Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Visitors, Bush Theatre

Barney Norris’ tiny knife of a play was staged to acclaim at the Arcola earlier this year and now transfers to the Bush Theatre. Tender, unexpectedly funny and warm, it’s a delicate thing - but one capable of upending its audience.
There’s a ripeness to Norris’ writing. Each character feels alive. The interplay between Edie and Arthur is full of little winks and prickles. Their middle-aged, soon to be divorced son Stephen, sensitively played by Simon Muller, is also achingly drawn; a man trying to remain practical in his actions, while all too acutely aware of what his life lacks, perhaps even a little jealous of the depth of his parents’ love. Even Eleanor Wyld’s blue-haired home help Kate is more than just a narrative prop; she grows too.Linda Bassett and Robin Soans play Arthur and Edie, a long-married couple who have lived together on the same farm for decades; we can chart their relationship in every glance and joke and gesture. Their marriage, their scrap of history, has been quiet, and while they are not without regrets, they have carried each other along. Now Edie’s memories, her sense of self, are slowly being eroded by dementia, and she knows she’s going. Decisions need to be taken about their future, for what happens when they can no longer care for each other.
Alice Hamilton’s large-hearted, affecting production is beautifully judged, and the performances from all concerned, but particularly Bassett and Soans, are rich and real and generous.
Reviewed for The Stage

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Near Gone, Bush Theatre

Goran Bregović fittingly refers to his vast ensemble of musicians, trumpeters, choristers and backing singers as the Weddings and Funerals Orchestra. His compositions draw on the musical traditions of the Balkans, of the Eastern European Roma, of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia, of Turkey – and of Bulgaria – they are songs of elation and celebration but also lament. Bregović is perhaps best known for collaborating with and soudtracking the work of the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica and one of his most popular songs, ‘Kalashnikov,’ is taken from the soundtrack of Kusturica’s massive, messy allegory, Underground; it’s a sky-punching, foot-stamping, pistol-firing, rakia-downing, midnight embrace of a song (though not lacking in irony, teetering at times on pastiche). It is a song I have definitely danced to when drunk at least once.

It’s also a song that erupts several times throughout Two Destination Language’s thoughtful, quietly moving Near Gone – performed at the Bush as part of Radar – a show about trauma and distance. Katherina and Alister stand on a stage framed by bunches of white flowers (carnations I think, weddings and funerals again). They begin to tell us as story, with Katherina – who is from Sofia – speaking in Bulgarian, and Alister, after a beat, translating. At first her story sounds not unlike a 1970s language textbook. She tells us Sofia is very hot in the summer, she lists the abundant produce of the green markets – pears, peaches, berries red and blue – she tells us the women are very beautiful. All this is accompanied with by a series of gestures and movements which Alister, slightly reluctantly, mimics.

Katherina then starts to describe her parents’ house. She takes a long time doing this, honing in on small details, as if putting something off. Occasionally the translation machine breaks down: Alister gets a word wrong or misses a piece of information and needs to be corrected, thus calling attention to and extending the process. There is a gap, a lag, like you used to have with long distance phone calls.

Eventually Katherina starts to describe a serious accident that befell her younger sister, and the anguish of uncertainty, of waiting to see whether she would recover. The details are revisited and picked over, relived: the length of time it took for the ambulance to arrive, the doctors standing outside the hospital smoking. Her story is interspersed with blasts of Bregović’s ‘Kalashnikov’ to which she dances energetically but not chaotically, holding a bunch of flowers in each of her hands, strewing petals across the stage. While it is a song which invites abandon, there is a sense of ritual and order in her dance though it becomes more ragged with each new iteration, her cheeks flushing pink, her breathing getting heavier. It is a draining, emptying process.

Alister can only watch as she goes through these motions (and emotions). For while this is a show about trauma, it is also about distance, about being caught between states and places, being far away, geographically and culturally, from the place you want and need to be, about how to exist in that awful pause: waiting for news to come, good or bad.

