LIP SURFACE: A VERY VERY VERY DARK MATTER @ BRIDGE THEATRE

THEATRE 

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For a brief time, this new piece by the highly esteemed Martin McDonagh (playwright of The Pillowman, Beauty Queen of Leenane, Lieutenant of Inishmore, and director-screenwriter of In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) coasts along on the deranged energy of its wtf!* premise, but its resolute refusal to develop its themes and issues beyond anything other than the superficial ultimately sinks engagement, concluding as a weightless wisp of an experience.

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Hans Christian Andersen, that most celebrated author of fairy tales (here seen as a monstrous toddler, a cartoonish vortex of keening ego and selfishness, soaking up adulation) keeps a Pygmy woman enslaved in his attic, the revelation being that she is the genuine creator of his body of work. He is locked in a combative, sadistic relationship with her, going so far as to cut off limbs to prevent her escape, marooning her far from home, entirely reliant on his whimsy, and subject to survival based on his terms.

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No one less than Dickens is soon dragged on stage as a fellow conspirator in this very curious set of circumstances. A vague grasp towards statements about colonialism and racism hover about idly but never blossom-and what any of this has to do with the collected work of either of these literary titans remains, at least for me, a mystery (neither subject is germane to Andersen’s or Dickens’s oeuvre). Or perhaps the perverse point is that both individuals eschewed any mention, in their output, of the horrors that were taking place in the name of empire, instead offering fantastical confections or carnivalesque epics of domestic social ills- a crime for which they obviously should be punished, given the potential for awareness their influence and reach could bring to global conflict.

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Coming from an artist who usually well orchestrates a tone of savage black comedy, fashioning it into a tough, alarming, adroitly bleak sensibility and worldview, this slick skirt of surface is shocking. The casually profane dialog doesn’t really sting or offend as it never pricks at anything deeper or truly troubling (Andersen’s protracted stay at Dickens’s home, a matter of historical accuracy, unfurls as a expletive-filled pantomime sitcom, a portrayal which demeans both men). The purpose of the play, its essence, is obstinately opaque, and I rather wish that McDonagh had pushed matters to the limits in either direction, gone full gonzo absurd, or scaled back to vulnerably human-instead, the script hovers awkwardly between the two states with no clear direction.

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Tom Wait’s scratchy, burnished dusk of a voice narrates a few passages, like the devil musing into your soul, and I rather found myself wishing to follow his voice on a voyage to the netherworld. The production hardly utilises the potential of the central environment, the dusty, high-raftered attic with a plague of puppets hanging from the beams, corners stuffed with furnishings and knick-knacks. A duo of time-travelling slain Belgian soldiers and a haunted accordion also figure into the crazed action because…why not? A Very Very Very Dark Matter continues through 6 January

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https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-very-very-very-dark-matter/

 

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AGAINST THE WALL: A GUIDE FOR THE HOMESICK @ TRAFALGAR STUDIOS

THEATRE 

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Unmoored, two strangers meet in the lounge of an Amsterdam hotel, driven ever closer in one another’s impartial company to confess recent experiences that have guiltfully revealed failings of character and conscience in regards to people under their care. Both are reeling with immediate crisis from these personal lapses, undermining any sure sense of self, opening enormous gulfs of loathing and desolation. An erotic tension desperately undergirds their interaction which both variably attempt to sidestep or ignore.

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The hothouse environment of the hotel residence is fairly well sustained, but playwright Ken Urban unfortunately diffuses the fervour of building pressure by continually slipping through times and geographical zones, revealing the stories and situations which have led both characters to such critical junctures. Although well acted by the two leads (who assume the roles of the doomed in each other’s tales), Urban does them a disservice by not keeping focus on the moment-to-moment flux in the main space. The aggrieved revelations would have greater force if told solely in dialogue, the enormity of tragedy and defeat registered through voice and face, a crushing knowledge of shortcomings spoken into the quiet, impersonal arena, a long distance from the crucial moment when action may have saved a soul (both actors are more than capable of communicating the subtlety needed). In fact, either one of the expansive narrative themes could easily have been spun off into its own separate play-as is, the script teeters unwieldy under the weight of ambition, the brief 80-minute running time barely able to support the serious burden of material.

