Thursday, 6 November 2014

Tortoise & Hare: making a meal of storytelling

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

The Situation Room: the theatre of war

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

The Company of Wolves

Image: Theo Moye

 The Company of Wolves at Riverside Valley Park, Exeter
29th-30th August 2014

Dearly beloved, we are gathered in a field in the dimpsy glow of summer’s dying days to see joined in matrimony this man and this woman… who hasn’t yet arrived. Peter, the village priest, and his three nuns keep us entertained while we wait, but as the hour grows late our safety cannot be guaranteed. The Duke bursts in to tell us that the bride has been spotted heading for the hills, as has the Wolf, and we – split into two groups, runners and walkers – must join Red Riding Hood and the Huntsman as they set off in pursuit. But who is chasing whom, and for what reason? ‘And remember to stick to the paths,’ Peter advises, for these are dark times, and when night falls, the wolves begin to circle.

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

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Day We Played Brazil

He shoots, he scores! Photo: Farrows Creative

In early 1914, the FA – after being turned down by Tottenham Hotspur – invited Exeter City FC, as an example of a ‘typical’ British football club, to embark on a tour of South America. After several successful games in Argentina, the team headed to Rio de Janeiro to play, on 21st July 1914, what would become a historic match in footballing history: the first ever played by the newly formed Brazilian national team.

Featuring a cast of 92 – all with Exeter connections, some performing for the first time – The Day We Played Brazil (at Exeter Northcott until 27th July 2014) celebrates the centenary of that important moment in sporting history, following the team on their South American adventure while revealing what it was like on the home front for the wives, girlfriends, families and fans, all eagerly devouring news of ‘our boys’ while Europe rumbled steadily towards war. Through the eyes of several generations of the same family, it also traces 100 years of Exeter’s relationship with its beloved football team (including the ill-fated alliance with renowned spoon-bender Uri Geller. No, really…) from the present day back to coincide with the 1914 storyline. With rousing songs, stirring crowd scenes and exciting displays of on-pitch prowess – plus a tender love story at its heart – the production is not only an impressive example of community theatre but is an interesting speculation on the nature of civic pride and national identity.

Co-directors Polly Agg-Manning, David Lockwood and Nick Stimson draw convincing performances from all the cast, but the real star turn – displaying a superb voice and great comedy chops – is Bethany Watson as Winnie Prowse, the faithful City fan whose infatuation with legendary goalie Dick ‘Pincher’ Pym and reluctance to entertain potential suitor Tom Davey (a suitably lovelorn Jim Green) underpins the romance that provides one of the production’s narrative backbones.

And while the crowd scenes convey the thrill of being part of something bigger than oneself, generating a warm tingle of fellow-feeling and community spirit, it’s the scenes with the team, especially those on the ‘pitch’, that stand out most effectively. Beautifully choreographed, with convincing portrayals from all the actors as both players and characters – special mention must go to Franko Francis as the splendidly earthy Jimmy Langan – the games are revealed in a series of slow-mo, balletic vignettes that make great use of Chris Davies’s lighting design and manage to capture something of the excitement of a live game in full flow. Simple yet inventive staging – particularly the representation of the team’s Atlantic crossing – and intelligent use of the space assist the narrative’s constant shifting between the personal and the universal, meaning we are never too far from the individual stories that really make the production shine.

With a desire to cram in references to social and political change – as well as 100 years of Exeter City’s history – there’s a tendency for some of the elements to feel a little too fleeting and occasionally forced, and the characterisation to veer towards stereotype. And while sections of dialogue don’t quite make it beyond the astro-turfed stage and some solo turns reveal a mismatch between the demands of the score and vocal ability, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production packed with energy and ambition that satisfies on many levels.

Book & lyrics by Nick Stimson

Directed by Polly Agg-Manning, David Lockwood & Nick Stimson

Co-produced by Exeter Community Arts Project, Exeter City Football Club, Exeter City Supporters’ Trust, Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter Northcott

Cast includes: Bethany Watson, Nathan Nuurah, Franko Francis, Jim Green

Running time: 2 hrs 30 mins (15-min interval)

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Exquisitely Detailed Line Drawings Celebrate Fore Street

'Fore Street' (excerpt) by Auboné Braddon
At Exeter Community Centre until 31st August 2014
In you are interested in exhibiting work at Exeter Community Centre, email

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Ignite 2014 - Exeter's Festival of Theatre

No pain, no gain: Made in China's Gym Party

So, it's been another blistering year for Ignite, which saw more than 80 companies present work across 14 venues between 2nd and 7th June - the festival continues to grow in breadth, quality and ambition. New work from emerging local artists rubbed shoulders with acclaimed pieces from established companies from across the country in a diverse, vibrant programme that couldn’t fail to excite. As well as in spaces used to hosting performance, audiences found themselves in pub back rooms, cellar rooms and garden rooms, both outside and inside the newly renovated library, in sacred places and reclaimed spaces, and on the city’s streets. The city felt alive with possibility.

Exeter Phoenix offered a broad programme across a few of its performance spaces, including Gym Party, Made in China’s visceral take on what it actually means to win. Dressed in white shorts and vests and wearing wigs that match the neon names above them, Chris (Brett Bailey), Jess Latowicki) and Ira (Brand) vie for our votes, aiming to be the one whose name stays up in lights at the end of the show. As they flex and stretch in preparation, warming up for the challenges ahead by running around in circles, their energy and eagerness to please at first appears as upbeat as the pumping music. Only on closer inspection do we begin to notice the small stains on their vests, splashed there from the trickle of blood from their nostrils. It soon becomes clear just what they’re expected to give in the pursuit of victory.

Through a series of increasingly unpleasant rounds – tasks to induce vomiting and injury, at the very least indignity, including dizzy racing and stuffing their mouths with marshmallows – we bear witness to the extremes of engagement encouraged by our competition-obsessed culture, and the toll it takes on the human spirit. As the brutality creeps in – and with the ‘contestants’ constantly reminding us that they are here for us, and we are here for them; that without us, this wouldn’t be happening at all – we become increasingly complicit. ‘Forced’ to make ever more uncomfortable choices (which of them is the most attractive, the most trustworthy, which one would we save from certain death?), and to watch the penalties suffered by the ‘losers’, we must address our behaviour as part of the crowd. To acknowledge that inaction makes us just as culpable as the aggressors.

