Friday, 15 May 2015
Free arts festival, 15th-17th May, multiple venues across Exeter
Now in its 4th year, the NOSE festival hits Exeter this weekend with an absolute blinder of a programme. True to its commitment to place art in public spaces, right in front of your face, NOSE presents performance events, a photographers' gallery, an audio tour, plus more, all around the topic of Routes and Chutes. And it's all FREE!
Tonight, Friday 15th May, there's a 'proto-immersive' performance piece O-B-A-F-G that sits the audience in a dark room (at Exeter Phoenix Black Box) for an audio 'play' - you can also listen in online (or at 106.8fm in the Exeter area) to Phonic.FM and create your own 'happening' at home. Free tickets here.
The Foxhibitionists will be hitting the streets from 5pm tonight (and Saturday 16th at the same time), exposing the pubic to their art. Keep your eyes peeled for some foxy individuals in trench coats...
Up at Exeter University, at Russell Seal Fitness Centre, there's Psychogeogging - run around the city without ever leaving the treadmill.
On Sunday 17th follow artist Rosie King's Walk Along a Promise - an installation in Princesshay, 10am-5pm.
From today, there's an audio tour, From Books to Tree, that starts at Exeter Library and ends up at the Heavitree - one of Mythogeoghrapher Phil Smith's famous 'mis-guided' walks.
Will you be able to find the 'dead drops' secreted around the city to download free stuff?
Check out the website. From Saturday 16th, there will also be info boxes around the city (Exeter Phoenix, Bike Shed, etc) where you can grab a free badge and a full brochure.
NOSE, 15th-17th May. All over Exeter.
Thursday, 19 March 2015
The latest project from Dreadnought South West is a new play, The Orchard, that imagines a meeting between radical suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and moderate suffragist Millicent Fawcett. We might be back in similar territory to their last piece, Oxygen, which in 2013 celebrated the centenary of the Great 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage, but this time the work is more clearly untethered from its historical moorings. The conversation between Emmeline and Millicent draws on history and yet feels so very contemporary, in that we're still - 100-odd years on - debating the same issues around equality, democracy, women in politics and the vote.
With Emmeline on the run from the authorities - she's recently been released from prison, where she'd been on hunger strike - she and Millicent seek somewhere safe to talk, away from the glare. An orchard in spring - life blooming all around them. And here they discuss their politics, their commitment to the cause - equality for women - and their very different approaches to achieving their aims. Militancy, window-smashing, bombs... Emmeline believes that only radical action can make the government listen; for Millicent, persistent, consistent peaceful campaigning is the only reasonable route to take.
As Emmeline and Millicent, actors Ruth Mitchell and Michelle Ridings interrogate each other's position as the audience sits in traverse, eyeing each other as much as the performers. It's like a debating chamber, the House of Commons - the action playing out before us, the debate constantly moving forward, digging ever deeper into what it means to stand up for one's convictions, fight for one's beliefs, do what needs to be done to achieve one's aims. This might be a peaceful orchard, blossom all around, but the arguments are vital and throb with passion.
And what's most exciting is that this process is a truly collaborative creative endeavour, involving the actors, playwright Natalie McGrath and director Josie Sutcliffe, as well as the audience - after each performance, the audience is invited to discuss what they've seen, share their thoughts and ideas, and these conversations then feed into the development of the script, altering it, shaping it, making it afresh every performance. It's a living thing that grows each time it is shared; the more people see it, the more voices that add to its development, the more representative it will be of what we really want to talk about, as theatregoers, as citizens, as voters about to throw our two-penneth into the big election hat.
Theatre doesn't get much more exciting than that.
The Orchard is on at Exeter Phoenix on 19-20 March, 7.30pm, £8/£6, tickets from www.exeterphoenix.org.uk, 01392 667080
Plymouth: Barbican Theatre, 24 April, 7.30pm, £8/£6, tickets from www.barbicantheatre.co.uk, 01752 267131
Wednesday, 4 February 2015
Merit is at The Drum, Plymouth until 14th February 2015
|Rebecca Lacey and Lizzy Watts. Photo by Steve Tanner|
We’re in Spain in the age of austerity – 2013, to be precise – and Sofia is one of the lucky ones: she has a job. Increasingly, however, working as PA to one of the country’s richest bankers is causing friction with her family. As Sofia is no more talented, intelligent or industrious than her unemployed friends, her mother wonders, what could be the real reason that Sofia was successful where so many others have failed? Might she have given more than just the right answers in the interview?
