A FOREST, DARK & DEEP: CHILD (KIND) @ LONDON MIME FESTIVAL

THEATRE/PERFORMANCE

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Almost indescribable (akin to the process of trying to recover a dream, its essence continually eludes conscious apprehension), this piece by Belgian group Peeping Tom, the third in a loose family trilogy, propels itself mostly along the ferocious strength of its sheer confounding, eye-popping visual energy and verve. On evidence, its contemplation of the state of childhood is troubling, locating within it an almost anarchic psychosis, a condition without regulation of boundary or limit, not only creatively or imaginatively, but morally and ethically.

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The lead character (embodied by mezzo soprano performer Eurudike de Beul who cuts quite a disorienting, overgrown figure riding a child’s bike in her short red-skirt and ankle socks) often stops to have a tantrum that dramatically escalates to full operatic bellow. Trapped within a tight space between forest edge and cliff wall (both of which pulse with menace and from which treacherous, unexplainable figures-human or otherwise- occasionally emerge), she is witness to-and often complicit in-terrible acts of incomprehensible violence.

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Elastic dancer Yi-Chun Liu enacts a jaw-dropping balletic sequence as her body flops and heaves and twists under a barrage of bullets fired indiscriminately and inexplicably from a rifle (first brandished by a threatening local male, soon placed into the hands of the young protagonist who proceeds to orgiastic release). That it is predominantly the Asian performers who are imperilled hints at a cultural theme not fully addressed. There is the sense of a corrupt adult world which bleeds down to the child, helpless in the face of poor example of conduct, adrift without nurture. A forensic team periodically appears to clear debris and cleanse the environment. At certain points, and quite unexpectedly, Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes cross the mind; David Lynch would very much appreciate the surfeit of surreal musings.

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This is far from a cosy, romanticised view of the child, instead a minefield of terrifying, anxious impulse and whim, a landscape of traumatic experience. With relentless eerie, eccentric imagery (an undulating earthworm, an unsteady hybrid human/deer, trembling  ovular discs that disgorge scuttling creatures, an arboreal newborn trailing umbilical roots), this will haunt the mind even in the daylight hours. Whether or not it adds up to any sort of thematic coherence, or is anything beyond a bravura collection of unsettling sequences, this expressive descent is unforgettable on a primal level. Child (Kind) continues through 25 January

https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2020/event/london-international-mime-festival-child-kind

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IN DREAMS: ROOMAN @ LONDON MIME FESTIVAL

THEATRE/PERFORMANCE

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Not quite the love story its creator claims in the press notes, this wildly imaginative multimedia piece (incorporating film, projection, animation, movement, puppetry, dance and an epically ominous, distressing sound and visual design, its tale played out on a series of screens) bleeds a bleak, lonely tale of disenfranchisement and alienation, charting an unhealthy, helpless flight into irresponsible, annihilating fantasy. A rebuke to the improper, disproportionate uses of fancy, this story follows its lead female character into uneasy realms of stormy mental health issues and emotional distress. Beleaguered, she floats through her monochrome life, a monotonous burden of dispiriting  work and the most basic structure of quotidian rituals.

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Often, she is trapped and restricted  within the smallest, most cramped screens: the tight confines of her bed, an unforgiving negative space closing in around her; the imprisonment of her daily descent via the lift, mercilessly mocked by the broad, open spaces of her fellow apartment dwellers, lovers and families living out colourful, close-knit lives, which may as well be taking place in another universe. Her colleagues are faceless, defeated automatons, waiting for the work bell to sound the day’s end; she and her fellow commuters stand blankly at bus stops, going exhaustively through the motions. Only in her nightly dreams may she find succour (and excitement) living out a fevered relationship with a mythic creature resembling a kangaroo/human hybrid who offers illicit and companionable pleasure.

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Increasingly, her need to indulge this realm grows ever more desperate and alarming, scheming her way to expand and extend the experience through artificial means, in the process corrupting an essential purity. What should sustain curdles into destructiveness. Ecstatic, playful scenarios (a brilliant paint fight that carries across the stage, explosions of wild dance) drift determinably into despondent, hostile landscapes. The incline towards tragedy is quite startling given our assumption that the nocturnal flights will be this woman’s salvation.