But it’s not just the school-sports-day-from-hell aesthetic and the searing cruelty that evoke playground nightmares; interspersed with the ‘games’ are recollections from childhood, and we’re encouraged to see the trio’s 12-year-old selves, to hear their failures and disappointments, to feel anew the crushing need to fit in, to be liked, to please not be the only one not asked to dance. Painful and disturbing – and gruesomely funny – Gym Party is a piece that slaps you about the head and demands that you pay attention to your role in the status quo.

Right here, right now: FellSwoop's Current Location

Also interrogating the nature of how we behave as part of a crowd is FellSwoop’s Current Location. Inspired by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, this new play by Japanese writer Toshiki Okada (devised and adapted by the company) is full of foreboding and creeping unease, as five women from ‘the village’ react to the arrival of a sinister blue cloud. Four are members of a choir, and are tightly bound to each other until a fifth woman, a woman no one knows, joins them. There are rumours that the cloud heralds the destruction of the entire village. Should they believe the rumours or not? Should they stay or should they leave? And who is this ‘Hannah’, really? As fear tightens its grip and the community starts to fracture, it becomes clear that what you choose to believe can have serious consequences.

FellSwoop’s spare and precise production is well suited to the slightly austere setting of a crisp new space at the refurbished Library – the eerie tale is conjured expertly from words, music and bodies in space. A moment in which Florence – the ‘leader’ of this tight little unit – angrily pulls down the blinds in response to another character’s concerns not only silences alternate opinion but shuts out the light, literally and metaphorically. The use of song and vocal harmonies reinforce the text’s exploration of cohesion, how being so in tune with those around you can reduce your ability to accept change, to hear other voices, especially when they question what is collectively being ignored.

That the actors sit amongst the audience reminds us that a performance creates a temporary community; when they begin to hum or vocalise responses to the narrative, the sound could be coming from all of us – as ‘the crowd’, we too are complicit. Quietly gripping and thoroughly unsettling, it climbs inside you, this piece, like the best examples of sci-fi in which the monster is revealed to have been within all along.

A similar sense of disquiet underpins A Conversation, Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari’s brilliantly sinister piece about human interaction and dialogue. Above an ominous tone, a voice intones, “Have you ever stopped to think that your happiness, as well as your success in life, depends to a great extent today upon your ability to carry on an interesting and intelligent conversation?” So also begins the show’s source material, The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation, a 1935 set of lessons in the art of how to get along – in life and with one’s fellow men (gender equality isn’t really part of Ethel’s remit). Standing amid piles of suitcases and packing crates, a ‘fog’ swirling in the spotlit darkness of the Bike Shed’s brick-lined gloom, Barrett delivers Ethel’s pearls of wisdom accompanied by a soundscape of increasing discordance and the slapping tide, as if we’re missionaries on some chilly dock about to embark for the colonies and he’s arming us with the weapons of mass civilization.

But this inventive solo piece is more than just a satire on the casual racism, misogyny and presumptions of universality intrinsic to Ethel’s imperial worldview; it is an astute dissection of how we interact with one another and the compromises we make in servitude to our social conventions. One can be forgiven anything, Ethel’s edicts imply, as long as one isn’t ‘dull’ – are things really so different now?

Lighting and sound are used to great effect in this piece, but key to its success is Barrett’s utterly beguiling performance. And there’s a gin and tonic. How very civilized.

Also making eloquent use of lighting and sound at the Bike Shed was Put Your Sweet Hand in Mine, Ira Brand & Andy Field’s imaginatively intimate search for the meaning of love. An audience of 20 sit in two rows facing each other, Field and Brand among us as they describe eyes across a crowded auditorium, a casual encounter on the Metro, a romance turning sour as a thunderstorm rages around them. We are encouraged to look into the eyes of the person sitting opposite us, to eventually hold their hands in ours, while slowly coming to the realisation that other people are intrinsically unknowable, even those with whom we’ve shared our closest experiences. 

Put Your Sweet Hand in Mine: Andy Field & Ira Brand

There are some beautifully tender moments, including an argument about proximity – one wanting release from the too-tight hold of the other – while both hold pieces of ice that diminish in their hands, gradually slipping through their fingers. Towards the end, standing at opposite ends of the ‘carriage’, they climb into soaking wet clothes pulled from buckets of water and stand dripping, yelling movie romance clichés (‘you had me at hello’ … ‘in the words of The Partridge Family…’) at each other across a soundtrack of rumbling skies and howling rain. But even though we’re right in it, sitting beside and opposite them as the trace the ups and down of this relationship, it’s strangely distancing; love and pain described rather than conveyed.

A piece that grabs the heart and won’t let go, however, is Greyscale’s astonishing Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone. A mother and daughter circle each other around the Bike Shed’s small performance space – pacing, passing, never quite touching – as they repeat a conversation about having a bath, the weather, a break-in at Aunt Marie’s house, the mother’s aching shoulder… Just as their language reveals and conforms to the rituals of their relationship, so their movements trace the unseen patterns that are the foundation of family behaviour. Questions about the daughter’s boyfriend niggle; an inability to accept gracefully and without complication the simple offer of a cup of tea rankles. As a portrayal of the intense and often conflicted mother-daughter relationship, it feels very real indeed.

That the two actors playing the mother and daughter are men ceases to be of any relevance within seconds; it is the emotional honesty that registers, not the gender: the disappointment held in a moment’s breath, the glance that intuits all, the response that holds its truth behind a hesitation. At the side of the stage, drinking tea and doing a jigsaw together, sit a real mother and daughter; as the conversations repeat and reprise, and the tension rises with each disruption towards a new revelation or concealment, they smile in recognition, share a look, and we become more even more attuned to the exquisite drama of family life.

At just under an hour, this piece (written and directed by Selma Dimitrijevic) is a masterclass in precision. As the mother and daughter, Sean Campion and Scott Turnbull are captivating, creating something so real, so moving, that when their conversation finally draws to its natural end, my heart is ready to burst.

Taking place at one of the new venues on the Ignite roster – and allowing a peek inside a sacred space that is rarely open to the public – was Coffee with Vera, in which Ruth Mitchell delivers a masterclass in how autobiographical work can tell a deeply personal story while drawing in the wider world and experience, and without a hint of self-indulgence. The performance begins around a long table upstairs at the Exeter Synagogue, but the story itself starts on the set of Little Dorritt in 1986 – Ruth’s first job out of drama school – when she meets the peerless character actor Miriam Margolyes. As they both sit in the ‘make-up removal’ room (key to creating the film’s authentic Dickensian aesthetic), Miriam scrutinizes Ruth before asking, “Jewish?” To Ruth’s denial, Miriam replies, “With that name – and that face – you should be!”