It is through the prism of this prickly mother-daughter relationship that Alexandra Wood explores the impact of the global financial crisis on families and communities; how the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots might distort value systems on both sides. While mother Patricia needles away at Sofia about the nature of her relationship with boss Antonio – whose place at the top of the capitalist machine proves that he is ‘rapacious, corrupt, corrupting’, a manipulator of markets and people – Sofia finds herself forced to defend her employer, mainly through reference to his philanthropic activities and charitable donations. As mother and daughter thrust and parry their way through the debate, with Patricia increasingly resorting to emotional blackmail to get her way, it becomes clear that the truly ruthless manipulator might be much closer to home.
Matthew Wright’s set design, with its mix of tiled stone steps and the suggestion of modernist glass and steel, conveys the clash of old and new Spain, of traditional family values against pernicious individualism. The stepped layout allows for director Jennie Darnell to be explicit about the power dynamics of each exchange, a little clunkily at times, but the curved Perspex at the top of the set adds an extra dimension in the way it refracts the performers’ reflections, so the dominant character is simultaneously seen in miniature, and vice versa.
However, while the mother-daughter relationship is well portrayed, with solid performances from Rebecca Lacey (Patricia) and Lizzy Watts (Sofia), the whole seems hampered by the on-the-nose dialogue about financial inequality, and the stagey way the argument is handed back and forth. Spain may well be the stated setting, but it seems perfunctory at best (perhaps because the play started life as a short piece in response to the Royal Court’s PIIGS season, in which playwrights were tasked with tackling austerity in the five EU countries hardest hit); while Patricia occasionally channels ‘old Spanish mama’ by sitting forwards in a knee-grabbing stance, Sofia could be from anywhere. And maybe that’s the point – we’re all global capitalists now – but at times it seems almost as if the two actors are in different plays.
But most troublesome is the twist (no spoilers, don’t worry), which, when it arrives, drops heavily into the narrative like a boulder from outer space, making no logical sense and adding neither nuance nor revelation to anything that’s occurred up to that point. And it’s at this here that Woods’ text, which had been by turns engaging and entertaining, albeit somewhat repetitive in places, loses the plot completely. This piece needs further development before it’s ready to fly.
Written by Alexandra Wood
Directed by Jennie Darnell
Cast: Rebecca Lacey, Lizzy Watts
Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes (no interval)
Reviewed for Exeunt
From Devon with Love at Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter
14th -31st January 2015
An offshoot of Framework, the Bike Shed Theatre’s artist development arm, From Devon with Love continues to play an invaluable part in Exeter’s thriving arts ecology, offering a safe space for county-based companies and performers to put new work on its feet and in front of an audience. Some of the pieces have previously been scratched at the Bike Shed, or been supported through the use of rehearsal space, and work shown here for the first time often goes on to bigger, more developed lives elsewhere. This year, for the first time, Plymouth’s Barbican Theatre also hosted work under the banner, with the best work from each city’s programme playing at the other venue and in a closing night showcase at the Bike Shed.
As always, the programme was diverse, and the quality variable, but there was some impressively accomplished work on show, not least of which was Documental Theatre’s Score, a thoughtful, funny two-hander about friendship, addiction and the restorative power of music. Basing the narrative on what must have been hard-hitting conversations with women about their experiences of parenthood while battling addiction, writer Lucinda Bell has crafted a moving and engaging piece that navigates tricky terrain with candour and intelligence.
|Settling scores: Lara Simpson as Kirsty|
Kirsty (Lara Simpson) and Hannah (Kathleen Fitzpatrick Milton) have been friends since junior school, when Hannah’s family provided a model of stability that Kirsty’s drug-addicted dealer father never could. As time passes, we drop into episodes and experiences throughout their still entwined lives, as babies arrive, difficulties mount, and their existence becomes ever more focused on heroin.