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Douglas Booth and Clifford Samual twitch and convulse suitably as the pained protagonists, admirably agitated, although Urban’s (overworked) device of having Booth’s character announce his departure with great regularity, frantically lunging for his continually discarded rucksack, grows tedious, creating false drama. The script works best when it quiets down and allows the characters to work vulnerably and tenderly toward genuine connection, risking emotional candour. A Guide For the Homesick continues through 24 November 

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http://trafalgarentertainment.com/shows/a-guide-for-the-homesick/

BODY ELECTRIC: I & YOU @ HAMPSTEAD THEATRE

THEATRE 

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A seriocomic teenage two-hander with a “Black Mirror”-ish sting in its tail, this piece by highly regarded American playwright Lauren Gunderson is consistently clever and sharp, but ultimately lacks a greater emotional resonance. The last-minute twist certainly shocks the senses, but the refusal to process the moment beyond its immediate upset fails the play on a deeper narrative level. Caroline (Maisie Williams from “Game of Thrones” in her theatre debut, appropriately wary, truculent and defensive), a house recluse afflicted by a bodily ailment from which girls from YA novels particularly seem to suffer, receives an unexpected visit (or “ambush”, she might argue) from fellow student Anthony (a charmingly awkward, exasperated and diffident Zack Wyatt) who informs her that he has signed her up to assist him with a school project, which, due to his procrastination, imparts an urgency to proceedings-they must complete it before the next day of class.

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This detail, amongst many more, will come to symbolise something greater than what it initially seems. Their task is to interpret the use of pronouns in Walt Whitman’s epic opus “Leaves of Grass”, and the poem’s concerns with communion and connection in both the material and sensual worlds will come to have meaningful personal apotheosis over the course of the evening. The play’s conclusive spin goes a long way towards silencing many niggling pragmatic questions that may beset an audience as the play unfolds, yet introduces many new avenues of query that will remain unexplored, the audience stung with surprise along with Caroline, suspended in bewildered, astounded awe. From the fumbling push and pull of the night’s encounter, the endless volley of control and surrender, barriers broken (literally-and with impressive sleight of hand-in the final stages), an appreciation and affection develops between the youths that mirrors the themes of the work in which they are engaged in studying, themes which will come to have a singular significance.

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I only wish the twist didn’t feel so  enclosed and offhand-it seems structured only to disorient; although cunning, its finality risks a certain glibness, a self-satisfaction in undermining the audience, but also ill-serves and crudely overpowers the central characters and their great efforts and progress during the course of their interactions. Ending the play on such a disruption, the opportunity is lost to explore the dimension and scale of the events which have truly come to pass. In any case, the end is guaranteed to exert a fascination which will carry on into post-production conversations, both for and against the device. Special mention to the production design, a bedroom that is a fabulous mess and tangle of furnishings and possessions that speak directly to its adolescent cyclone occupant.

https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2018/i-and-you/

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PINTER AT THE PINTER 2 @ HAROLD PINTER THEATRE

THEATRE 

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Playful is not a word I would immediately attribute to the oeuvre of Harold Pinter-menacing, cruel, chilly, elliptical, severe are more likely adjectives-but a spirit of fun seems to have inhabited his pen and mind while creating the worlds within these two one-act plays that are amongst the first offerings of Jamie Lloyd’s new star-studded season devoted to the entirety of Mr. Pinter’s short works. They may be anomalies, but their verve and brio were an unexpected surprise, and have led to a swift personal reappraisal of Pinter, an appreciation for a heretofore unknown versatility. In the first, entitled The Lover, a couple chirp treacherously at one another, recounting ongoing dalliances with their respective adulterous lovers (who, in a clever psychosexual twist, are revealed as one another under assumed identities), a long-term game accelerating towards an exhausted, hurtful conclusion. Whether borne of a desperation, boredom or sadomasochistic impulse within the marriage, Pinter does not disclose-it’s merely a game that has ensnared them in its tyrannical hold.

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The conversation is scalpel-sharp, a savagely comic undertow of derision driving the dialogue. The audience laughs while never losing awareness of the alarm of what is being enacted. The pink flush of the room, which could indicate in one instance the ardour of first-stage love has now become oppressive and curdled, a meretricious bauble. The Collection follows a quartet of ambiguous characters across a spectrum of sexuality and gamesmanship, betrayal (or the possibility of betrayal) a motivating force to re-excite dulled and slacked senses. All four wield words like daggers, dangerous and careless, seeking to disrupt and in some cases destroy. David Suchet, Russell Tovey, Hayley Squires and John MacMillan manage the rapid-fire dialogue with skilled aplomb, and some of the more  explicit aspects of what was once only implied in the male “couple” have been released with great (and ruthlessly comic) candour.