I found that I was able to understand about half of the words in Bulgarian, which meant I was both waiting for Alister’s translation to clarify things while patching together Katherina’s words as she said them, getting trapped between what I understood and that which remained hazy and unclear, which in the end seemed an apt way to experience it.

For it turns out this is not only a piece about grief and distance but also about what it is to bridge these gaps, cultural, linguistic and emotional, to emerge out of the other side intact, to connect with someone else, to share this dance together.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Grand Guignol, Southwark Playhouse

Gouge is a good word. It has a nice mouth-feel, ripe and round and red as a cherry. There’s a fair bit of gouging in Carl Grose’s homage to the notorious Théâtre du Grand Guignol, as well as some plucking and spurting and severing – and you can put money on the fact that blood will at some point incarnadine the theatre’s white tile walls

The whole set is fucking lovely in fact. They’ve built a raised stage and proscenium arch with wooden side panels that would not look out of place at a chapel, thick red curtains and a creaking and rickety roof, all within Southwark Playhouse’s Large space.

Grose and director Simon Stokes have pitched things perfectly. The play operates as both a potted history, celebration and pastiche of the repertoire of the famous Theatre of Blood. The best known plays – The Laboratory of Hallucinations and Crime in a Madhouse – are re-enacted but we also get a flavour of life behind the scenes: the interplay between their star writer André de Lorde - who penned so many of their tales of insanity and murder and came to be known as the ‘Prince of Terror’, (here played by an affable, almost chipper Jonathan Broadbent) – the theatre owner, and the acting company. The tone touches on Hammer-y camp sometimes but stays the right side of the line.

While the characters remain stock types, the cast have fun playing with them. Andy Williams does double duty as the theatre manager, Max Maurey, as well as cameoing as de Lorde’s inspiration and muse, Edgar Allen Poe (as played by Vincent Price shouldering a stuffed raven), while Robert Portal has a great time eating up the scenery as the Grand Guignol’s leading man, Georges Paulais, and Emily Raymond gives a similarly ripe performance as the scream queen of her day, Paula Maxa, “the most assassinated woman in the world”, whose lot was to be brutally dispatched and violated on stage in a series of ingenious and bloody ways.

Paul Chequer plays Ratineau, the man responsible for many of the props and make-up effects of the Grand Guignol, and designer Alex Doidge-Green has – wonderfully – recreated several of these objects and devices. There are curious and gruesome surgical tools, slithering tentacles of intestine, an abundance of clotted, matted hair, slashed and flayed and acid-eroded prosthetics, and various alarming contraptions into which a person can be clamped and tethered. A machine for the reanimation of severed heads is a particular delight.

Matthew Pearson plays de Lorde’s sometime collaborator, the experimental psychiatrist Alfred Binet – a nervy sort of fellow, a fainter – and the play’s more messy moments are interspersed with conversations between the two about the genesis of horror in the human mind, whether it takes some form of real life trauma to generate such macabre fantasies, whether they serve a psychological purpose.

These sequences can be a little dry at times, they can slow the pace of things, though to be fair the production would probably feel rather relentless without them. A better balance is, however, struck in the properly juddering second half, when the layers of reality within the world of the play start to overlap, when the Grand Guignol starts to exert its crimson-fingered grip, when the blood begins to pool and ooze and drip.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

You come in via the back door. In this sort-of sequel to her all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar, Phyllida Lloyd has retained the women’s prison setting. This extends to the way you enter the space. Having collected your tickets from a bar across the street the audience are made to file in up the back stairs while being brusquely instructed by ushers dressed as prison guards to turn our phones off or risk having them confiscated. Inside the lighting is stark and unforgiving, while the seating in the lower part of the theatre has been replaced with equally unforgiving grey plastic chairs. There are institutional posters on the walls and a few more guards dotted around the space. It’s the same flirting-with-immersive approach the Young Vic took to their Hamlet, but once the play proper begins there’s no further interaction.