The segues between different stages in their lives are subtly handled and effective, pulling us from a childhood nativity through teenage pregnancy to motherhood and darker times, always with drugs and music a constant refrain. While the whistle-stop journey seems a little too pat at times, what comes across most clearly is the strength of female friendship, its rhythms, harmonies and counterpoints. Both actors have powerful, soulful voices (musical arrangement courtesy of Verity Standen) that highlight beautifully the capacity of music to raise us up, to heal and restore.
The linear structure hampers the credibility at times, and I wonder if focusing on one part of the women’s lives, then pulling out and back to reveal the hows and whys would overcome the occasional triteness. There is great comedy here, too, most of which rings true, even if some of the lines are clearly from the writer rather than the characters – possibly a result of dialogue constructed from myriad conversations with different individuals. Ultimately, though, this is a wonderfully assured piece from a company to watch.
Also using music to add texture and balance was Two Blind Dogs, a show that gave space to an intense presentation of spoken word performance from poets Alice and Peter Oswald alongside singer/songwriter Mae Karthauser. All three presented character-driven pieces, which were intriguing and detailed – with Alice Oswald a particularly mesmerising presence, utterly still and irresistible to watch – but for me the highlight was Mae’s beautiful, ephemeral voice and music, as if she was beaming in from somewhere else entirely, somewhere as yet undiscovered but completely knowable.
Aminal’s Midnight. Dream. Sleep. created a similar effect in its exploration of intimacy, in this instance through a one-to-one walking performance that follows the contours of a relationship with the midnight city as backdrop. Meeting by the cathedral as the clock strikes twelve, writer/performers Kelly Miller and Jonny Rowden are each paired with one audience member, who puts on headphones to hear the story unfold while walking the streets together, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes in a near embrace. Poetic and lyrical, it maps desire and distraction, connections and disconnections, that feeling of losing yourself completely. It’s about knowing someone more than you know yourself, about understanding – intuiting – their ways of seeing and doing, about being inside their lives so completely that you feel part of their very pulse. And in wandering the city at night – abandoned and star-lit – it conjures those any-hour walks in which time and distance cease to matter, because this succession of minutes and miles is just for you two, here, now. And how those minutes and miles gape once love is gone. This is a quietly beautiful piece that might prove a challenge for some audience members, in that it demands a certain level of ease with proximity to the performers, but it absolutely reaches into the intensity of emotional experience.
Also intense, in a decidedly more unsettling way, was Substance and Shadow’s revival of Christie in Love, Howard Brenton’s 1969 three-hander about serial killer John Christie, who was hanged in 1953 for the murders of eight women, the bodies of which were found hidden around his house and garden in West London. It’s a disturbing play, still powerful in its depiction of a warped and dangerous mind, and this is a strong production, faithful to the text, and a perfect fit for the Bike Shed’s subterranean space.
|Tainted love: Midge Mullin as John Christie. Photo by Matt Austin|
A constable digs for bones in Christie’s garden, discomforted by the crimes and the air of deviant sexuality that surrounds them; to calm himself, he recites obscene limericks. Shovelling aside piles of scrunched up newspaper, he eventually unearths Christie himself, who emerges as if conjured by that strange combination of moral outrage and seedy titillation so peculiar to the tabloid press. An inspector interrogates Christie about his crimes, and although Brenton doesn’t offer us any answers to why he did what he did, it is implied that the line between passion and perversion is anything but straightforward.
As the constable and the inspector, Sam Pike and Nathan Simpson convey that tension with real skill; and Pike’s manipulation of a mannequin to play out one of Christie’s murders is particularly adept. As Christie, Midge Mullin delivers just the right amount of sinister banality and repressed malevolence, by turns meek and subservient, then furious, then gloating, so proud of his ability to creep about in his ‘plims’, silently delivering his judgments on women’s right to life. Chilling.
In complete contrast, Nuts & Volts’ Lucky Dip was a playful piece of utter silliness based on the conceit that the company is suffering artistic differences, its internal conflicts played out in two competing shows, The Good One and The Rubish (sic) One. Audiences pick tickets out of a hat and are then separated to either take an innuendo-soaked tour of the ‘back passages’ of Exeter, or stay in the auditorium to witness the tricks of the acting trade. Very funny, the show makes the most of the performers’ ability to camp it up outrageously while poking fun at theatre’s potential for pretension. Good, old-fashioned fun.