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Not always paragons of virtue or principle, more than capable of guile, deceit and wickedness, these characters nevertheless retain a complicated humanity, a determined drive towards self-preservation and fulfilment, even if attained at another’s expense. Pinter’s wisdom has always been in acknowledging the cutthroat and cunning underpinnings of most relationships, especially those of an intimate nature-and here his comic approach teases out the horror and darkness with even greater clarity and effect than mere tragedy would do. Pinter At the Pinter continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre through 23 February 2019 

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https://www.pinteratthepinter.com/about-the-season

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SMALL TOWN BOY: THE END OF EDDY @ UNICORN THEATRE

THEATRE 

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The title may propose a grim finality, and no doubt much of the material that unfolds is harrowing, but this theatrical adaptation of Édouard Louis’s 2014 memoir is ultimately about escape, salvation and self-preservation. On a starkly-lit stage, barren of decoration save for four mounted video screens and a distant mock-up of a grimy bus shelter, the two actors (both representing the central character, perhaps suggesting the “multitude” within the one) guide the audience through the formative events in the early life of Eddy, textualising and footnoting as the story unspools, almost Brechtian in approach.

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The script is less interested in a clean linear narrative progression from one action to the next than in a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of clipped impressionistic scenarios that reveal aspects and concepts of a particular environment, in this case Eddy’s small Northern French town. The stripped, crude staging nicely complements the frank, unflinching material. Alex Austin and Kwaku Mills play every character, from Eddy’s family members to tormentors, offering an overview (almost a lecture) on the perils and pitfalls of Eddy’s rural existence, the ramifications of a personality in conflict with its place, an area subject to strict codes of gender conformity and conduct compliance, suffused with deep-rooted racism, misogyny, and deformed male rage. Each home is a hive of deprivation and despair, a grind of poverty and violence, against which Eddy’s unconventional behaviour (sexual, intellectual, emotional) is tremendous affront.

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The mentality cannot abide any flourish or affectation beyond its narrow parameters-in this case, a rebellious, disruptive sexual orientation (but the material is strong enough to suggest any matter of errant traits which may signal someone out for exile). Eddy is eventually offered an egress in the form of a university placement, but in this he is the rare exception. There is a great attempt to be forgiving of his parent’s limitations and failures, unconscious victims of a closed system. Despite the slight remove of direct sentiment and somewhat academic application, the performers extract quite a fierce mine of alarm and sympathy in regards to Eddy’s predicament.

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It’s safe to assume (given the Unicorn’s focus on theatre aimed at children-productions geared towards preschoolers up through early teens) that this play’s candid discussion and confession of sexual experiences and use of adult language may scald and bespoil once virginal walls, ushering in a new, more experienced age for this venerable space. An exacting, uncompromising  production altogether-bravo to fearless playwright Pamela Carter and director Stewart Laing. The End of Eddy closed on 6 Oct 

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https://www.unicorntheatre.com/TheEndOfEdd

 

 

 

 

WATERLOGGED: TOTALLY THAMES 2018

EVENT/PERFORMANCE 

As I am usually abroad the month of September, I have had to make peace with missing out on the activities surrounding this festival celebrating London’s great waterway, long a source of commerce, leisure and livelihood, a true source of the city’s lifeblood and development. Outside of a few public displays that begin appearing along the banks of the river just before the start of the month, I have been unable to attend any specific events, of which there are many, anything from talks to concerts to walks to photography exhibitions to boating spectacles. It was my great pleasure to this year have the opportunity to avail myself of two of the central offerings, with wildly varying results.

Bascule Chamber Concert 

This choral concert held deep within the bowels of one of Tower Bridge’s counterweight chambers, a Victorian masterpiece of engineering and industry (one of four such cavities that house the mechanisms that allow for the bridge to lift) is the one presentation I have most regretted not to have experienced, so I jumped at the chance to book a ticket early to assure myself of a seat for a truly atmospheric and transporting piece. The descent is quite dramatic, and sparks all manner of anticipation, entering through one of the control room stations and commencing a steep downwards journey via a series of twisting stairwells until you emerge into a vast, sweeping stone vault, vibrations of passing traffic overhead creating its own eerie vehicular rhythm. On the day I attended, rainfall was heavy and unremitting and cascaded in absolute freefall down the back wall (which may have engendered a reshuffle of seating), only enhancing the earthiness of the environment. The seven-strong Marian Consort, performing a programme encompassing works from the Renaissance through to 20th century (music set to Emily Dickinson poems), voices lifting and countering and complementing, crafted spine-tingling feats of tone and cadence, enhanced by the glorious acoustics within the space. I was held captive for the entirety of the hour of the performance (and I will never forget the incongruent visual of the members holding not songbooks with clip lights, but rather the very modern iPad, in a room so clearly claimed by a singularly different age-the audience could sense the close of a piece when the singers moved to click off their devices’ illumination).