And so began Ruth’s investigation into whether the girl who should be Jewish could be Jewish, leading her from censuses to, from personal memory through family myth to the creative springboard of ‘what if…’ to the vestry of Exeter Synagogue, where she shares with us her story over coffee and home-baked cake. Using photographs and marriage certificates, recipe books and playbills pulled from a suitcase in front of her – and via the character of Vera Jockleson, Chair of the Ladies’ Guild and consummate coffee morning hostess – Ruth fuses autobiography and history to create a subtly moving meditation on the nature of identity and heritage. Seamlessly entwined is a fascinating insight into the Plymouth Synagogue (the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world still in regular use) and the Jewish diaspora in the South West.

Although Vera is a great companion, this piece is at its absolute best when Mitchell is herself, guiding us through her story with warmth and humour, articulating the difficulties inherent in sifting through the past to reveal the present, especially when the desire for a fresh start or the cruelties of persecution have necessitated slippages that are hard to trace.

An autobiographical piece that works less well is The Wardrobe Theatre’s Wildbore, which uses solo performance to tell a deeply personal story but suffers ultimately from a surfeit of introspection. Jesse Meadows offers a character study of her beloved grandmother, Joyce, in episodes ranging from a first dance to the first days in the new house that would be her life-long home to political epiphanies; these are entwined with recollections of time they spent together towards the end of Joyce’s life. Brimming with love, and with the grief tinged with joy for experiences they shared, this show is tender and moving, but not developed enough to reveal much beyond that.

Walking a slightly disconcerting line between the autobiographical and the dramatic is Write by Numbers’ Blueprint, in which 32-year-old science teacher Kate seeks to capture her life, and record its important (and not so important) moments in order to quantify and qualify it before she dies. “We’ll all face this moment at some point,” she states. Some much sooner than expected.

And so we get 48 such moments – the blueprint for her life – that make Kate (superbly played by Samantha Baines) who she is, supported by a series of friends, lovers and colleagues (played by Estelle Buckridge, Lucy Grace and James Groom), as well as the teacher who inspired her to go into science in the first place and who counts off the moments with a stopwatch and a clipboard. There are tallies of the hours spent dancing, the number of days spent being a teacher, the years it took to find the perfect pair of jeans… Funny and moving, with diverting segues into quantum physics and particle theory, it explores the composite minutiae that make up a life, but is overlong (minutes spent singing Oasis songs? One is already too many) and somewhat repetitive.

Also at the Bike Shed, and delivering some hearty laughs, was Junkshop Theatre Company’s Hardworking People, which offers a deceptively subtle take on quite how rubbish modern life is for young people trying to make their way in the world. Out of university, armed with degrees, work experience and gap-year credentials, Jem and Eli should be on top of the world. But Eli’s been made redundant following austerity cuts at the council and Jem has been sacked because of an ill-judged tweet that’s just shy of a lawsuit. Neither can get so much as an interview and British Gas is ready to send in the heavies. How did it come to this?

Beth Shouler’s new play is a fast and very funny look at what happens when the bright young things have to face the dark days of modern society’s meltdown. Gone are the days when a degree was the key to a successful career and two holidays a year. Now, Jem has to gain ‘employable skills’ (“It’s stacking shelves! I’ve been putting the shopping away since I was nine!”) on the Workfare programme, while Eli struggles to look ‘casually sexy’ while slinging shots in a sequinned Stetson. Oh, the indignity.

Lewis Peek imbues Eli with gentle charm, his growing despair as the rejections pile up highlighting the harsh reality of trying to find one’s place in a world that doesn’t care. As the more resilient Jem, Rosie Woodham really shines in what is the more developed role, and pulls in the biggest laughs as Eli’s nightmare supervisor at the shots bar, preventing these sections from overstaying their welcome.

Beauty & the beagle: Victoria Melody's Major Tom

 Also big on laughs, and demonstrating how autobiographical work can pull in wider themes and issues, is Victoria Melody’s Major Tom. Following success after success on the amateur dog show circuit, Victoria decides it’s time for her and her prize-winning basset hound to turn professional. Major Tom might well have walked away with the title ‘Biggest Ears in the South-East’, but the big time is a different world altogether, and the former top dog finds himself bottom of the pile. Although determined, with the help of various men named Brian, to coach Major Tom to Crufts glory, Victoria starts to feel guilty about exposing him to such unflinching scrutiny. When a judge criticises Major Tom for having ‘too big a ribcage’, Victoria decides to plunge herself into the perma-tanned world of the beauty pageant to show solidarity.

By immersing herself completely in the subcultures about which she makes work (a previous show saw her tackling Northern Soul and pigeon-racing), Melody has the inside view that allows for complete authenticity. While it’s clear that she’s commenting on the insularity of these particular subcultures, and the bizarrely anachronistic tendencies they have to remain stubbornly stuck in a past that seems immune to conversations about equality and cruelty, there’s no sneering, no cynicism, even when both Melody and Major Tom are the brunt of in-crowd snobbery: “It seemed that neither of us had the pedigree to be there,” says Melody.

And while this piece is clearly making a point about our beauty-obsessed, judgmental, perfection-obsessed society, it does so with such charm, that you’d hardly notice. Melody’s barely-there performance style and dry wit, combined with the perfectly timed and pitched films documenting each of their successes in the hilariously similar fields of scrutiny, also contributes to the pleasing ambiguity about what’s art and what’s real.

As for Major Tom, he seems completely unfazed, spending the majority of the show asleep on a giant cushion, pausing only to wander off the Phoenix’s main stage in search of… we’ll never know. Such is the inscrutability of the basset hound. One thing is certain: he possesses perfect comic timing.

Physical comedy of the highest order is at the heart of Spitz & Co.’s Gloriator at the Bike Shed. Created by Pauline Morel and Susie Donkin (who met during a Spymonkey workshop in 2012), this hugely enjoyable show follows French actress Gloria Delaneuf’s (Morel) mission to create a touring version of Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator that addresses the film’s lack of female representation. Gloria, naturellement, will play all the major characters (in a scene between Gloriator and the emperor Commodus, both at the same time), and Josephine Cunningham (Donkin), her UK tour manager, “will play everyone else”. Including Gloriator’s horse. 