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A brave concluding moment, like a protracted punctuation, finds a live character emerging on the stage painting a slogan in deliberate slow pace, invoking a (dangerous, damaged) dreamer to arise. ROOMAN continues through 18 January at the Barbican, returns only

https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2020/event/london-international-mime-festival-rooman

 

HARDER TO BREATHE: LUNGS @ OLD VIC

THEATRE

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On a stark stage the foundation of which seems to be a series of solar panels, a young British couple (who may over-fancy themselves as enlightened) succumb to anxieties and perturbations surrounding the issue of bringing a child into an increasingly environmentally challenged and crisis-ridden world; a newborn bundle of joy, with our contemporary climate-saturated minds is, with a helplessly swift and embedded thought, immediately reduced to its potential harmful (sum total) carbon imprint. Duncan Macmillan’s brash, bold, frenetic piece, first produced in 2011, grapples mightily with a world spinning on its edge with unrest, disorder and lunacy (if anything, the work has only grown more immediate). The first crisis of conscience strikes while in the queue at IKEA.

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The central couple (portrayed by the powerhouse duo of Matt Smith and Claire Foy, smoothly extending their effortless rapport and chemistry from The Crown) prowl the stage, circling one another, thrusting and parrying, in turn tender and cruel in their behaviour as the structure of their relationship is tested (flaws and shortcomings exposed)-at certain points, the two could be sparring pugilists in the ring. Time elapse is elegantly signified by pauses in dialogue and turn of body as the audience travels through the narrative (the communicative comfort and ease of the lead actors goes a long way in explaining and making coherent the forces of attraction which fundamentally brought the couple together, something which the writing doesn’t always make clear; as presented in the first moments of the play, already calcified in certain traits-she shrill and neurotic, he perpetually adolescent and lazy-it’s hard to grasp what is holding them together).

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As the play progresses, principle colliding with biological imperative, stakes risen, the couple must confront just how seriously committed to their beliefs they are (despite continually declaring their climate-awareness credentials, ceaselessly-insecurely-trumpeting their goodness and contributions to the health of the planet), and whether or not their behaviour is just middle-class pretension and lip-service. Foy and Smith rustle up tremendous sympathy for these damaged, lost souls, even at their most insufferable, fighting to solve the contradiction.

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The final sequence, a sudden acceleration into the future, is misjudged and clumsy-and unnecessary, detracting from the clarity of focus on the present. Conceptually, it is understood, but no broad speculation beyond where the couple is left at conclusion is required-leave it to the imagination of the audience (and its own thoughts on what the intervening years may bring) to wonder freely. Lungs closed on 9 November

https://officiallondontheatre.com/show/lungs-old-vic-111417778/

TRICKY: BABY REINDEER @ BUSH THEATRE

THEATRE/PERFORMANCE

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Unsparing, unflinching, this 70-minute monologue by performer Richard Gadd about his experience with a female stalker operates almost continually at a fevered pitch of hysteria and intensity, an attempt each night at exorcism of an exhaustively troublesome and emotionally draining situation. Gadd acknowledges his own collusion in creating this circumstance: a particular boredom in his bartending gig between theatre work, a performer’s need for and indulgence in attention, his own vanity and libido, all conspired in an initial flirtation with an older woman one evening who seemed in distress, Gadd’s sympathy and compassion (which were no doubt genuine and a part of the dynamic)  taken out of proportion, encouraging a dysfunctional attraction.

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Naively, perhaps callously, Gadd did not recognise a damaged individual until too late. Martha, as she is called (Gadd fluidly uses a chair to represent her onstage) mounts a spiralling campaign of sexualised communication, from emails to voicemails to personal encounters. When finally rebuffed by Gadd, a true vocal and verbal assault commences, leading to police involvement. Gadd’s parents and partner become collateral damage, subject to their own unwarranted interactions with Martha. The ubiquity of Martha’s harassment is made discordantly and distressingly clear by the sound and visual design, which crescendo to create an aural and visual crush, very nearly driving each member of the audience from their seat in nervous dread (over a three-year period, Martha left 41,000 emails in Gadd’s inbox).

