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