Hold the line! Spitz & Co.'s Gloriator

 As the imperiously pretentious Gloria reveals her vision, using every theatrical weapon in her armoury, from ‘acting of the head’ (her facial responses to the original film’s trailer) to mask to mime, the permanently bullied Josephine translates, tries to control the cardboard set and costumes, and attempts to reclaim some smidgen of autonomy through small acts of rebellious disruption. With a rapier-sharp script, and tight direction from Angus Barr, Gloriator is hilarious from start to finish, but there’s more going on, too – it skewers gender and racial inequality across the entertainment industry while also having some fun with the Anglo-French relationship.

Morel and Donkin give tremendously skilled performances that combine precise physical control and dexterity with subtle characterisation, revealing all the delicate shifts in balance that perpetuate Gloria and Josephine’s love-hate relationship. A comedy duo of immense talent.

Equally playful and delightfully disruptive – and having as much fun pulling apart its source material – is Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper’s Don Quijote, a raucous, riotous, anarchic show that is beautifully staged at The Hall, a historic ex-church/school making its debut as an Ignite pop-up venue. It is perhaps here that the festival’s guiding motto – any space can be a theatre – reaches its most apt union, with a show that champions personal transformation in a venue that is being painstakingly restored as a labour of love. 

Tom Frankland & Keir Cooper's Don Quijote
Using shadow play, live music, and a different guest actor playing the eponymous Don each performance, this show hits the major plots points of Cervantes’ book as well as incorporating its meta-textual elements. Subversions come and go – the soothsaying monkey, for instance – like so many petals in the wind, but while this piece might be less concerned with the content of the novel it utterly embodies the spirit, and pumps you full of wonder, hope and joy. It is a dizzying call to arms to be a Don Quijote rather than a non-Quijote – to do what’s right regardless of the consequences or societal censure.

Immersed from the get-go, the audience sits on cushions in the midst of the performance, shuffling around to watch projections, live action and the deconstruction of the novel via angle grinder, paper shredder and industrial fan as they occur. Once we’ve readied Quijote (played here by Rose Biggin) for her quest by covering her in cardboard armour with miles of duct tape, she extends her hand to an audience member to join her on an adventure and they head out into the night, returning at the show’s close to reveal the pledges they’ve made, small personal transformations that will ripple outwards with the potential to alter everything.

Slightly ramshackle, with low-fi charm and a vibrancy that is completely bewitching, Don Quijote is fun, funny and inspiring. After seeing this show you will believe that you can change the world.

Coordinated and led once again by the Bike Shed Theatre, supported by Exeter City Council, the Phoenix arts centre, and the Northcott and Cygnet theatres, Ignite creates a palpable buzz around the city, and I’m feeling a bit despondent now it’s all over – surely the marker of a great festival. And proof once again of the contribution that David Lockwood and the exemplary team at the Bike Shed are making to Exeter’s cultural landscape.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Mad Man at The Drum, Plymouth

Lucy Ellinson as Pushpin. Credit: Steve Tanner

20th March – 5th April 2014

In the aftermath of what seems to have been an orgiastic office party, its semi-naked participants stumble through their discarded clothing – pausing only to indulge in a few fevered morning-after gropes – as they race against the clock to prepare the scene for the start of the working day. Cramming fluorescent skirts and feather boas into boxes and cupboards, they step into the formal attire of the 1920s civil service, while up in his grimy bedsit, after a night alone, their secluded, excluded colleague Pushpin pulls on his ill-fitting suit – and all to the pounding throb of Mark E. Smith and The Fall. It’s a period-punk mash-up to make Michael Clark proud.

And that’s just the beginning, because in this balls-out brilliant adaptation of Gogol’s 1835 short story Diary of a Madman, Chris Goode constantly plays with theatrical form and context, fusing contemporary cultural imagery and meta-theatrical flourishes with the experimental flair of the Modernists to make the tale of lowly civil servant Pushpin’s psychological collapse a full-volume howl against current injustices and intolerance. Trapped in the repetitive cycle of bureaucratic banality, bullied by the idiotic representatives of the institutions he is expected to respect, and ground down by social and economic inequality, Pushpin is the tormented outsider whose descent into insanity seems the only rational response. 

Dashing about on Janet Bird’s excellent multi-level set, constantly out of step with the codes and practices of the world around him, Pushpin moves from wistful adoration of the boss’s daughter Sophie (a splendidly haughty Gemma Brockis) to dedicated night-time stalker to dog-converser and ends with total derangement via a stint as self-professed king of Spain. As Pushpin, Lucy Ellinson gives an astonishing performance, delivering a supercharged caricature of eccentricity with a physically elastic virtuosity that is extraordinary (prompting an audience member in the post-show Q&A to ask, ‘when did you realise that your face was so stretchy?’). Elaborately gestural and hugely expressive under a hay-coloured fright wig, Ellinson wrings hilarity from Pushpin’s growing sense of dislocation from reality, as his external behaviour becomes ever more closely aligned with the madness of the inner voice.

The comedy continues until Pushpin, in full psychotic flight as the Spanish sovereign, finally dismantles the theatrical construct entirely and in doing so seems to find a kind of peace, or at least a sense of personal vindication – until the mechanisms of control reassert themselves once more and we witness the shocking brutality of ‘reality’ forcibly imposed on the free-thinking outsider.

With talking dogs, a dance freakout complete with gold mirror ball and an interplanetary alignment of questionable taste, Mad Man is fast, fun and thrillingly original. And Lucy Ellinson will convince you in everything she does to the very last second.
Written & directed by Chris Goode

Produced by Theatre Royal Plymouth

Sound design by Chris Goode

Set & costume design by Janet Bird

Cast includes: Nigel Barrett, Gemma Brockis, Lucy Ellinson, Gareth Kieran Jones

Running time: 1 hour 40 mins (no interval)

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

I Don't Know What You're Talking About at Bike Shed Theatre

Performed 18th-22nd March 2014 at Bike Shed Theatre

In a sunny garden, enveloped by birdsong, Bill and Gill talk about stories. They have a shared past – possibly as colleagues, or teacher and student, or perhaps more – that hovers at the edges of their interactions, hinting at something unspoken, unresolved, unrequited. At Bill’s request, Gill is visiting and has brought tales about the origins of language, about miscommunication and misunderstanding. As they pass the threads of myth and parable back and forth, collaborating and disagreeing, encouraging and correcting, the pattern of their own entwined narrative is revealed, and we, too, are pulled inside this subtly moving paean to the power of story.