The two parts of Henry IV have been whittled down to a taut two hours, the pace rarely flagging, the energy considerable, and as with Lloyd’s Julius Caesar there’s a framing device, the inmates performing a play within a play, which allows for a handful of moments when the performers drop out of ‘character’, mainly to swear or scrap with one another.

As a result there are times when there’s a sense that the underlying relationships between the women are being echoed in their onstage dynamics, though this isn’t explored all that much as an idea – we are never shown who these women are and what they mean to one another beyond the world of the play – it does, however, add a shading to certain exchanges, most notably when Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff makes a fart noise at the end of one of Harriet Walters’ most kingly speeches and Walters shoots her a stern reprimanding look.

And Walters is brilliantly kingly. There’s something majestic about her whole demeanour, contemplative, intelligent, quietly commanding, even in a shapeless grey tracksuit, a ratty dressing gown and a crown made of old Cola cans (As a result of having watched too much Oz at an impressionable age I was a bit worried about the presence of all this jagged metal, but most of the violence is dance-like, stylised and shank-free – until the last ragged battle between Hal and Hotspur).

In fact dance and music are central to Lloyd’s production; the whole thing is permeated with this idea that music has the power to lift people out of restrictive environments, to transport, to liberate. The cold grey brick of the back wall is frequently filled with light, star dappled, as the performers slide into song. Sharon Rooney’s Lady Percy has a particularly affecting moment, a gentle, lilting lament.

This is, let’s be clear, an inventive and exciting production, but as beautifully done as so much of it was, I couldn’t help feel that it tries to explain itself too much, to find ways of accounting for the fact that all these women are together on stage, instead of just revelling in it – because it is a thing worth revelling in. But I began to feel as if there was something almost apologetic in the prison setting. Both this and Julius Caesar have been produced in collaboration with Clean Break, a theatre company which works with women in the prison system, and this is great and commendable – and, yes, there’s a also logic to the institutional setting, in terms of the power play and the shifting allegiances and the absence of men. They definitely make the case for choosing this path, part of me just wishes – especially since this is the second time around for the concept – they didn’t feel the need to justify and contextualise the casting in this way – because, regardless of setting, the cast are amazing.

Alongside Walters, Jade Anouka’s Hotspur is a fucking force, with her red wedge of hair; she has this deliciously rangy, rolling performance style, light footed and limber, and – as her performance in Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef showed – she has a strong poetic sense, there’s a musicality to her delivery. Cynthia Erivo is similarly physical in her performance, if more compact and contained. Like Kenard in The Wire, she’s tiny but you wouldn’t want to cross her. McGuire’s Falstaff is a wonderfully rumbling presence, using her superficial joviality as both a shield and a weapon, while Clare Dunne’s Hal is fiery but smart, clearly playing the long game

All that said, the rivalries and divisions – the Oz-like tribalism that only seems to surface towards the end – don’t feel all that well developed and it’s the tender moments that linger longest, like Rooney and Anouka’s embrace; their reluctance to let each other go.

And there’s something fascinating and timely about the ways in which the production prods at gender identity and its construction. The prison setting is part of this I guess – the shaved heads, the undercuts, the make-up free faces, the tracksuits and gym gear. Androgyny in various guises is part of the aesthetic – Walters’ face, as Henry, looks a little bit like Jeremy Irons crossed with Marlow Moss – which calls the attention to the weight our society places on women continuing to look feminine as they age. But she is never de-sexed by this, nor is there any ‘man-acting’, rather she and the rest of the cast get to probe the interplay between their masculine and feminine traits in ways not often given room to in the mainstream. Strength is a part of this. Because these women are strong. Really bloody strong. There’s this brilliant sequence in which Anouka, Erivo and Ann Ogbomo’s Worcester do a seemingly effortless series of acrobatic chin lifts and push ups and it’s such a pleasure to watch, this focus on women’s strength – physical as well as emotional – this display of power, untethered as it is to the cat-suits and slink of comic books or the acceptable athleticism of the sports world.

