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

 

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“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

 

GUANTANAMO GEPETTO:JORDAN WOLFSON TATE TANKS

THEATRE 

Upon reflection, I am inclined to consider this bracing feat of engineering and computer programming as less a work of traditional art than a spectacularly effective theatrical stunt, the logistics of which are impressive. Impresario Jordan Wolfson offers up a segmented puppet, trussed up in chains, an elaborate hydraulic system sinisterly manipulating its movements, conjuring queasy images of torture and detainment. The figure is dragged across the floor, hoisted high then dropped violently to the ground in a sickening cycle of abuse. Although in appearance Caucasian (the artist has cited Huckleberry Finn, Mad magazine’s mascot Alfred E Neumann and enduring American childrens’ television character Howdy Doody as inspiration), the piece’s title of Coloured Sculpture complicates perceptions with allusions to racial and ethnic concerns of unjust treatment and discrimination by white authority (it’s impossible not to identify the imagery of lynching and drawing-and-quartering in what we see).A sudden, loud blast of Percy Sledge’s soul classic “When A Man Loves A Woman” startles onlookers and is just as abruptly cut off, a disorientation of dissonance, the use of the song perhaps suggesting yet another layer of meaning or intent-a dark psychology underpinning the behaviour of the central character in regards to the female, an inarticulate rage. At one point, the puppet floats over to the assembled audience and launches into a scalding itinerary of invective, facial recognition technology allowing its eyes to track individual members-maybe what we’re witnessing is actually a complex exorcism? The piece may be a jape at the absurdity of white male privilege, positing itself as pathetic victim while still carrying the currency of aggressor (the puppet as a physical piece is both vulnerable and durable). Quite beyond all the theory, the piece works simply as a bold, over-the-top achievement of performance installation. It may uncomfortably allow all your old Chucky (or similar doll-based) nightmares to resurface from wherever you may have thought them safely locked. The exhibition has now closed, but please visit my Instagram to view a few videos from my visit. You can  also find many video documents online.

https://www.tate.org.uk/press/press-releases/jordan-wolfsons-colored-sculpture-comes-life-tanks

 

REQUIEM: ALLELUJAH @ BRIDGE THEATRE

THEATRE 

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Is this would-be state-of-the-nation opus about the crisis within the NHS system by the estimable Alan Bennett meant to be a sober issue-oriented analysis or a knees-up, savagely farcical send-up of governmental hubris and disdain for the common people? A bit of both, but not enough of either, if this farrago is the result. Moment to moment, the script lurches clumsily from the sentimental to the polemical to the comical, without ever finding a proper way to integrate its many moods.

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A group of elderly patients, many of whom are not gravely ill, while away their days in the geriatric ward of a Yorkshire medical facility founded on archaic (so the play would describe) principles such as compassion and assistance (most have been abandoned there by relatives happy to be unburdened of them, casualties as well of a lack of any sort of comprehensive social care system). Often, they break into song and dance, belting out old standards, in defiance of age and position, of being forgotten.

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Singled out for particular vituperation is the civil servent son of one garrulous patient, ostensibly onsite to belatedly visit his father but actually there to facilitate the closure of the hospital for his Whitehall boss in a streamlining strategy; the grasping administrator, wholly self-serving and cowardly, consumed with entitlement; and a film crew hired to record the campaign to celebrate the integrity of the community institution who are more interested in ferreting out lurid and salacious detail of its operations.  Homicide is suggested, just before the interval, as the inevitable byproduct of a ferocious targets-driven agenda (available beds become the symbol of ultimate success or failure in this environment).

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This is a crass system that steadily consumes and erodes any idealism or energy that may have initially motivated its workers. An immigrant doctor whose genuine concern for and interest in his patients is unassailable, is eventually called before a board to determine his right to residency (shades of possible calamitous implications to come next March when Brexit kicks in),  which leads to a rather bizarre, bewildering reprimand addressed straight to the audience, a scolding call for Britain to wake up and reassess its priorities- a sudden, strange harangue that stops the momentum dead.