They begin at the beginning, with flood myths from around the world, and as Gill takes tentative steps into the telling – at times deferring to Bill, occasionally challenging his interruptions – we glimpse the structure of their relationship in all its give and take, surge and retreat. While Gill balks at the ease with which Bill claims ownership of the most ancient stories, by amending details and altering characters, she also questions the intrinsic patriarchal slant – where are the tales with women at their centre, shaped by women’s experiences? But Bill, who is increasingly infirm, has a specific story he wants – needs – to tell: Nimrod and the Tower of Babel. In a way that reflects the power balance in their own relationship, Bill takes control of the narrative; when he is intermittently gripped by seizures, during which he disappears from the moment, as if dropping out of the present, Gill steps in to support him, and they create the story together.

From start to finish, this performance is elegantly structured and beautifully paced, with a script that revels in the power of the word to conjure vast landscapes and epic endeavour alongside the pulsing of the human heart. With segues into neurology – the search for ‘poetry in the prefrontal cortex’ – that juxtapose vibrant images of neurons in the brain and electricity whizzing across synapses, making connections and combinations like ideas fizzing between people crammed into the expanding city of Babel, the narrative is at once rational and scientific and brimming with passion. And it’s absolutely gripping, Bill steadily building the story, pulling it towards its conclusion, shaping it just as Nimrod’s followers placed brick upon brick in their attempt to reach the stars.

Stripped right back – and in that simplicity managing to pack philosophy and science, myth and magic, laughter and heartbreak into a riveting 80 minutes – the strength of this piece comes from the union of intelligent writing and the word-perfect power of the performances. It explores how the stories that appeal to us, that speak to the deepest parts of us, are the ones that reflect our situation, our needs and our desires, and affect the very structure of our brains.

Written, produced & directed by Multistory Theatre Company

Cast includes Bill Buffery, Gill Nathanson

Running time 1 hour 20 mins (no interval)

Reviewed for Exeunt

Above Bored at Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter

NB: This performance was at the Bike Shed Theatre on 10th March 2014. Sorry it's late going up...

At first take, Cornish company ‘Owdyado Theatre’s new show is a psychological drama with a wide streak of black comedy about a murder at glue company EvaBond. On the discovery of the bludgeoned body of managing director Graham White, the police pull in co-workers Jenny Davison and Jean Taylor for interview. With actors Charlotte Bister and Daniel Richards playing both the suspects and investigating detectives Wykowski and Harding, the action switches between interrogation rooms in the days after the murder.

As the interviews progress, and despite their protestations of work satisfaction and total commitment to the successful launch of EvaBond’s new product – U-Bind 2000, the glue that will stick anything to everything – it becomes clear that Jenny and Jean have much to be resentful of when it comes to Mr White. Meek and eager to please, Jenny is put-upon and overlooked, her amenable nature exploited by her boss and her colleagues; ambitious Jean, with his shiny suit and high-flying PR girlfriend, is out for a bonus and a promotion, things that Mr White dangles before them both. The corporate ethos demands ‘120%, 100% of the time’ because, as Mr White is fond of saying, ‘You never know where glue will take you.’ Working all hours in preparation for the launch, tensions are high and boundaries are being tested. Surely it was only a matter of time before the boss got his name plaque embedded in his skull…

Shifting between scenes in which the tanktop-wearing Harding bemoans the quality of police station tea while pushing Jenny to acknowledge her limited horizons and the stern, authoritative Wykowski forensically unpicking Jean’s thwarted ambitions, the narrative uncovers the despair at the heart of the corporate hamsterwheel; the joy-sapping grind of endless targets and quotas interspersed with team-building exercises and ‘themed Fridays’, all played out against the backdrop of videos demanding more productivity and more profit, and motivational posters calling for employees to ‘think the unthinkable’.

But this piece is not just a straight-forward whodunit; it’s a clever interrogation of performance and ritual, of compromise and self-deception, of the duality of personality necessitated by ‘work life’ and ‘home life’. Directed by Kneehigh collaborator Simon Harvey, there’s immense attention to detail, a slick script and fine performances, although the piece has a little way to go before it fulfils its potential (the makers refer to it as ‘still in development’) – and it’s impossible to discuss why without MASSIVE SPOILERS, so here goes…

Taking much (and fully acknowledged) inspiration from Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids (in which two domestic servants – sisters – role-play the murder of their aristocratic mistress in a series of increasingly sadomasochistic scenarios), Above Bored explores the notion of acting and acting out. At the end of Act One it becomes clear that Jenny and Jean are dramatising their boss-killing fantasy, each taking the role of detective in the aftermath of the ‘murder’ to allow the space for them to vent their frustrations, to ‘confess’; they are the embodiment of Mr White’s motivational doctrine – they are ‘thinking the unthinkable’. But the pace of their role-play and their focus on specifics – as in Genet’s play – result in a constant deferral of satisfaction, preventing them from reaching the climax; they are stuck in a ritualistic rut just as they are stuck in the world of glue.

But whereas in The Maids there is an intrinsic tension deriving from the characters’ class differences – enhanced by the fact that Madame appears, allowing us to fear that the sisters will act on their fantasies – the world of Above Bored lacks that deep sense of inequality; although the employees feel resentful of Mr White’s authority, everyone is essentially in the ‘middle’, has worked or is working their way up. That it is also a two-hander means that Mr White only ever appears in dialogue between Jenny and Jean. The result is that the piece lacks a certain tautness, although there is more space to explore the characters’ personal narratives – their dissatisfaction with their choices – which is largely well written and played. As Jenny and Jean’s role-play takes on flashes of sadomasochistic colour, we come to realise that meek and pliable Jenny has bigger reserves of determination than at first appears: the scenes in which ‘Wykowski’ gets rough with Jean allow us a glimpse, perhaps, of Jenny’s inner dominatrix, and play nicely on the notion of office frisson and the tension of proximity.