So it comes as a bit of a slap when the house-lights snap on at the end and the prison guards come back in to break up the performance. It feels like a reassertion of something that was thrillingly absent during the course of the play.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Starlore for Beginners, Theatre 503

“To life, to life, l’chaim.” Robert stands baffled on his kitchen chair belting out lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof. He’s not a singer. Not even in the shower. This newfound musicality, his girlfriend suspects, is the result of something else: the dislocated soul of her late husband, a dybbuk, intent on making an involuntary Topol of her current boyfriend.

The supernatural laces its way through Samantha Ellis’ writing. This quarter of shorts also proves her point – discussed at greater length here – that the short play can also “be huge and voluptuous and intellectually rangy, at the same time as being lean and punchy, taut and fleet.” All together the four run to just three quarters of an hour and yet there’s an awful lot going on within these tiny plays: grief, love, and life – complex knotty ideas about identity and a dash of the uncanny. These supernatural undercurrents are most explicit in Unfinished, in which a couple have to deal with the returning presence of her dead spouse. The play manages to speak about what it is to begin to live romantically again after the loss of a husband while having a bit of dark strange fun with the idea of Jewish possession (it could have been worse, it could have been Yentl).

These plays while short are never slight; the way in which Ellis deploys detail is both elegant and effective, world building with a small nod here and a half-line there, trusting the audience to meet her in the middle. There’s a lot of humour in the writing as well as a vast amount of charm. The last of the four, the title play – about a woman with epilepsy slowly allowing herself to be loved, letting her walls drop and letting her new partner get emotionally closer to her – is given an extra layer of loveliness by the fact that the two characters are working backstage on a production of Mutiny! the musical.

Noura is the most grounded of the quartet, no witches, no spirits, but it too manages to unpack something complicated and intricate. Taking the form of a dialogue between a young half-Iraqi girl and her belly-dancing instructor, the play explores what it was to be from a place and how much of our identity comes from a sense of belonging, and how much of it we construct. It’s beautifully handled by Olivia Sweeney and Lydia King, the emotional terrain, the nature of their relationship, shifting several times over a brief span of time.

The opening play, Cat in a Sieve, demonstrates that the form is not limiting in terms of setting and scope, set in the reign of James, pitting the King against a ragged girl accused of witchcraft.

Ellis has a great sense of structure and shape and none of the plays hang around any longer than they need to in order to make their mark, to say their piece. While watching a series of shorts instead of a full length plays does require a small recalibration – and perhaps more could have been done with the transition between the pieces, to thread them together – this is a rich and ranging experience, more satisfying than many things double the length.

Reviewed for Exeunt

The Me Plays, Old Red Lion

In the first play in his double bill of poetic, gently introspective, semi-autobiographical plays, Junkie, Andrew Maddock’s ‘Me’, wearing an unwise Topman jumper, is readying himself to go on a date with a woman that he has only ever met online, having swiped to the right on her photo on Tinder.

The play swims between memories of adolescence – the illicit buzz he felt as a teenager when first discovering porn in the pages of a magazine – and the man he has become, a little overweight and overwhelmed, but also isolated, islanded, by the constant availability of such imagery online. He agonises over whether or not to leave a ‘x’ at the end of his texts and holds his breath during those exquisite little gaps between the moment when a message is delivered and the moment in which it is seen. In “this digital age” his socialise unease is exacerbated and it’s easier to retreat into his cocoon, his self-made cage, than to meet new people, to risk rejection. While pornography is central to the piece, it’s never laddish or casual about it; instead it explores with intelligence the appeal of such imagery in a confusing world where irl interaction is fraught with insecurity and anxiety.