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In the material is a ruthless honesty and candour, Gadd very willingly exposing his own failings and weaknesses, the run of bad choices that may have exacerbated the state of affairs (Gadd’s previous show explored his grooming and sexual abuse by an older male, so he clearly mines the uncomfortable, uncompromising facts of his own life). Sweaty, breathless, conflicted, this confessional unfolds almost as therapy session, the audience riveted and alarmed. So immediate and raw is the feeling, Martha still out there, that resolution and healing still seem long out of reach-Gadd brings the reality close and straight into the theatre, Martha’s presence felt.

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The only aspect left unexplored is what does Gadd owe Martha now that he has made her the subject of a personal work, from which he is generating income? Does she have a right to share in profits? After (and despite) all the monstrous behaviour exhibited by Martha, the sheer ungenerous feelings she eventually unleashes in Gadd, a brief moment near the conclusion (involving the childhood toy from which the title of the piece is derived, also the endearment given to Gadd), brings to Martha a full, convulsive, devastatingly poignant humanity, exposing long-standing,  profoundly vulnerable unhappiness and despair that struck me to my core. Baby Reindeer runs through 9 November

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TALES TOLD: TWO LADIES @ BRIDGE THEATRE & A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON @ OLD VIC

THEATRE

Two Ladies

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There are myriad interesting places for this study of two First Ladies sectioned to a drab conference room while their husbands argue a proper response to an act of aggression to go, yet not a one of them is exploited in the wan script provided by playwright Nancy Harris. The development that is offered is quite bizarrely melodramatic and, at first, self-defeating, leaving the two hard-working actors on stage to attempt to make credible the outrageous (yet even the tactic taken is not pursued with enough venomously feasible absurdity or black humour to justify its choice).

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Both characters (as well as a distracting and overbearing advisor) are given their speeches and reasons for their aggrieved states, all of which fall hollow on the ear with a bland convention and dearth of imagination. Much silly business with potential poison hidden behind a frivolous facade ensues, diverting attention from the much more interesting and complicated emotional crisis of two very capable and intelligent women sidelined by the powerful positions of their spouses, their voices unheard. The two women are clearly modelled on Brigitte Macron and Melania Trump, but only superficially so. Two Ladies continues at the Bridge through 26 Oct

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Two Ladies

A Very Expensive Poison

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Masterfully harnessing the breadth of conceptual and visual vocabulary uniquely available to theatre, this stark, almost forensic study of the Alexander Litvinenko radioactive poisoning murder pushes the material into the realm of the surreal, an acknowledgement of the absurd parameters and astonishing  madness of the real-life source material. Characters violate the fourth wall to directly address the audience or break out into song; large-scale puppets crash into scenes, a Putin facsimile camps it up as cartoon villain, madly stage-managing from the stalls; there is an imaginative use of accent to indicate differences between native tongue and second language. Elements of music hall, Punch-and-Judy, shadow play, pantomime, Brecht, Pinter, Sartre create a swirling, exciting theatrical mix.

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Amidst the confident affectation, Tom Brooke and Myanna Buring manage to create and sustain a gentle, human connection, suggesting a rich history of love and loyalty with economical means-without this clear emotional grounding, the approach (while stunningly designed and mounted-scene changes are especially, remarkably, efficient and impressive in expression of space) may have risked alienating attention. A goodly amount of recent Russian history is dispensed, the horrid fable of running afoul of an authoritarian regime, the deadly consequences for principled people who may seek to defy government decree, still relevant to this very moment (and beyond, no doubt). Anything but a dry history lesson, this is vital, explosive, engaged, instructive, politically angry (Britain-Theresa May, in particular-is not spared vitriol), firing on all levels-playwright Lucy Prebble works the potential of theatre to its very core. A Very Expensive Poison closed on 5 October

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DREDGE & DREAD: APPROPRIATE @ DONMAR WAREHOUSE

THEATRE

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A Southern family gathers at the cluttered, deteriorating ancestral plantation home to settle their recently deceased father’s estate in this atmospheric, audacious production directed by Ola Ince. Dark and troubling matters rustle beneath the foundations (literally as well as metaphorically, as evidenced in the opening scene) and shift within the walls-a disquiet, subtle initially, will shake the rafters with mighty force by the conclusion.

