre, humanity, hope, and what I really needed was a dance.

[This review was published in Exeunt Magazine on 3 July 2015]