Potent as Junkie is the second piece is the stronger of the two; it’s a darker, more complex play. The red jumper has been ditched for a hospital gown and paper pants, as Maddock’s ‘Me’ awaits the results of a biopsy. Similar in structure to Junkie, Hi Life, I Win skips back and forth between childhood memories and the present but the writing here is freer and more fluid. Scenes of teenage rebellion, recollections of a volatile, frustrated adolescence within a constricting Catholic education system, are contrasted with tender and reflective scenes in which he awaits the results of his tests. The levity of the flashbacks gradually gives way to something darker and harder as he mourns his grandfather and stumbles in search meaning, and there are some highly poignant passages about what it is to be the son of a single mum, the closeness of that relationship.

Both pieces are laced with cultural references – the stuff of being a teenager in the 1990s: Gladiators, the Spice Girls and MSN messenger – but it’s gently done, the writing doesn’t hang on them; they just provide pleasant moments of connection if you happen to share them.

The decision to write in verse pays off as Maddock has a strong command of his text, the rhythms of it, the shape of it. The set by Charlie Marie Austin, a Tron-like cage of fluorescent strips elegantly lit by Christopher Nairne, is simple but striking, though its potential as a backdrop seems a little underexplored. While there’s an occasional static quality to Ryan Bradley’s production, Maddock’s warmth as a performer, his openness, and the sense of exposure contained in both pieces, overcomes this.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh 2014: Spine, Underbelly

The stage is book-thick, book-rich, beautifully book-full. Rosie Wyatt stands in the middle of this sea of shelves. Her character, Amy, has a right mouth on her. Once the words start they don’t stop. Her story is one of an unlikely friendship. Amy admits that she can be quite handful and her past behaviour -robbing houses, getting sacked from her job in a hairdresser after a spectacular outburst – has resulted in both her friends and family turning away from her. It’s at her lowest, loneliest point that she meets the woman she calls Mrs Glenda, a frail old lady in pop socks who lives in a vast Victorian house stuffed full of the books that she liberated from a library after the council decided to close it down.

Clara Brennan’s monologue, initially performed in a shorter version as part of Theatre Uncut, is full of energy; there’s anger in there but also uplift. It takes what could have been a predictable set up, what is in fact a slightly predictable set up – the education of a wayward young girl by a wise old woman whose health is fading – and turns it into something truly moving and optimistic and heartfelt. While there’s a lot to enjoy about the writing, in the way it blends the political and personal, its undercurrent of radicalism, Wyatt’s performance is also a joy; she’s full of adolescent urgency, taut with it – there’s no let up, it’s like she absolutely has to share her story with you, right here, right now, she has no choice in the matter, she needs you to hear this. Wyatt knows how to handle a monologue, how to hook an audience; she was captivating in Jack Thorne’s Bunny back in 2010 and here she plays a similarly outwardly confident young woman who beneath her mouth and bluster is quite vulnerable. The intensity of her delivery here is a little exhausting but the approach pays off and by the end both Wyatt and a large proportion of the audience are welling up.

Brennan’s play is a hymn to the written word, to the beauty of books and the power they contain within their pages, as well as to the necessity of protecting this power and making sure future generations have access to it. It’s also about community, about the need to listen to one another, to talk to one another, the things that can be achieved if people join together. Though never preachy this is a play with a message.

Directed by Bethany Pitts, the production can feel a bit one-note at times, a bit relentless. There’s no pause, no respite, but by the end as Amy starts to contemplate her legacy and to appreciate the importance of what has been passed on to her, the warmth and sincerity of the piece and Wyatt’s giddy, galloping performance come together to create something moving and memorable.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh 2014: Backstage in Biscuit Land, Pleasance Courtyard

One of Jess Thom’s friends once described her Tourettes Syndrome as a “crazy language generating machine” and that’s pretty much the perfect encapsulation for the neurological condition which causes a range of involuntary verbal and motor tics, and makes her say the word ‘biscuit’ anything up to 16,000 times a day. In addition to all those ‘biscuits,’ common tics include ‘hedgehog,’ ‘cats’, and ‘hello’, as well as a wide range of expletives – though as she points out only a small percentage of people with Tourettes have swearing tics, she just happens to be one of them.