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The tensions between the three central siblings contribute to a hothouse environment of resentment, envy and recrimination that electrify the very air in the home, already heavy with humidity and the asphyxiating cloak of history. As Toni, the caretaker of her father and his image, Monica Dolan marvellously, exhaustively maintains an edge of hysteria; prodigal son Franz (Edward Hogg), with a chagrined past of substance abuse and inappropriate sexual contact, steals into the house, at the start, like a common thief; and Bo (Steven Macintosh, gradually  teasing out an affecting melancholy and vulnerability) has long since defected to New York and become generally engaged in the pursuit of material gain. Various partners and children have accompanied them to aid in sorting through years of detritus and acquisitions.

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Outside, like a brooding, trenchant accusation, is a slave graveyard, an uncomfortable reminder of the domicile’s past. Several racially suspicious items found while rummaging through the accumulated contents spark uncertainty of dear old dad’s sensibilities (one of which, worn by a youngster too fledgling to comprehend its charged impact, rushing on to stage in a gasp-inducing comic shock, is quite awe-striking). When a cache of incendiary photographs of  lynchings is unearthed, passing through nearly all hands onstage, setting off palpable reactions that reassemble the very chemistry of the atmosphere, each individual reaction is telling, most found morally defunct.

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When the possibility of a substantial financial viability of the images is suggested, the assembled reaction feels like a further exploitation of the dispossessed and bereaved. What do these family members owe to the past and to each other, and must they answer for the sins of their fore-bearers? The artful disorder of the first act may be tidied by the start of the second, but the family is left to confront the litter of grievous emotional truths and unsettling personal revelations in the stark clarity of a rapidly disintegrating environment where ghosts abound and will not be stilled. Writer Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins reignites the conventions of the family drama, bringing down the house in the process. Appropriate runs through 5 October 

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SAD SONGS: BLUES IN THE NIGHT @ KILN THEATRE

THEATRE

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Soaked in the sway of sex, borne along on a radiance of double entendres, this study of three hard-done-by women who board in a rooming house above a jazz club is structured around a song cycle of blues. Dialogue serves mainly as a bridge between the tunes-music provides the central narrative thrust. The three ages of women are represented by the trio of actresses: Sharon D. Clarke the wise elder, bowed but not entirely defeated by a lifetime of regret and misery; Debbie Kurup a good-time gal moving inexorably into the latter seams and stages of weary experience; Gemma Sutton a recent arrival, fresh but well on her way to the first sup of disappointment and disillusion, innocence inevitably on its way to sully.

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Clive Rowe is on hand (in somewhat pantomime form) as the master of ceremonies of the club, and as the token face of toxic masculinity, signalling all of men’s egregious indignant behaviour towards women, their endless manipulations, injustices and defilements. The club stage-smoky, louche, loose-atmospherically dominates the set (with bar and staircase/lift anchoring the back, the orchestra and small dance floor thrust to the front), a disrepute around which the womens’ cramped rooms, like satellites, orbit.

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Clarke is the most magisterial in connecting with the messy emotions of the material (classic standards by such luminaries as Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen) whether soul shaking, feisty, lusty or frivolous-she continuously digs deep. Kurup brings a poised, wounded brass (although at times chilly technical precision) to her pieces. Sutton sings with a tremulous fear in her voice, the terrible knowledge that her hopeful ideals will be ultimately trampled.

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Despite the dispossession and disenfranchisement, the ways in which the world has conspired to belittle them, these women still find a way to rally themselves, shout out with vigour and verve and robust allure, inexhaustible sensuality. The blues, and their expression of it, will sustain and ennoble them through the worst as long as they are able. The audience will take flight, through the tears and joy, with them. Blues in the Night runs through 7 September 

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https://kilntheatre.com/whats-on/blues-in-the-night/