Also funny is Hugh McCann’s one-man show Ensuite, a gonzo tour of the first year experiences of art student ‘Hugh McCann’ as he gets to grips with living away from home, appreciating art and finding his way in the world. Careening round the performance space in shorts, a sports jacket and woolly hat, ‘Hugh’ is a credible mix of eager naïf and savvy bullshit-detector who also harbours a semi-secret love of musical theatre. When he purchases 150 Russian anti-depressants off the internet as a way of greasing the social wheels while also earning some money, he pulls us along on a surreal journey of self-discovery via pints of wine, Marcel Duchamp and the floral pleasures of Kew Gardens. McCann is an incredibly likeable performer, and this piece reveals that he is also a gifted writer adept at weaving numerous narrative strands into an engaging whole. It needs some tightening up and further development, but this is already an impressive piece of performance work demonstrating considerable skill.
The festival wrapped up with a day of hosted conversations and presentations that brought together the artists taking part in the festival, other venues, producers, designers and arts organisations, and provided the space to forge new connections, share ideas and advice, and generally start a dialogue. Representatives from the Arts Council offered advice on funding applications, and there were opportunities to talk to professionals about artist development, press and marketing, festivals and touring, and working with a producer. It was free to attend, and the Bike Shed stumped up for breakfast to get proceedings going, then a delicious soup with bread and salad for lunch, and the room was filled with a happy hubbub of conversation for the whole day. And a really positive way to close the festival.
Reviewed for Exeunt
Thursday, 6 November 2014
|Aminal crackers: Tortoise (Jonny Rowden), Bird (Katie Villa) and Hare (Kelly Marie Miller). Photo: Chris Jones|
Tortoise & Hare at Bike Shed Theatre: 27th October – 1st November 2014
It’s Tortoise’s birthday, and we’ve been invited to the surprise party. Hare’s task has been to decorate the burrow (check), set the table (check), and hire a chef to cook the birthday feast… Oops! As usual, hyperactive Hare has been too busy bouncing around the place to finish working her way through the to-do list. ‘No problem!’ says Hare. ‘I’ll call Pizza-Hutch!’ But if there’s one thing Tortoise hates more than Hare’s unreliability, it’s junk food, so he’s going to cook instead. Although, him being a tortoise, that might take a while… Luckily, ever-practical Bird is on hand with a bright idea: if we all work together, we can use produce stashed around the burrow to create a delicious three-course meal in a fraction of the time. But will the healthy option arrive before the pizza?
The first production from Exeter-based company Aminal, this interactive kids’ show is a delight from start to finish, fusing fun storytelling, hands-on food preparation and three cracking comedy performances from devisors Jonny Rowden (Tortoise), Kelly Mare Miller (Hare), and Katie Villa (Bird). As we all gather round the giant table – made out of doors, some still with knobs attached, it’s just one of the many highlights of Laurel Coxon’s genius make-do-and-mend-style set and costume design – the narrative blends past and present to reveal the origins of Tortoise and Hare’s chalk-and-cheese relationship and the burgeoning niggles that are threatening to up-end life in the burrow. Can fun-averse Tortoise and harum-scarum Hare ever come to recognise each other’s good points, and live in mutually appreciative and collaborative friendship ever after?
|Hare-larious - Kelly Miller channels Bugs Bunny and Roger Rabbit. Photo: Chris Jones|
While loosely working with Aesop’s central tenet – slowly but surely wins the race – the piece also seems keen to draw attention to the importance of making healthy food choices: Hare, it’s implied, is constantly hopped up on E-numbers, the many naps she falls into presumably a result of sugar crashes. And although this element feels a little underdone, that might be the point – nothing is bound to put kids off vegetables more effectively than a bunch of adults banging on about how good they are for you, not even if that adult is wearing a huge crocheted shell – but it’s also impossible to be anything but utterly beguiled by Hare, who is so rambunctiously appealing that Tortoise is in danger of losing the popularity contest outright.