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The brainchild of the profligately imaginative and inspired Iain Chambers, this is an indelible, unique sensory experience which I can without equivocation highly recommend. Inventory it for next year’s festival. The lineup changes each year, and you may, as happened to me, be required several times to alter the entry time to accommodate the raising of the bridge. I’ll never cross Tower Bridge in quite the same way ever again. 

http://totallythames.org/event/bascule-chamber-concerts-2018

Float 

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And now, unfortunately, to this woeful auditory promenade through the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, which in concept promised much, but in practice fell quite far from intention. After booking a ticket (which even at £8 felt rather extortionate for what was required productionally ), each participant was sent two files to download onto personal devices (phones, iPods), the purposes of which were to accompany and direct you on your journey through the tunnel, the voice of a small girl meant to gently stoke your perceptions and reflections through the prism of water. There was much faffing about as people gathered in front of the tunnel, the organisers assuring themselves that all had properly downloaded the files, handing out earphones (although, as instructed, most people had brought their own, less cumbersome, buds). A big show was made of queuing up and releasing each person into the tunnel in staggered fashion (the first file, seven minutes long, was meant to indicate when each person should be released-you had to listen for your prompt), but this could have been achieved much easier with a guide simply indicating when you could go (really, what was the purpose of the first file if it was just a holding mechanism? Very confusing, and superfluous). The second file (the only one of use) was switched on as you finally made your way down the stairs, but even this proved rather unilluminating, the increasingly irritating cadence of the small girl’s voice exhorting us to touch the walls and listen to the flow of people through the space, contemplate the water held on all sides. The way in which all participants had been dispersed was meant to mimic the choreography of a river dance. Why the voice on the file could not have been more sensibly adult, spoken of the tunnel’s specific history, imparted any rich knowledge of the Woolwich area and its military legacy, is a mystery. Continually, the spell (weak though it be) was broken by the volume at which many passersby spoke, the sounds of distracting public movement all around that violated the headset. On turning around, as recommended by my infantile host just before climbing the stairs that would blessedly bring my walk to its end, to contemplate the tunnel one last time and watch my fellow wanderers, I felt..unchanged and unmoved. I emerged with only a pointedly burdensome sense of disappointment and slight outrage. And shock. The whole experience lacked any sort of sophistication or edge. At least I was able to at last have an excuse to tour the buildings of Royal Arsenal, a long-held unrealised ambition. It is only for this sake that the day was not a crushing disaster. 

http://totallythames.org/event/float

 

“ERIS” GO BRAGH!: BUNKER THEATRE

THEATRE 

Pity poor Sean. His rigid Irish Catholic family has just barred his English boyfriend from attending his sister’s upcoming nuptials (so as not to offend his more “sensitive”relatives), nevertheless now a moot point as he and partner Tim have recently broken up. Riding a wave of peevish anger and frustration at his treatment, Sean and his irrepressibly energetic, polyamorous roommate Callista devise a strategy to seek out the most inappropriate, indecorous date to bring to the wedding in Tim’s absence, wholly upending the family’s smug conservatism.

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And so on to the questionable delights of Tinder and its like. The spirit of the goddess of strife is what drives the plot, and is the source from which scribe John King derives the play’s title. Robbie Taylor Hunt’s boisterous production certainly locates its inspiration in the antic, prickly energy of dispute and discord (perhaps too much so at times, as more than a few moments descend into noisy overkill). Cormac Elliott as Sean is the charming still centre to the backdrop of shifting activity (the supporting members of the ensemble portray multiple roles, much of the time acting as a Greek chorus), and it is within his quiet reflections and poignant interactions with family and erstwhile lover where much of the emotional power of the piece is found.

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Four microphones at each end of stage transform into technological conduits-telephone, Skype, Tinder screens, creating a very busy, swirled world of argument and paranoia (that the audience needs to visit the cacophonous, multi-channel catastrophic universe of Tinder talk three times is at least two times too many-we know all we need to know of this chaotic environment after the effective first witness).

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Thank God then, for Elliott’s steadiness and sure sense of character, and for Ashling O’Shea’s endless spasms of extroverted, generous energy as Callista to ground the production’s more physically aggressive,exhaustive aspects-they refuse to have their humanity subsumed. For Sean, as the play progresses, it’s less about fighting for recognition and acceptance from his contentious family than it is in cultivating his own peace and comfort. Eris continues through 28 September

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https://www.bunkertheatre.com/whats-on/eris