Thursday, August 4, 2022

Dog/ Actor

Steven Berkoff's Dog/ Actor is an evening of two monologues performed by the bewitching talent that is Stephen Smith. Produced by Threedumb Theatre, the summer tour is taking in Liverpool, Cambridge, Bath, Wimbledon and Edinburgh, but I saw it on a hot evening in the intimate Etcetera Theatre in Camden, a detail that has relevance later on!

The first of the monologues, Dog, offers an insight into the day of a British low-class yob (to use Berkoff's words) as he navigates the streets with his fearsome beast of a pitbull. Dressed like a national front mannequin, with skinhead, jeans, boots and braces in perfect order, the piece opens with an extended mime. Smith performs with comic bravado, running into the audience and circling the stage in the wake of his demon dog. The tension and energy in his muscles and movements was so convincing that he was a fountain of sweat in five minutes flat (I said the hot evening would return!) and I found myself repeatedly looking down to the spot where the imagined dog would have resided to check it wasn't really there!

The mime was a brilliant choice of opening to a rather problematic monologue that tightrope walks the difficult line between portraying and humanising a monster. The character's prejudiced, racist attitudes are so obviously and uncomfortably repugnant. Yet give a man a dog, prove he has a heart with his love for the creature, and immediately he elicits sympathy. Even when that dog, played with terrifying rabidity as Smith throws himself to the ground and rolls his eyes back like a tortured devil, is a fiend you wouldn't touch with a barge pole. This wonderful paradox, the co-mingling of tenderness and bigotry, is exactly where theatrical drama succeeds, drawing complicated layers within characters who are both repulsive and attractive. However, the story doesn't go far enough in exploiting this magic territory and although there is a great deal of empathy generated, there isn't a great deal of plot. The real triumph of the piece is Smith's mime. He even transforms a simple act of graffiti vandalism into a moment of comic delight.

The second monologue, Actor, follows an aspiring thespian on an unending stroll through town in which he meets various fellow actors who are all doing better than him. The cheerful delight he expresses to their face is beautifully undercut by the reaction he shares with the audience, which is a few notches closer to bitter. This duplicity is very effectively represented by the layer of white grease paint the actor wears as a mask. Again, with the heat of the theatre, that mask began to drip with gothic menace fairly swiftly, the actor's face disintegrating before our eyes, another powerful metaphor for the disintegration of the actor's 'self' in the face of constant rejection.

Having enjoyed Smith's Edgar Allen Poe monologues during the Watford Fringe Festival, I was delighted to see that the segue between pieces, in which he transforms from one character to another in front of the audience, was retained. It's such a simple but effective way of foregrounding the craft of the actor, the work of deconstructing and building character. But also it's just so exciting to watch because that transformation is usually the bit that's hidden from view. It feels very exposing, like you're being let into a moment of vulnerability. This, along with the clever selection of monologues that play with and within the horror and gothic genres, has established for Smith a senes of style, purpose and mission which is genuinely remarkable in an actor so young.

A compliment too for the lighting and sound design which gave life to the simple black box set. In Dog, the hellish red used to distinguish dog from owner was sharp and startling, while in Actor the use of sound looping was ingenious. It began as the charming soundtrack to the actor's day, but ended as a depressing comment on the repetitive nature of his life rejections, both personal and professional, as he delved into yet another hopeless Hamlet audition.

Overall, a brilliant performance that reminds us why we love live theatre.

Photos courtesy of Cat Humphries Photography.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Lady in the Van

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After the film version, starring the inimitable Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings, was released in 2015, 'The Lady in the Van' has become a double edged sword for stage performance. On the one hand, it's a hugely popular and beloved title which guarantees bums on seats. On the other, you raise the spectre of audience members expecting mere impressions of Alan Bennett and the Great Dame herself.

The Rickmansworth Players production, running at the Pump House Theatre until 7th May, manages to tread the line between those expectations beautifully, presenting a wonderful evening of gentle comedy suffused with cerebral asides and thoughtful reflections. You leave both thoroughly entertained and perhaps a touch wiser.

Sarah Rodrigues direction is careful and unobtrusive, allowing Bennett's witty language the space and time to be fully enjoyed. The projected backdrops are pastel-shaded watercolours that are easy on the eye and suggest a relaxed 'tweeness' that is readily associated with Bennett's style. The lighting and sound are subtle and slick, never overwhelming the action or drawing focus. The only competitor for the audience attention is the van itself, whose magnificent entrance is an evening highlight.