Her show is designed to explore what it is to have Tourettes, how the tics affect her day to day life and how isolating it can be at times but also to celebrate the creative energy of them, their playful poetic quality. She’s assisted in this task by ‘Chopin’, the show’s co-creator who’s there to help keep her at least vaguely on script, but who also serves as a verbal dancing partner, improvising and riffing on Jess’s more surreal outpourings. On the day I saw it, one of the audience members also had Tourettes so there was a further unpredictable element in the room which added to the experience.

The show as a whole is insightful and engaging, demonstrating how normal tasks like making a cup of tea can be pretty tricky if you have a tic-driven tendency to hit yourself in the face, but it also genuinely makes you think about spontaneity, imagination and the creative process. There’s a wonderful linguistic richness to her tics. Between the biscuits she will suddenly come out with a “trigonometry anthrax” or a “Keith Chegwin is dead” or some “Roman Catholic sheepdogs.” Chopin’s mother’s tits are a frequent subject of analysis. And sometimes she’ll launch into an absurdist word-wave, an insta-poem of surreal magnificence. I was reminded of Oliver Sacks’ essay, dated now but still fascinating, about Witty, Ticcy Ray who relished his wild, Tourettic energy and channelled it into music.

Thom’s tics are often very funny and at the start she ensures the audience they are welcome to laugh at them, but they also allow her to view the world and there’s a lovely moment where she describes the way her tics latch onto things that she might otherwise miss, that they make her more aware of the beauty of the world around her, the changing seasons. She talks about her tics as if they have their own force of personality, a kind of co-habitation; her tics are excited by squeaky noises, they have a mischievous quality.

She also uses the show to make a serious point about the arts and accessibility. Her tics have in the past made visiting the theatre difficult and she was once asked to sit in a screened-off sound booth to avoid disrupting a performance, an event she found deeply humiliating. Theatre needs to be more inventive in the way it deals with this, instead of issuing finger-wagging charters, it should be look at finding models that include and welcome everyone. Thom’s been trying to see more shows while she’s in Edinburgh – she writes about the experience in more detail here – and she happened to be in the audience of the Secret Theatre company’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts on the night I went to see it, a show which was able to fold her tics into its own flow in a really exciting way and included a particularly beautifully timed deployment of the word “Nando’s.” I also think, in a strange way, Thom’s show would be a great one to see following Ross Sutherland’s brilliant Standby for Tape Back-Up, because in a way there’s a degree of overlap in the way they explore patterning and language and the place where poetry comes from. He doesn’t end on a song about animal sex though.

It would have been interesting to see more made of the backdrop – a collage of objects inspired by Jess’s tics including a highly unsettling Babygro – to see more interplay between the visual and the verbal, but the verbal is pretty thrilling in its own right.

All this, and you get a biscuit.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Monday, September 01, 2014

Edinburgh 2014: Circa - Beyond, Underbelly

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the lack of female-led super hero movies. Joss Whedon’s attempts to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen came to nothing and while there’s apparently a female-led Marvel project on the cards for 2017, there’s a general sense of timidity about the whole thing

Well, fuck that, because Rowan Heydon White, of Australian contemporary circus company Circa, is Wonder Woman. She’s amazing. She can throws her male co-performers through the air, she can balance them on her back, she can catch their bodies in mid-flight with the same ease as one might catch a ball; at one point she takes a Rubik’s Cube and proceeds to solve it, while her company members clamber all over her, distracting her, standing on her, clinging to her. Like I said, she’s super.

There’s an edge of the uncanny to this show. An uneasy, dreamlike quality where giant rabbits frolic in the mist, bodies bend in unwise ways and people cluck and caw like birds. Theirs is a subverted world and while the performance celebrates the astonishing things of which the human body is capable – its strengths, its flexibility – it does so in a playful, intelligent way. “There’s a line between human and animal, between madness and sanity, between logic and dream,” the opening voice over intones. There’s no narrative as such, but this idea of the animalistic runs through the whole piece. We are all of us flesh.

