TELL-ALL: OPEN @ VAULT FESTIVAL

THEATRE 

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With startling candour and near-forensic detail, real life couple Christopher Adams (primarily a writer-and 2011/12 US Fulbright scholar) and Timothy Allsop (primarily an actor) investigate/interrogate their choice to live in an open relationship and the consequences (seen and unforeseen) thereof. Playfully, and with disarming alacrity, the two men canvass the crowd for participation, handing over transcripts of Grindr chats and personal email correspondence for audience members to read out (Chris is fond of Excel spreadsheets indexing his sexual conquests). They pore over verbatim conversations from key moments in their partnership, unsparing in their brutal, confrontational honesty: a strong foundation is a given, in that the two men have withstood the travails of such inexorable frankness whereas many would have tumbled (within these parameters, Chris and Tim have acknowledged their devotion through civil partnership and, eventually,  marriage).

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The key success of this hour-long confessional is that, with great cheer and light-hearted aplomb, the couple convincingly legitimises their personal choice, all the while never ignoring probable pitfalls and minefields that lay in wait, nor all the potential dangers (any one of the cardboard boxes that litter the stage-simple symbols of all that is being unpacked- could be a Pandora’s Box of credible threat or catastrophe). Sober recollections of harassment gone unreported, STD’s caught, ugly arguments had, unflattering disclosures from bedmates, and unintended emotional connections with hook-ups are divulged.  Clear heads must prevail, and neither Chris nor Tim for a moment denies that it takes great vigilance and focus to maintain clarity. Even with such directness, as Tim explains in a closing statement, there are still fascinating dimensions of the relationship unknown or unrevealed to us, as it should be-covenants and arrangements between two people comprehended only by them. Open ran from 23-27 January as part of Vault festival 

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https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/open/?spektrix_bounce=true

 

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CITY SYMPHONIES: THE WEDDING & THE CAPITAL: LONDON MIME FESTIVAL

THEATRE/PERFORMANCE

A troubling disconnect between concept and execution ran through all three productions I saw this year at the Mime Festival, all the more vexing for how daring, haunting and awestriking previous productions have been, many of them still firmly, deeply lodged cellularly in the pleasure centres of memory. Each of this year’s shows felt a few polished drafts away from being finished, distressingly.

The Wedding @ Barbican 

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Acclaimed physical theatre company Gecko’s latest production is an ambitiously (over)scaled canvas investigating the interaction of citizen and state, incorporating the capitalist mechanisms that underpin society, coercive conformity within that structure, migrant crises and the struggle (impossibility, as Gecko would have you believe) of individual rebellion-a wildy unsubtle overreach that muddies and simplifies message. Although consistently sophisticated visually, the narrative suffers from a wilfull naivety, a reductive pessimism.

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One by one, company members emerge from a chute, clutching teddy bears that must be relinquished onto a crowded symbolic heap of discarded childhood and move straight into responsible adulthood, hastily issued wedding dresses by an officious coterie of facilitators, who then quickly usher each individual into their position within a corporate environment, all the while the overlords (on occasion) are glimpsed as gloating baroque figures lasciviously consuming prodigiously profligate portions of food, feasting on profits, indifferent to personal adversity. A migrant family emerges wittily from within the Tardis-like confines of a suitcase, performing tricks for scraps of food or money, the husband dreaming of entrance into the working world, the aspiration a gulf away from reality.

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The office denizens drink recklessly after shifts, collapse into argument or resentment at home with partners, generally slowly go mad and grow sour with the sheer exhausting repetition. The script has made up its mind that this is the fixed destiny of any individual, that the fate of the will and spirit is to be crushed and broken, that no way to cultivate a private rebellion or existence outside of this is possible, or that society hasn’t found sympathetic channels to assist the less fortunate-an irksome disingenuous reflex. Society has evolved to such a degree that numerous options are available to any one who may wish to quietly revolt-only a failure of imagination or passion could prevent one from finding consolation.

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Something profound within me reacted strongly against the production’s dogmatic, soft-headed approach to the material, sanctimoniously convinced of  its crude philosophical world view. The piece does end on a defiantly rhythmic and transporting percussive moment, the troupe assembled on stage in a synchronised choreography of vocalisation, clapping and stomping, a simple, straightforward feat of collective creative rebellion that puts the lie to the insistent agitprop that precedes it. The Wedding ran from 24-26 January as part of London Mime Festival 

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https://www.barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2019/event/gecko-the-wedding

The Capital @ Jackson’s Lane 

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Birmingham’s Stan’s Cafe attempts a mosaic of urban interaction and experience with this piece played out along two counter-motion conveyer belts, the diverse quintet of performers assuming a kaleidoscope of characters and situations in constant kinetic movement, a continual forward thrust that very rarely allows for reflection or rest as lives spin out forcefully.

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Although certain individual stories and persons recur, there is not one central character whose story arc acts as a through-line (an immigrant woman who arrives via the airport, left to make her way uncertainly to the gaping anonymity of the big city and new life, is seemingly introduced as this central focus, but is soon dropped, subsumed into the greater flux). The greatest design flaw is that an internal logic overall is lacking-no proper build exists to the material, no core of musicality.

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It lurches from moment to moment quite clumsily, without visionary intention, and only fitfully exploits the tremendous potential of the psychological and emotional possibilities of the moving floors, and much of what is on display is rather pedestrian in action and gesture with too much mugging from the performers. The use of the conveyer belts demands (or promises) more physically agile, acrobatic staging, detail revealed more by dance than pantomime.