That's not to say the car is the only star! The two Bennetts, Roger Saper as the elder and Matthew Knowles as the younger, carry the story forward confidently. Saper has the Bennett voice down almost to the syllable, while Knowles deserves an award for his facial choreography that captures, with a well-measured touch of comic exaggeration, Bennett's distaste for intimacy and general human contact.

The energy and pulse of the show flows through Miss Shepherd, and Julie Lilley brought her to glorious, gorgonesque life with dazzling aplomb. Her voice was a operatic foghorn, simultaneously melodic, controlled and painfully penetrating. Her enunciation would have satisfied the very strictest of old-school LAMDA teachers and worked cleverly in playing up the humorous contrast between the well-to-do Northern tones of Bennett and Shepherd's scruffy Southern superiority.

However, for me the thematic resonance of the night was not so much the North-South divide or reflections on class, but the comments the play had to make about a Britain facing the cost of living crisis. Questions about ownership and community, helping or ignoring those in need, and obsessing over property prices felt sadly pertinent. These themes are subtly drawn out through Bennett's exchanges with his neighbours, the self-assured suburban alpha male Rufus (played by Steve Bold) and his gossipy wife Pauline (played by Penny Merlin-Woods). Similarly, themes of social responsibility, honesty and integrity become apparent with the storyline concerning Underwood, played with chilling menace by Alistair Park. 

Overall, the Rickmansworth Players presented a delightful evening of gentle comedy that eschewed simple nostalgia to tell a fresh and truthful human story. Highly recommended!

Sunday, October 3, 2021

One Man Poe


One Man Poe

The first thing that strikes you about One Man Poe, a performance of four of Edgar Allen Poe's pioneering gothic tales, is the sheer spectacle of such a tremendous feat of memory. The stage is largely bare, just a few props here and there to suggest location. Your focus and concentration is entirely directed toward our actor, on whose shoulders the evening will stand or fall. It's almost criminal that his name doesn't appear on the flyer or the Watford Fringe webpage, as this truly is his performance.

His name, as you can learn by visiting the Threedumb Theatre website, is Stephen Smith, and his modesty could well be one of the reasons the production does not only stand but soar. Horror works best when there is a chilling sense of uncertainty. Mystery and suspense are essential to its grip on the audience. The anonymity of the actor assisted in his startling transformations, beginning as a straight-jacketed madman frustratedly arguing his sanity in The Tell-Tale Heart and closing as the bent and decrepit old man of the popular poem The Raven. He fully inhabited each character, creating a unique voice, stance, attitude and emotional backstory that not only perfectly matched Poe's intense, haunting language but actually helped illuminate it for the spellbound audience.

The Black Cat was a beautifully understated study of how even soft-hearted animal lovers can turn into cold-blooded murderers, but the tour de force was The Pit and the Pendulum, a prototype for the 'torture porn' subgenre we see now in films like Saw. Fetishistic and frightening details of a man being sadistically driven to his death by the Spanish Inquisition are painfully spun out in Poe's heavy, complex prose. It was at times a struggle to follow, but Smith's careful attention to the rhythm of the language helps guide the audience as he dramatises with visceral movements and rich emotional expression the action of the story.

Equally important to the storytelling are the magnificent lighting and sound which create an eerie, tense atmosphere and punctuate the monologues with layers of visual and aural action that drive the plot forward. In many ways, they become the second character in each scene, demanding attention and interaction with ghostly, supernatural force.

I especially enjoyed the choice to show the actor preparing for their next role on stage. Shrouded in dim light, with mirror and make-up to hand, we watched Smith alter his appearance and transform from one character to another before our eyes. Far from destroying the magic of theatre and mystery of horror, it emphasised the idea that we all have these characters inside us, that we all play many parts in our daily lives and can change from one person to another on the turn of a coin. Chilling.