The production has been around for a while – I first saw it in a Spiegeltent in Norwich last year – but it feels more developed now, the weirder elements, the air of oddness, better integrated into the piece. Several sequences have been dropped – the burlesque tennis racket contortion dance is no more and its loss is not felt. There are very few props, a trapeze, a couple of climbing bars, a stretch of black silk. Costumes are similarly minimal, apart from bear suits and bunny heads which lend the piece a darkly cartoonish aesthetic. Each performer gets a solo spot in which to showcase their particular skill set, self-destructive tumbling, some dizzying silk-work, a beautiful, nimble fingered paper waltz to the music of Bonnie Tyler. The group sequences, in which they hurl chairs through the air and fling themselves about the space, are if anything even more dazzling.

Along with the incongruous Frank Sinatra soundtrack, the applause of the audience is continually punctuated by little gasps and winces and squeals of excitement. There’s laughter too, because it’s hard not to laugh when a man in an oversized bear suit shimmies up a pole while Bach’s Goldberg Variations plays in the background. It’s a brilliant, beautiful, ridiculous moment of which this show contains many.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh 2014: The Duck Pond, Bedlam

Some of my favourite shows of this year’s Fringe have involved people screaming. Men bellowing and raging in pain, woman shrieking in atonal, primal synchrony. But while screaming is sometimes a necessary response to the world, it’s not unwelcome to see a show whose defining characteristic is loveliness, which sets out to leave you beaming and – literally – feeds its audience cake.

withWings’ The Duck Pond is a candyfloss-flecked reworking of Tchaivosky‘s Swan Lake sans swans. Prince Siegfried has just turned 21 and is under pressure to marry. In truth he’s not much interested in girls but nonetheless his mother presses ahead with finding him a bride. As part of his birthday celebrations he visits a travelling fair, and as the moon rises he hooks himself a lucky duck – and ends up falling in love.

Odin, as is the way of such things, has been placed under a spell by the owner of the fair, a malevolent magician called Rothbart. By day he is a yellow plastic duck bobbing among his brethren but under the light of a balloon moon, he becomes human.

The production is all feathers and honey and loveliness. It is sweet and charming and packed full of little inventive touches designed to make you smile. There is music and dancing and the inevitable cascade of glitter, a dinky carousel, a coke bottle orchestra, and, as it’s a birthday, there are presents for everyone. The high point is a wonderfully playful and charming musical montage sequence in which the young Prince falls head over pointe for his enchanted duckling.

James Bennet and Tom Coxon both giving appealing performances as the Prince and his paramour, the musical number are skilfully performed and emotionally charged, sweeping over the audience, carrying you along on a wave of sugar water. Some of the ballet is a little wibbly and the shift towards the play’s tragic conclusion is a bit abrupt, but the ending is proper lump-in-the-throat stuff and there’s something hugely endearing and loveable about the whole exercise.

It’s a very youthful production, but in an energising way. You can clearly see the ripples of influences at work here, you can tell which companies these guys admire, it’s a little bit Kneehigh, a little bit Antler, a little bit Little Bulb, but there’s also plenty of invention and their attention to detail is admirable, even the programmes have been designed to look like party invites, a lovely touch. The whole thing has charm in abundance (though if you’re allergic to bobble-hatted whimsy this might not be one for you) but what’s lacking is a clear sense of identity as a company and they’re clearly more at ease with the visual than the verbal. They just need to pin that down, to find a voice that’s theirs alone.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, July 06, 2014

After a War, Battersea Arts Centre

I had not expected orchids.

Up in the attic of the Battersea Arts Centre there is a calm green room filled with flowers. In the background voices speak softly, soothingly. It lends the space a Sunday afternoon stillness.