Once we know that Wykowski and Harding aren’t ‘real’ police – and it’s interesting to note that by using a police interrogation scenario to frame their fantasies, Jenny and Jean have ‘succeeded’, in that the presence of police is dependent on a corpse, even though their role-play never allows them to get there – and are simply extensions of the characters’ fantasy personas, there’s the space for real transgression to take place, the potential to really explore the darkest corners of theatricality and illusion. The first act is also in danger of playing a little too long with the pretence of being a detective investigation about murderous goings on at a glue company; there’s a tear in the veil – ‘we’ve done this bit,’ says Jenny, prompting ‘Harding’ to start his line again – towards the end, but the pace would benefit from dropping it in earlier, and then building in more leading up to the reveal. That said, Above Bored is definitely one to stick with.

Directed by Simon Harvey

Produced by ’Owdyado Theatre

Written by Charlotte Bister and Daniel Richards

Cast includes Charlotte Bister and Daniel Richards

Running time: 1 hour 45 mins (including interval)

Reviewed for Exeunt

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Believers at Drum Theatre, Plymouth

21st February - 8th March

What if the one thing you were certain – absolutely, unreservedly certain – about, the belief on which the foundations of your entire life were built, suddenly turned out not to be true? How would you reconcile your past actions and decisions, your choices, in the new knowledge that they were all based on a lie? And how could you move forward now that the solidity of certainty has given way to an abyss beneath your feet?

This is the scenario explored in The Believers, Frantic Assembly’s latest collaboration with Bryony Lavery, which once again unites a company exquisitely skilled in movement and the visual representation of subtext with a writer of exceptional sensitivity to the nuances of human interaction. And the result is an astonishing piece of theatre that thrills and quickens the senses while plunging you deep into what it means to live and love and lose yourself completely to an idea.

In the midst of a terrible storm, Ollie and Maud offer refuge to their stricken neighbours, Joff, Marianne and their ‘difficult’ nine-year-old daughter Grace, whose home is under rising floodwater. While Grace goes to play upstairs with the hosts’ daughter Joyous, the adults – a quartet awkward and mismatched through vastly different outlooks – tuck into roast chicken and Ollie’s ‘famous peanut sauce’. As the white Rioja flows and becomes a joint or two, the adults loosen up, revealing their beliefs and their secrets… and then something terrible happens, and the framework of each couple’s worldview collapses.

From the start, Jon Bausor’s minimalist set design – geometric metal angles and raked levels, shot through with strips of fluorescent lighting – creates the potential for alternate realities, echoing the different planes of perception and interpretation explored in the narrative. A piece of the set – a metal construction that resembles at times the bare bones of a room, at others a bed frame – is in motion for a lot of the action, manipulated by the characters mid-scene, mid-sentence, to tip perspectives and alter the shape of interactions. As they rotate and glide it around the stage – the floor of which is highly shined, mirror-like – the characters step through it, into it, at times become part of it, and the pace of movement seems to quicken, the action speeding towards its inevitable end. On the ‘second’ floor, a space that the characters inhabit at various times is like a door to another realm, surrounded by strip lighting that, when illuminated, causes them to disappear completely, as if plucked from reality. Scenes played out on the upper sections of the set cause the characters to appear almost upside down, or suspended mid-air. Nothing here is as it seems. What can any of us really be sure of?

It is the secular and cynical Marianne (Walsh) and Joff (Colquhoun) who are the most easy to relate to. Ground down by what we infer to be the challenging behaviour of their child Grace (‘we’re always apologising for her’), they’re constantly swearing and undermining each other, but are united in their irritation at the overtly smug Ollie (Mylan) and Maud (Layden), so secure in their utter faith in God and his love for them, and their perfect daughter, Joyous (‘no doubt named after one of her orgasms,’ sneers Marianne). All performers are pitch-perfect, delicately drawing out the complexity of each character and using stillness as much as movement to eloquent effect. Walsh in particular impresses in a heart-wrenching moment in which Marianne stands alone with her pain – never have I heard a full auditorium so silent, so moved to immobility.

Scenes shift between each couple – in both the ‘now’ of the aftermath and the ‘then’ of the storm – interwoven with scenes in which all four struggle to find common ground, before separating out to betray intimacies. As the inebriation deepens, and confusion sets in, Ollie’s self-serving proclivities emerge; Joff reveals that he and Marianne have always been ‘repelled’ by Grace, frightened of her, and Maud raises the possibility of ‘evil’. Even though we never see Grace and Joyous, the children are a palpable presence, ever at the edge of our perception, themselves absorbing and interpreting the actions and emotions of their parents. It is through their ‘presence’ that we come to question to whom the title of ‘believers’ might be more suited – Ollie and Maud in their religious surety, or Marianne and Joff in their fear of the intrinsic ‘badness’ of their daughter?

With the floodwater rising all around them, sinister undercurrents ripple to the surface, before everyone is plunged into the maelstrom. Andy Purves’s masterly lighting design manipulates the darkness to thrilling effect, using gradual fades to pull us into the corners then explosions of wattage to utterly disorient, the gloom blooming on the retina before leaving you further adrift. Combined with the meticulous choreography – a perfect mix of stillness and motion – it causes characters to materialise in front of us, wraith-like, out of nowhere. And with Carolyn Downing’s sound design ratcheting up the tension degree by stealthy degree, we become as untethered as the characters as their disunity descends into chaos.

In this first production since the departure of Steven Hoggett, former Frantic regular Eddie Kay steps into the role of Associate Movement Director with assurance, ably assisting director Scott Graham to create a brilliantly dark thriller that leaves you gasping. 

Reviewed for Exeunt

Hammer & Tongs by Theatre Alibi

A company of actors of long-standing association are putting on a show about conflict. But two of the four haven’t arrived in time for curtain-up, so Swanny (Derek Frood) and the musical director, Fret (Thomas Johnson), launch into an amusing, hammed-up story about a man setting sail in his tin bath. When the errant pair, Duggan (Jordan Whyte) and Spurge (Michael Wagg), finally enter stage left, already in full-on bicker mode, the scene is set for an hour or so of name-calling, fist-flinging, muck-raking absurdity that claims (so says the website) to ‘dig deep into the human compulsion to argue the toss’ but which comes across as a rather slight, shambolic sketch show that sits somewhere between a Saturday morning kids’ TV programme and a student revue. By the end of it, I was longing for the reappearance of the tin-bath sailor…

Although Theatre Alibi are justifiably renowned for their immersive, inventive productions for younger audiences, Hammer & Tongs is not one of these – the language is too saucily child-unfriendly for that – but neither does it seem quite committed to exploring any adult themes to a satisfactory depth. Admittedly, there seems to be an intention to make a mockery of arguing, since the only way to cope with the ‘maddening, saddening, exhausting’ nature of it is to laugh in its face, but the execution is such that it’s unclear who these characters are and why we should care about their grievances at all.