There was a lack of connection between actor and audience initially, which is not entirely inappropriate to horror, but as a consequence it felt awkward applauding at the end of each scene. Indeed it was not until the very end of the evening that we saw Smith's own sparkling personality shine through. The intensity of Poe's language was also a little exhausting to be submerged in without a sense of context. I would have liked Smith to build a rapport with the audience, expounding a little on Poe's biography and background (itself a frightening tale) before going into each piece. He could do for Edgar Allen Poe what Simon Callow does so superbly for Charles Dickens, popularising and dramatising him for a broad and grateful generation. Poe's works are nearly 200 years old and without that guiding hand these recitations might remain rather niche, but with it they will surely garner the attention and admiration of theatre goers of all stripes.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Clean! A Feminist Musical

Clean! A Feminist Musical

On the advertising flyer Clean! is described as a feminist musical, a worthy subtitle it thoroughly deserves for its thoughtful and moving interweaving of 7 separate but connected female narratives. However, what struck me while watching was how much this was a humanist musical, filled with affection and optimism, and a far cry from the political diatribe or agitprop such a label could imply.

Nonetheless, the story, or rather stories, go some way toward redressing a long overdue imbalance in the prominence given to male narratives on stage, and the musical genre in particular provides a thrilling space for resonant female voices from across the ages to be enjoyed and appreciated.

Millicent is the oldest character chronologically, working in Brighton’s Mayo laundry in 1885. She’s followed by one of Brighton’s first female GPs Dr Helen Boyle and young suffragette Meg. Dot manages the laundry through the smallpox crisis of the 50s while Ruby is escaping domestic abuse two decades later. In the 90s Juliet explores menopause and empty nest syndrome, while Tasha bring us right up to 2021, drawing direct parallels between COVID and earlier pandemics.

The sense of place is important throughout, with frequent specific references to Brighton, binding the characters together by geography as we flit bird like through historical periods. The excellent staging and costume design on the one hand make these transitions seamless and comfortable while on the other give us the clues we need to identify eras with accuracy.

The personal narratives are by turns sweet and compelling, tender and brash, and these tonal shifts keep a sort of comfortable forward pace to the story telling. Although it never feels truly dramatic in the sense of any character delivering us tension or suspense, that is in part an inevitable consequence of the form. In keeping the characters monologuing rather than interacting, they are reporting events rather than experiencing them.

The real star of the show is Simon Scardanelli's music, which has an utterly seductive folksy charm. The actors frequently play their own instruments, a decision which beautifully reinforces the theme of them claiming their own stories and supporting each other in telling them. The harmonies are stupendously good and again underline powerfully the theme of sisterhood.

My personal favourite character was Judey Bignell as Dr Boyle whose prim manner and plum accent was an understated delight, while Jack Cryer’s Juliet coaxed the most laughs. Overall, Clean! is a life affirming show with an inspiring message about our shared capacity for tenacity and love which left the audience genuinely uplifted.

Going Straight to Gay... Or Something In-between

Going Straight to Gay... Or Something In-between is an hour long comic monologue delivered with gusto by actress Henriette Laursen. The topic is exactly as the title indicates. Laursen shares with the audience the highs and lows of her tempestuous love life, a life which just happens to involve falling in love with both men and women.

There are countless comic routines built around the traditional coming out story, so much so that in recent years it's become it's own subgenre. Some of Laursen's material focused on those old worn cliches, such as the father who struggles to talk openly about sex, and the frustration of family members delaying and interrupting her planned dramatic revelation. What made this evening special, and indeed exciting, were the parts that explored the particularities of her coming out as bisexual, not just to others, but to herself, recognising the impact of that identity on her own life and interactions.

It was fascinating listening to Laursen outline how differently she is treated when she's in public with a male partner as opposed to a female. She riffed on the peculiarities of going on a date with a woman, as a woman, having been socialised into dating the opposite sex. With two women, who buys the first round at the bar? How do you avoid the manipulation spiral? And worst of all, what do you do when you and your partner are the same size and she wants to 'borrow' your favourite jeans? Laursen mined every opportunity for comic potential, fully exploiting her actor training to deliver mini sketches and dialogues of her multitudinous relationship wrangles.

Laursen articulated confidently her unique perspective of experiencing the world both as a woman who others saw as 'straight' and fully conforming to the stereotypes of her gender, and also as a woman who others saw as 'gay', challenging those same conventions. This is a rarely explored point of view, and it gave her some fascinating insights into straight privilege, gender assumptions and the importance of Gay Pride which should be compulsory viewing for bigots everywhere.