Whatever the educational intent, this is a great kids’ show – engaging and upbeat, cute yet smart, and with enough shifts in action and immersion to keep short attention spans focused. If the pace slips a little on occasion, it’s barely noticeable, and all three performers are adept at keeping even the youngest audience members on track, plus there are plenty of funny quips and asides to keep Mum and Dad giggling too. Let’s hope Aminal get the chance to put on a Christmas show at some point. I bet it would be a blast.
Devised by Aminal
Co-produced by Aminal and Bike Shed Theatre
Originally reviewed for Exeunt
Wednesday, 17 September 2014
|Simon Carroll-Jones. Image: Vish Vishvanath|
The Situation Room at Bike Shed Theatre: Until 20th September 2014
Collectivism or individualism?
Corn chowder or chicken Kiev?
Long Island ice tea or Moscow mule?
Arbitrary choices made in the bar determine with whom you sit and where for The Situation Room, a thoughtful, clever piece of interactive theatre that puts the audience in opposing Cold War camps to thrash out the fate of the small oil-rich nation of Al-Khadra. But while your tastebuds could be largely responsible for which ideology you represent during this war-game, your subsequent decisions – and their consequences – might well be based on motives much more unpalatable.
Game-play, tactics and strategy drive the narrative as we, members of the Politburo, led by solemn former Stalingrad hero Andrey Sergeyevich Budka (Bennett), and the National Security Council, under the command of suave CIA man Benjamin Stokely (Simon Carroll-Jones), must decide which action to take – send in a sniper, torture a rebel leader – to secure our aim: control of the region. The insistent surge of Oliver Soames’ all-encompassing sound design underlines the need for increasingly fraught decisions as our ‘advisors’ urge us on to win, win, win. As the timer hammers away – only 60 seconds to make your choice! – at the capacity for rational thought, will the competitive streak over-ride consideration for civilians on the ground? Could you sanction an assassination? Should you order a nuclear strike just to see what happens?
|Image: Vish Vishvanath|
And, of course, it is a game; there is no real danger, no real threat to actual civilians. You can compete in earnest against your opponents, change tactics to disrupt the narrative, wait until the last tense second to throw your vote into the arena; since there’s no room for discussion between members of the same ‘team’, you are also, in a sense, playing against each other. It’s here that the boundaries of the piece’s interactivity are revealed – there’s no conferring, our decisions manifested by raising a hand or pressing a button, sometimes while blindfolded – with the binary nature of the choices similarly constraining the outcome. But rather than limiting the experience, this structure serves to reinforce again and again – supported by the dislocation of the subterranean performance space, the sepia time-shift of Hannah Sibai’s design – that decisions are made all the time with little real understanding of what they mean on the ground, in that place, for the people who live it every day. Decisions demanded in unnerving, frantic circumstances. Decisions based on strategic alliances and investment potential.
All of which makes the outcome on the night I saw The Situation Room either incredibly hopeful or a cause for despair. Because if the people in the Bike Shed with me that night were the ones making the decisions, we might just be all right. But I suspect that the wrong people are always going to be in the room, because the ones with the real power – the ones whose choices actually have weight – are going to make sure of it.
Produced by Oscar Mike in collaboration with Upstart and Bike Shed Theatre
Directed by James Blakey and Tom Mansfield
Cast: Jack Bennett and Simon Carroll-Jones
Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Reviewed for Exeunt
Thursday, 4 September 2014
|Image: Theo Moye|
The Company of Wolves at Riverside Valley Park, Exeter
29th-30th August 2014
Pulling in themes, narratives and characters from several stories in The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter’s collection of feminist reworkings of classic fairy tales, Burn the Curtain’s new promenade production is an exhilarating romp through nature (for the runners at least) that captures the essence of Carter’s darkly alluring original while creating something satisfyingly new. And although it doesn’t always deliver on the theatrical component, it is hugely enjoyable.