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With over 25 characters squaring off for space on stage, it’s impossible to know any character expect in the broadest terms, the constant wicked (albeit clever) wit the most overweening personality trait. I feel that no one involved really wanted to alienate the audience, either with too much anger or militancy, rather settling for a cosy, anodyne middlebrow ground. The script feels both rushed and overstuffed, as if one or two drafts away from true refinement. Curious, given all the professionals involved in the development. Allelujah continues through 29 September

https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/

HOLD ON TIGHT: FUN HOME @ YOUNG VIC

THEATRE 

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Based on Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed graphic memoir, this chamber musical is a quietly revolutionary work, intimately-scaled, uncommonly tender, sensitively aware of the heartbreaking ways in which family members are able to lock themselves away from those to whom they should be closest, estranged and marooned in their own inner struggles, victims of shame and uncertainty and pride. Simultaneously representing  three time periods on stage (encompassing Alison’s adolescence, university years and her adulthood), revolving around the principle relationship with her father, it’s the frustrated search to comprehend her father’s act of taking his own life (on this matter, the work is equivocal, a great part of its conflict-and vexation-for the lead character). A rigourous, foreboding and unyielding figure prone to outburst and rage, Bruce Bechdel laboured as both funeral director (the “fun home”of the title, as nicknamed by the Bechdel children) and high school English teacher, who led a closeted life as a gay man, freewheeling through several affairs, many of which were ill-advised liaisons with students both former and current (one particular incident, in clammy fashion, led to court-mandated counselling). Having come out herself in college, a declaration met with some great resistance and difficulty from her father, Alison is left to muse on the ways in which her open, brave embrace of her orientation may have aggravated and exacerbated the strife at his core, her strength a rebuke to his cowardice and inability to accept himself.  Staging throughout is minimalist, except for one reveal that knocks the senses sideways, as what has only been mentioned is magnificently, suddenly unfurled. The songs are the antithesis of the usual brass and pomp of slick Broadway musicals, instead quiet (and sometimes excitable), gripping extensions of intense inner emotional lives. Two pieces in particular (“Changing My Major to Joan” sung with all the ardour and enthusiasm of a young lover in the wake of a first sexual experience as college Alison gazes besottedly upon the sleeping form of her partner; and “Days and Days” painfully, mournfully delivered by Alison’s mother late in the play, revealing the sacrifices made to keep her marriage intact long after its demise) can stand next to any classic in the canon.

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The power of the piece, as in any great work, is that the understanding of the dynamics moves quite beyond the specifics into the mythic-even if this is not quite every viewer’s story, it’s a very simple adjustment of detail that need be made to relate it to direct experience. The play steadily accrues a piercing momentum of melancholy and sadness, at its conclusion nearly overwhelming. Some answers are never forthcoming, no matter how hard and how often you ask and spin-the mysteries of motivation will remain out of reach and unknowable. But you will be able to eventually subject them to the assuagements and spiritual appeasements of art, at which Bechdel (and collaborators Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori) excel with wounding insight and sentiment. Fun Home closes 1 September-watch for a possible, much-deserved West End transfer, although I’m not certain the scale of a proscenium stage is the proper venue for such a personal work.

https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/fun-home

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HOMOS, OR EVERYONE IN AMERICA@FINBOROUGH THEATRE

THEATRE 

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As soon as the central characters, abstractly identified only as the Writer and the Academic, begin their conversational interaction, it’s clear that we are firmly in the New York intellectual vernacular of a Tony Kushner (Angels in America) or Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart). Dialogue is hyper-articulate and obsessively, sensationally self-absorbed and theoretical-the couple speak at, through and over each other in a heat of verbiage.  Credit actors Tyrone Huntley and Harry McIntyre for locating the human beings inside the loquacious and fulsome spillage of words, often suggesting the torrent of combative words as protective shields from having to stand naked and vulnerable in front of one another, deflecting the candid glare of simple honesty.