Though her acting skills were an asset to the evening, the downside was that the comedy often felt forced. There was too great a dependence on the script and a resistance to spontaneity which made her relationship with the audience less intimate than it could have been. She often delivered a joke and then reversed it, breaking us out of the story she was spinning. I would have loved the monologue to be a bit shorter, so that time could be given at the end for a question and answer session where her idiosyncratic insights into life and love could be shared with a greater sense of direct connection. She's started an incredibly important conversation here, a conversation I'm sure many more people will be delighted to join.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Spaces Audio Plays: Hello Agnieszka

One of the wonderful aspects of the Watford Fringe Festival is the way boundaries of performance and expectation are challenged and stretched. Although audio drama is by no means a new medium, it's inclusion in a fringe festival is a brave and intriguing treat.

So it was with curiosity and keenness I approached 'Spaces', an anthology of audio plays where each immersive story draws you into a different location. There are five plays in total, exploring ordinary spaces from a car to a corridor, with a toilet somewhere in between. I dipped my toe into the hydrophobic landscape of just one of them, 'Hello Agnieszka', set in a bath.

Written by Anna Whealing, the 20 minute drama explores the story of a first-time mother struggling to come to terms with her pregnancy and the way it changes her body, her relationships and her sense of identity. She describes pain with resignation and clarity, her changing body as a 'lumpy marinating potato', and the fleeting nature of memory and love with delicacy.

There is clearly character, and to a lesser degree plot, driving this piece forward, but what I found truly arresting was the simple power of the soundscape to utterly envelope the listener. Beautifully rhythmic drips from a bath tap created a claustrophobic atmosphere, aural bars to a self-imposed cage. A rich bed of hypnotic synthetic sounds created a meditative tone which took my imagination to a spiritual place. And the English narration of expectant mother Camilla (played with careful understatement by Elizabeth Grace), complimented with asides from the Polish speaking grandmother, brings you back into the earthly, human story.

In all honesty, I would struggle to tell you precisely what that story was. But what I can say without any struggle is that 'Hello Agnieszka' was one of the most arresting, perplexing and delightful 20 minutes I've spent at the fringe. Poetic, charming, and hauntingly atmospheric. Camilla remarks that crying is the same in Polish and in English. Similarly, this was an experience that bypassed traditional narrative storytelling and tapped straight into deep emotion.

Your ticket purchase provides access to the full collection of audio plays. If they're anything like the bath, they'll be worth the visit.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Pieces of PeeVira

 Pieces of PeeVira: A 10 Year Retrospective

For anyone who's a fan of PeeVira, also known as The Fringy Mime Queen, this is a must see retrospective. The opening exposition creates a rather reverential tone from the outset, which is perhaps surprising for an act associated with challenging stereotypes, breaking convention and sticking two (or more) fingers up to authority. PeeVira's early years are narrated by a formally toned, serious-voiced female which makes it hard to switch from dry biography to outrageous humour. The visuals, an ethereal scene of rather foreboding clouds, don't really help, suggesting the substance of the 20 minute video will be a spiritual if somewhat turbulent journey of someone trying to find their place in life.

The journey is indeed a triumphant one, overcoming adversity to reach the heights of success. We're given a powerpoint style list of PeeVira's many achievements, including several first place victories in illustrious drag competitions and even a cameo appearance on America's Got Talent.

However, the highlights of the show are the 3 or 4 set piece performances where PeeVira (named after her idols Pee Wee Herman and Elvira) recreates some her most popular sketches. The trouble from the perspective of a viewer like me who doesn't know her work already is these performances felt like the minority of the video. And in the face of the formal documentary style narrative, they couldn't really generate the sense of comedy, fun and naughtiness that she must evidently create in her more natural live setting. Definitely not one for the kids, her parody of Rocky Horror Picture Show and It's A Small World give a delightful glimpse of her cheeky humour and downright drag rudeness.

Written, performed, directed and created by AJ Pratts, perhaps another hand on board might have balanced out the conflicts of tone. This is a show which summaries CV like the many achievements of a drag success, but doesn't do enough to actually replicate the magic and sense of fun that made her a success.

Dog/ Actor

Steven Berkoff's Dog/ Actor is an evening of two monologues performed by the bewitching talent that is Stephen Smith. Produced by Threed...