Covering a five-mile route, the runners are ‘hunters’, tasked with tracking down the wolf; following a two-mile circuit, the walkers are ‘gatherers’, dispatched in pursuit of the missing bride. Over 2.5 hours, we make our way through woods and across fields, plunging into valleys and cresting hills, each group experiencing the narrative independently, encountering characters and scenes at different stages but coming together at key points to witness something in unison or to discuss what each has learned before moving on. Running alongside us, the characters offer snippets of detail, and we ask them, and each other, questions to tease out the plot, gradually discovering what the Duke (Richard Feltham in arch pantomime villain mode) gets up to at night, the truth about semi-feral Alice (Rebecca Savory), and the extent of Red Riding Hood’s vulpine passions. It’s fun and participatory, and the interactions never feel forced, and I’d forgotten just how stimulating it is to the creative imagination to be running around outdoors.
|Richard Feltham as The Duke. Image: Theo Moye|
But the bigger scenes, the ones in which we are supposed to get a proper hold of the narrative, are less successful theatrically. After pelting full throttle up the side of a field, I wanted more from a visit to Grandma’s house than simple exposition about what the Huntsman (Alexander Warn) has seen through the window. And while it reveals why Red Riding Hood (aka Ruby, a gloriously feisty Becky Baker in blood-red cape) is quite so keen to get to the Wolf before anyone else (‘he’s a puppy with me,’ she says), and allows for a confrontation that sets up the next scene, it doesn’t feel rewarding enough after all the effort to get there, and falls rather flat alongside the elemental aspects of the run – the encroaching darkness and deepening shadows, the crow-calls across the sky.
The company are clearly skilled at people- and location-management, and the environmental interactions are very effective – especially nice is hearing Grandmother’s voice filtering through the trees as we scamper past; characters appear form around blind corners to offer information and advice; they appear in the distance, beckoning us to follow this path or that. They do well to keep the Wolf, when he finally appears, at a distance; it’s more effective to let the imagination fill in the blanks. At the time – and more so in retrospect – I’d have liked more sound effects as we ran through the trees (incidental music et al is provided by a large speaker and associated kit pulled along on a parcel trolley by one of the production team, who out of necessity sticks with the walkers). Although, having said that, once full darkness had fallen and we were running through green lanes lit only by the frantic bobbing of our headtorches, it’s doubtful that my heart could have coped with actual howling coming from the impenetrable surroundings.
Despite the somewhat fractured nature of the whole – and a twinge of the dreaded Fear of Missing Out – it becomes less important when the general joyousness of being out in the open takes over. It’s as if the narrative is suspended around us rather than being pressed upon us in a traditional sense, and while there might not be quite enough to grab on to, what is there we grab with both hands. While this adaptation has dispensed with the sexual undertones of the original stories and Neil Jordan’s film, what is still at the forefront is Ruby’s warrior spirit, her feminine strength and empathy for the wolf – and it’s this combination that makes her ‘nobody’s meat’.
|Peter the Priest (Jonty Depp) with the Nuns. Image: Theo Moye|
And boy is it empowering and invigorating to run through nature in the dark, sucking in great lungfuls of fresh, dusky air; panting like dogs, ankle-deep in damp grass and cow-pats. It’s a reminder of the allure of the werewolf myth: the strength and physicality, the presence in the moment – always more appealing to me than vampires, who skulk about looking pasty, cursed with immortality. At one point I’m running up a hill so steep I fear I might tip over backwards, but once at the top, the view is breathtaking, the lights of the city twinkling below us. ‘There’s our village,’ says the Duke. ‘Home.’ And we all stare silently for a moment, perhaps contemplating what that means.
If the theatrical element is missing in some episodes, the finale more than makes up for it, bringing in aspects of pagan ritual, mystery and magic, and revealing just how astute and skilled the cast are at managing the audience, leading to a denouement that is thrilling, scary and – if I’m honest – completely envy-inducing. At the end of a journey that has demanded many choices – which path to take, which characters to trust – we’ve got one last decision to make. By then, hearts pumping from the chase, the pulsing night around us illuminated by torches, there really is only one way to go. And I defy anyone not to finish with a joyous howl at the moon.
The Company of Wolves will be reprised at Sharpham Estate, near Totnes, on 30th & 31st October – I can't think of a better way to spend Hallowe'en!
Produced by Burn the Curtain
Based on the stories by Angela Carter
Adapted by Burn the Curtain & Shiona Morton
Cast includes: Becky Baker, Richard Feltham, Jonty Depp, Rebecca Savory, Alexander Warn
Running time: 2 hrs 30 min
Reviewed for Exeunt