Interwoven with scenes of the company bickering and sniping ‘backstage’ are episodes playing out examples of conflict – two children fight over what to watch on TV, their parents then argue about the kids, a groom attacks the wedding DJ after being forced onto the dancefloor, a bullied young man battles his inner demons, called Crushing Doubt and Self Loathio – which have a certain rolling nature that mirrors the circularity of most arguments but which don’t offer enough insight into how and why we fight. They seem included just to allow the actors to romp around the stage, farting in each other’s faces and hitting each other with foam sticks. And rather than revealing subtextual layers of characterisation or interrogating the process, a meta level seam of self-referential comments – about the ‘crap’ dialogue, the ‘puerile’ humour, and the need the work out a decent ending – serve only to highlight the show’s actual weaknesses.

I came away no wiser as to why humans argue, or even why these particular characters argue (they might be sick of the sight of each other – there are a number of references to how long they’ve all been working together – but more likely it’s because they’re all so irritating). What is clear is that this show is really not for me; I’m obviously a miserable stick-in-the-mud for finding a feast of slapstick punch-ups, complete with schoolyard insults and fart jokes, neither hilarious nor thought-provoking. Sorry. 

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

From Devon with Love Festival

This review of the From Devon with Love season at The Bike Shed Theatre was written for Exeunt Magazine...

Produced under the Framework banner – the Bike Shed’s artist development programme headed up by Chloe Whipple – From Devon with Love is an invaluable part of Exeter’s arts scene, offering a welcome place for audiences to catch a look at fresh work and new companies. Much of the work has been supported by other aspects of Framework, such as the graduate programme (a collaboration with Exeter University), Scratch nights and In Your Space (a week’s worth of development time in an empty shop unit), demonstrating the extent to which the Bike Shed is committed to nurturing the city’s performance culture. The range is broad and the quality variable, and it’s interesting to see what is focussing the minds of our practitioners. It showcased 18 pieces across three weeks (plus a day-long mini-festival of work by under 18s), of which I saw the following:

The vastness of the galaxy and our place within it form the premise of Running Dog Theatre’s one-man show, The King of Infinite Space. It starts fairly well: Josh Lucas sits at a desk playing solitaire, a goldfish bowl to one side plus some lamps, a projected passage from A Tale of Two Cities reminding us of humans’ perpetual state of mystery to each other; a soundscape pulls in the voices of the street, the city and expands out until we hear the tinny crackles of interstellar exploration. The fish bowl becomes an astronaut’s helmet and the projections introduce Michael Collins, the man who piloted the command module in orbit around the moon while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong played golf on the surface. For 48 minutes of every two-hour orbit, out of range on the ‘dark side’, Collins was the most isolated human in the universe; a prophecy of his largely forgotten role in that most famous of adventures, perhaps. We’re prompted to consider the voyager probe, still pushing ever onwards into the unknown, presenting a 1970s version of the earth and its populace on disk – plus the instructions on how to play it – to any intelligence it might meet in transit. The loneliness of space is evoked by the eerily plaintive wails of a blues guitar…

Sadly, the piece – admittedly a work in progress – then runs out of steam and turns into a somewhat inept lecture, with Josh delivering facts about interplanetary distances coupled with musings on feeling lonely in his bedroom and a fractured father-son relationship. He lights some candles and blows them out. The ‘performance’ lacks dynamism and the writing is flabby; there are typos in the projections. Although produced by a recent graduate, the piece is suffused with teenage solipsism and disregard for his audience.

Another recently graduated company, Jointventure, incorporate ideas of scale to greater effect in their multimedia work in progress, 30, about the Greenpeace activists arrested by the Russian authorities. Spotlit on a table, a tiny tableau of a polar bear amid the ice is then projected large onto the rear wall of the space; footage of the activists on the deck of the Arctic Sunrise, blown about by the blades of the approaching Russian helicopters, plays in the background as performer Jac Ifan Moore stares up into the searchlight from the chopper, his waterproofs flapping furiously in the wind; letters home focus on a savoured Mars Bar… each element layers the small local action onto its global resonance, and connects the political with the personal. Moving between scenes in a cell, footage of demonstrations from around the world, interviews with members of the Arctic 30, and direct address testimony from an activist explaining what forged his decision to sign up for the protest, 30 pulls the debate effectively into focus. There’s lots of scope here and clearly the skill to navigate – it’ll be interesting to see where Jointventure take it.

Also engaging with current debate was Eye Level Theatre Company’s Consent, which considers the act of rape during the making of a porn film. Shifting between the trial in which actress Sarah Jones (Jenny Hall, who makes a good job of an underwritten role) accuses her co-star James Hallow (Jordan Edgington, chillingly arrogant) of sodomy against her wishes mid-scene and the moments leading up to and into the scene in which the incident is alleged to have taken place, the piece raises uncomfortable questions about the moral presumptions and judgments levelled against women who make accusations of rape. It’s a subject that needs full and careful interrogation. However, the courtroom setting requires a level of realism that the narrative can’t support (there’s no footage of the incident because Sarah has destroyed the tape, but what about testimony from the cameraman and other crew? Defence council’s flagrant moralising and use of supposition would surely garner more objections), and the graphic depictions of the events, rather than revealing a clear authorial purpose, seem queasily exploitative.

But perhaps this is intentional, because the narrative offers no resolution and then shifts into a ‘you decide’ format – the stage and performers are plunged into darkness at the end, with lights on the audience only, from which we could infer that ‘society’ must make the call but actually lets the writer (Leon Jones) off the hook (and the closing music is Robin Thicke’s creepy Blurred Lines, which made me shudder in itself). Admittedly, the most sympathetic character is the prosecuting council (played by Ross Green, who also directs), whose argument in and out of court is that consenting to a particular activity once does not denote consent on every – or any – other occasion, but a scene outside the courtroom, in which Sarah tells James that all this legal wrangling could have been avoided if only he had ‘acknowledged’ what he’d done, undermines this. Is the writer suggesting that sorry is all it takes?