It is a delicate gesture, this room, which is part of The Listening Post, an installation by Tom Chivers and James Wilkes drawing on the stories of Battersea residents during the First World War. Lines from local poet Edward Thomas have been pasted on the walls. Voices whisper from speakers. In the war years Battersea Town Hall was used as a recruiting office and the Council Chamber used as a courtroom to try conscientious objectors. From the orchid room you ascend, passing under the rafters, noting stray roller skates and flickering clips of Charlie Chaplin; the overlapping voices are underscored by an ominous aeroplane drone and suggestive of suspicions hissed over back garden fences, the twitch of the curtain.

As part of LIFT, Tim Etchells and 14-18 NOW, After a War, described as a ‘three day takeover’ of Battersea Arts Centre is an attempt to explore the lesser known stories of the First World War, and the wars that followed, through a series of installations, talks and performances spread across and weekend and throughout the various rooms of the BAC. The stories told came from Africa, the former Yugoslavia, and South America, emphasising the global, that this was a war that encompassed the whole world.

The idea is to chart your own path through the day, though this can lead to lulls, and while it allows welcome breaks for contemplation it also creating a slightly disjointed, fragmented feeling. Later in the day Stan’s Café will be performing Finger, Trigger, Bullet, Gun, a piece in which chains of dominoes will be used to represent the men who fell, and The Tiger Lillies are hymning doomed youth, but during the afternoon it is possible to dip in and out of rooms, to listen to the looping memories of BBC foreign correspondent Lara Pawson while sitting in a high-backed armchair, to watch videos of Argentine men who served as soldiers during the Falklands War recounting their experiences, in Lola Arias’ installation Veterans, to sit on one of the carpet-covered benches that dot the BAC staircase and read through a long list of conflicts, some familiar, some less so, which forms Martin John Callanan’sWars in My Lifetime.

Bask at The Listening Post, a baize board and a map of the local area provide further snippets of stories, tales of early aviation, of suspect German bakeries. In the last room, a quartet of green bankers’ lamps mark out a space to sit and listen to further accounts of what it was to speak for peace in a time of war, to take that stand. The installation uses the atmosphere of these attic spaces to its advantage, the walls still mottled from Masque of the Red Death, the building seems to be speaking to you, telling you its stories. The speakers glint on the wall, unblinking, like little black eyes looking down on you, speaking, yes, but also watching and listening. The piece as a whole, I felt, could have benefited from more visual richness – I am greedy, I want more of these stories, and the chosen objects feel somewhat scattered – but as a response to the space and an engagement with the building, it draws you in.

In between shows I go and listen to Amber Burchart’s informative talk about the various shifts in fashion that occurred during the First World War. She is an engaging speaker, taking in the origins of the trench coat, the retinal delight that was dazzle camouflage and the Sapeur movement in the Congo in a short space of time.

Two pieces of performance dig deeper into the African experience of war. In the first, Statue of Loss, Congolese dancer Faustin Linyekula twists and contorts his body, his torso smeared with white, to a recording of the scratchy, haunting chant of a Congolese soldier in a Prisoner of War camp. These were men who were being disappeared, their role in the war erased, even as they were fighting and dying for the country that had colonised them. This ritualistic piece of movement and music, Flamme Kapaya playing guitar from his seat at the back of the room (the same Council Chamber where Battersea’s conscientious objectors were made to account for themselves and where two days ago Forced Entertainment performed the relentless, hypnotic, The Notebook) is an act of remembering.

Inua Ellams’ approach is verbal rather than physical. The Long Song Goodbye is a piece of storytelling which Ellams performs while sitting at a desk surrounded by mountains of bureaucratic clutter, ziggurats of paperwork. Each line of the play begins with the word ‘because’. ‘Because he’, ‘because it,’ ‘because they.’ It lends this melodic, flowing story of a father and son’s separation a sense of the fated.

There are more stories, further fragments, happening in other rooms. The day has a scratchy feel, of ideas being worked out and refined. It’s at its most engaging as an experience when the individual pieces echo one another, when unexpected parallels and contrasts emerge, when you open a door and stumble into a room full of orchids.

Reviewed for Exeunt