Credit The Art’s Desk

Something truthful in the relationship, perhaps what is revealed in bodily behaviour and glance, speaks more directly than the dazzlingly distracting and disorienting wordplay. By the closing moments of this one hour and forty-five minute production (without interval) detailing five fraught years in the relationship between these two men, from initial meeting to flowering connection to deep intimacy to eventual break-up, and finally tender reconciliation, there exists a real potent poignancy in the encounters (and McIntyre delivers a real emotional belter on the sales floor of a Lush shop, the ample bath bombs of which occupy three wooden units on stage, contributing a cloyingly heady scent to the room).

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The characters enact a fragmented, constantly time-shifting structural exploration of the relationship, key moments circulating, deepening as more information and history is accrued and revealed, as affairs both public and personal rage around them (many of which are catalyst for major arguments-race, politics, gentrification, media studies, art, gay rights, drugs, sexual experimentation). The device of “rewinding” backwards and forwards, the actors shifting like tape loops, is not always the sharpest transitional choice. The audience is sat in the round, in very close proximity to the performers (occasionally, one of the characters may suddenly occupy space right next to you), for a proper intimate connection to this particularly insular pairing.

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Action takes place on a stretch of sand, a charged metaphor for the uneven and slippery surface upon which the relationship is found, the warp and weave of personal anxiety and paranoia continually destabilising the concrete, the solid. Apparently, and with brazen-at times unwieldy-ambition, playwright Jordan Seavey seems to want to declare his work as a bold, big statement of the American character, encompassing the pressures and stresses upon love and life-cultural, social, political-of the last few decades, a responsibility that at times is unfair to ask of this brief and small-scaled piece.

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But he must be admired for the effort, and for the amount of time he draws close to his intentions, robust and arresting ideas spinning out continuously line after line. Yet crucially, the performers tame the dialogue, preventing it from freezing over into the purely analytical. Homos, or Everyone in America continues through 1 September

https://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2018/homos.php?spektrix_bounce=true

 

TELLING TALES-GDIF 2018

THEATRE/PERFORMANCE 

This showcase of street theatre (staged over the course of two weekends, the first in Greenwich with the stunning backdrop of the Cutty Sark and the Old Royal Naval College, the second amongst the concrete canyons of Canary Wharf) continues to be one of my most anticipated events of the year, never failing to ignite my senses. Although this year collectively the pieces didn’t register as strongly in either narrative or artistic content, the overall skill of the performers remains peerless, and there were plenty of highlights. The consummate act of this year’s programme was the Finnish trio Race Horse Company, whose Motosikai is a marvel of acrobatic clowning that builds thrillingly to ever-more outrageous and jaw-dropping antics, utilising such props as axes, bowling balls, skis and stone planks, as well as being a complex of potentially dangerous feats of tumbling and jumping, in which the physical boundaries of the performers’ bodies are pushed to the limit. Sorriso, a sweet, wistful, beautifully costumed tale of a love transcending the grave, performed on stilts (which grants movement an apropos otherworld quality) squanders much of its poignancy on ill-advised audience participation which detracts from the essential intimacy of the central couple. La Belle Escabelle is a lighthearted bit of choreography between two men and a series of stepladders, each move one of escalating intricacy and daring that eventually challenges the core strength of one performer in a climactic, bravura sequence.

Canary Wharf offered more traditional dance, the pinnacle of which was Nomadis, featuring a sinuously hypnotic fluency of movement between its two performers, in flawless sync with one another, two strangers drawn magnetically into the other’s orbit. Bolero stressed the strain and intensity of the central couple’s exertions, the physical exhaustion and grave focus, the grind and demand. Consequencies, with its manic motion, dancers colliding and falling-and occasionally walking over one another-jovially explored being out of step. Gibbon’s dancer/juggler duo suffered a bit in the afternoon heat, sweaty hands defeating precision, but their good nature and easy camaraderie softened the imperfection, and they were able to create moments of poetic movement despite setback (the heightened ambition of many of the manoeuvres is so mind-boggling that achievement of even half of them is still impressive). 

Even the works that are not entirely successful will most likely offer a memorable moment or image-such is the breadth of what is on view. Bring on next year!

Please visit my Instagram account for video footage from the event-still images, of course, can’t quite provide the proper perspective.

https://festival.org/gdif-2018/whats-on/