The potential for more discomforting voyeurism is suggested by the subject matter of Rose Biggin’s The Very Thought, but it soon becomes apparent that pole-dancing delivers the narrative of this subtly moving and funny piece rather than driving it, while also forcing us to confront how we feel about seeing and looking – especially in relation to witnessing personal revelation.

Rose Biggin: The Very Thought

From the moment Violet enters the space, carrying her ‘I don’t sweat – I sparkle’ kit bag, and greets us as her intermediate class, the associations we may have made about the physical act of pole-dancing quickly disperse; this is pole-dancing as exercise, as an activity to build strength and flexibility, to empower through ability. But soon Violet’s bright demeanour and breezy humour fade and we’re gazing upon something far more exposing than a lycra-clad body spinning around a metal pole – we see a woman gradually stripped bare to reveal the emotional pain beneath.

As Violet’s ‘intermediate’ class, we are immediately attributed with a certain level of ability, and as the ‘expert’ instructor she goes on to demonstrate impressive prowess and dexterity. Yes, she tells us, many of the moves hurt, no matter how good you are, but the more practised you become the better you get at hiding the pain. It’s a neat metaphor, and casually woven into the narrative as Violet suddenly confesses, “I’ve not had a good week,” and reveals the steady disintegration of her relationship in between demonstrating increasingly demanding moves and techniques on the pole. Layer by layer, she unpeels, and the discomfort comes not from watching ‘pole-dancing’, but from the emotional rawness on show, while she attempts to maintain her smile and teach her class. The scene in which she ‘performs’ a full routine to ‘The Very Thought of You’, her face crumpling into tears between rallies of strength, is touchingly beautiful.

But this show is also very funny; Rose is a charismatic performer, and the scene in which she muses on which of Shakespeare’s female characters would have taken to the pole, while ‘sitting’ up there herself, is well played, and diffuses the metaphor sufficiently so it doesn’t seem heavy-handed. Ultimately, the piece ends on a hopeful note – “see you next week!” – and we realise that Violet’s resilience is more enduring than we thought.

Personal resilience plays its part in Ben Callon’s writing debut, A Little Bit OCD, which explores anxiety and obsession with wit, insight and sensitivity. The main storyline focuses on Sarah (Roisin Kelly), who constantly battles inner voices telling her to hurt the people she loves, and the toll it takes on her relationship with Jack (Ben Callon); we meet Sarah’s brother (Christopher Hancock) and slightly manic sister-in-law Lucy (Stephanie Racine), whose new baby is an added source of pressure for Sarah – can she trust herself to hold her, to be near her? It starts a little stiffly, but soon loosens up, especially in the scenes between Sarah and Lucy, whose own obsession with cleanliness (she confesses to hitting the housework ‘like Nora Batty on meth’) places her firmly on the spectrum with Sarah – and the rest of us.

Ben Callon: A Little Bit OCD

Additional scenes involve direct address ‘therapy’ sessions – with the audience cast as the psychologists, perhaps? – in which characters unburden themselves with tales of love turning to obsession, a schoolyard taunt leading to a lifetime in combat against food, and Catholic guilt seeping into every interaction and thought. And it’s in these scenes that the writing really hits its stride, with stand-out performances from Christopher Hancock and Angelina Woods. Thoughtful, funny and well structured, this piece highlights the issues without fetishising them, and pulls them into the open for a proper discussion.

Anxieties and fear also drive Another Story Theatre Company’s Awake, which presents monologues from three women unable to sleep over one night in the same town. One addresses God on the eve of her marriage into a religious family, fearing that an event in her past will render her unworthy; the second must come to a decision about the future of her brain-dead husband; and the third suffers night-terrors, imaging herself into the wartime experiences of her Holocaust-surviving grandmother. The past haunts the present, and an imagined future fades into the mist that settles over the sleeping town. With solid performances (from Holly Kibble, Marina Waters and Rose Race) and subtle shifts between the three monologues, the piece is well structured, but it lacks drama, with the story about the grandmother, potentially the most interesting, is the least well developed.

Exeter-based company Substance and Shadow immerse themselves in the 1970s for their show Duplicity, which tells the story of twin brothers Tommy and Finn (both played by Midge Mullin), who grow up in a fairground family, the pair sharing dreams of escaping to London together. But after Finn contracts polio, Tommy runs away on his own to seek fame in the music business, under the cynical guidance of sinister impresario Leonard Silver. The pressure mounts and when Tommy goes missing (following a bizarre lightning-induced bout of amnesia), Leonard concocts a plan to make sure the show goes on.

Thematically packed, the narrative switches between Finn and Tommy (Mullin employing physical traits and a pair of glasses to distinguish between the two) until their stories unite around Leonard Silver’s exploitation of Finn amid much Machiavellian machinations. Incorporating direct address and dramatised episodes, the piece jumps around frenetically and suffers from a lack of focus, the performances dominated in particular by Nathan Simpson’s Silver, who comes perilously close to pantomimic villainy. And while the era and the subculture are the perfect excuse for a great punk soundtrack, there’s little exploration of the period’s socio-political resonances. Substance and Shadow have got a dedicated fanbase and the house was packed, however, which proves that although not to my taste, their work has an appreciative audience.

Imagining a scarily prescient near-future is Exeter-based Jack Dean’s funny, wise and beautifully performed one-man show Threnody for the Sky Children. Fusing poetry and performance, this multimedia lament for our lost souls, for the parts of us that could once soar, explores a forgotten past, a troubling potential present and an apocalyptic possible future. Hiding out in his parent’s attic above an everywhere town gradually being desolated by global capitalism and overrun by humans reverting to beasts, James pines for a lost love and tries to make sense of how we forgot our innate connection to the universe.

Jack Dean: Threnody for the Sky Children
The language of emotion and understanding wrangles with political rhetoric and dogma; elements of our disposable culture are analysed and critiqued (including a spot-on impression of Zizek); a representative of the US governing body of the UK (not including the independent Yorkshire Demilitarized Zone) wields words like weapons of mass deception. On the streets below, chaos reigns. Up in the attic, surrounded by his old toys and the appurtenances of a life packed away, James tries to remember the time when he could fly. Enriched by some lovely lighting design from the Bike Shed’s own Sam Hollis-Pack, Threnody for the Sky Children is an accomplished piece of work, and further proof that Dean is a writer and performer of impressive reach. The last piece I saw, it was a lovely reminder of how valuable this festival is to practitioners, to audiences and to the city’s cultural life.

Photos: Courtesy of the Bike Shed Theatre