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And the whole needs to accelerate to a crescendo of significance or note, a pointed statement-which never arrives (the backdrop falls in the final instant to reveal the sheer total of props used for the production and what must have been a comprehensive exertion of cast and crew in a relatively cramped space-itself an image of the teeming pace, bare mechanics and demands of the city?). An overextended opening sequence of chairs situated along the belts, initially sequenced in tidy, ordered placement gradually devolving into slight misalignment, then absolute chaos (overturned, stacked atop one another) quickly informs an audience that matters of timing and structure are out of place-what could be a light, witty statement of what is about to come is already overworked. Nina West’s sound design and music contribute tremendously to whatever verve and energy the production generates. The Capital ran from 31 January-3 February 

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https://www.jacksonslane.org.uk/whats-on/the-capital

 

 

 

 

PARTICLE THEORY: KOMPROMAT @ VAULT FESTIVAL

Theatre 

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Does art owe anything to real life? Must it be entirely responsible in its representation of events and individuals? These questions disquietingly preyed upon my mind as I watched this hour-long speculative one -act play written by David Thame that takes as its source material the still-unsolved 2010 murder of MI6 employee Gareth Williams in his Pimlico apartment, found naked and foetally stuffed inside a sports bag (BBC2 used, very loosely, aspects of the story in their 2015 mini-series London Spy).

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Intention is very sober and serious, and Thame soon spins off his contemplation from the fundamental plot into more expansive realms of relationship theory and destiny, but would the lack of exploitation be enough to salve the distress, say, of a long-grieving family member or friend who may have to withstand the existence of this work (or indeed experience it). Thame posits one potential possibility of the forces which came into play to create the specific conditions and conclusions of this case, studying the central relationship through the prism of quantum mechanics, an apt reference given Williams’s position as data technician/mathematician for the GCHQ.

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Zac, a rent-boy fast approaching his sell-by date (a furiously focussed and darkly charismatic verbal performance from Max Rinehart, increasingly tortured and conflicted with his mission as he comes to know his victim), is tasked by his Hungarian handler to blackmail poor mark Tom through a charade of desire (socially awkward, tremulously high-strung, Tom is tenderly portrayed by Guy William-Thomas with arrestingly fluid sexuality ) into using his influence to acquire passports for use by Russian “operatives” interested in expanding their business opportunities.

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That Zac is seen as a disposable asset (or pawn) by a powerful criminal concerned with keeping himself distant from any possible consequence exposes the tenuous and fragile underpinnings of Zac’s supposed enviable life (really a mere gilded cage, lived overseas and across a series of stunning villas and cities), linking him closer to Tom than he is comfortably willing to acknowledge. The quantum theory as applicable to any human relation is fascinating in display, as Tom’s final monologue damns him and Zac to forever be connected in the final brutal act, both of their probabilities altered in an uneasy, inextricable intimacy.

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In this matter, data collection and risk assessment is defeated by simple aching human want and enforced servitude, two disparate, marked particles entangled in a fateful, propulsive pas de deux. The script may spin one too many times around the principal concept, but the actors’ nervy, sweaty energy and the sheer lingual momentum guarantee the excitement never ceases to abate. And yet  somewhere in the back of my conscience a tiny, sympathetic voice spoke on behalf of a family wounded in perpetuity.  Kompromat, originally scheduled to run through 27 January as part of the terrific excess of the Vault Festival, offering over 400 works over its eight-week residency, has been extended to 3 February due to popular demand

https://vaultfestival.com/

 

SCARRED: THE UNRETURNING @ STRATFORD EAST

THEATRE/PERFORMANCE 

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Three soldiers representing three time periods and conflicts each speak with great sensual detail about returning to hearth and home, their dominant motivation a desperately soulful and tactile need to commune with the myth and reassurance of the land and people. Of course, the reality is anything but simple-the men arrive to bewilderment, impatience, indifference, hostility, communities and loved ones ill-equipped to comprehend or assist with the damage (psychological as well as physical) borne within them.

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The stories play out amongst and upon a constantly revolving shipping container which visually supports the restlessness and destabilisation of the men and narratively underscores the transitory and impermanent state of mind they each suffer, all debris adrift. Cultural temperaments and behaviours may adjust slightly over time, but essential human yearnings and desire will remain constant-the tripartite structure poignantly addresses this point.

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The first soldier, barely a man, returns to his sweetheart from the Western Front, trying his best to slip back into the easy comforts, but continually capsizes on the jagged shards of nightmarish wartime experiences; the second, staggering with blemished machismo, arrives from Afghanistan with dishonour, the disgraced star of a YouTube video in which he brutalises and kills a civilian in testosterone frenzy, the end result of being bred as a killing machine; rather bizarrely, the third figure is on a fraught journey home from some obscure future crisis in 2026, returning to a Britain despoiled by checkpoints, closed borders and civil unrest, the result of some catastrophic ravage from Brexit, perhaps-this speculative section, although confirming that the cycle of war will continue to spin, is the weakest link, its political grasp incongruous to the more emotionally personal resonance of the other tales.

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Jared Garfield brings a bruised and wounded tenderness to 1918 skittish Joe, and Joe Layton sympathetically reveals the confusion and pain behind the bravado of  2013 officer Frank (he also, in a fluid, poised gender switch -without any guile-portrays Joe’s baffled homefront wife).

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The central container set piece is utilised with tremendous, manifold imaginative verve, the four performers in kinetic concert with it, with slides and turns effortlessly suggesting shifting eras and locations (offices, corridors, homes, processing centres, and, when the actors scale its heights, a ship), aided momentously by the lighting and production design. Lives merge and diverge in intimate mosaics. War is hell in any time frame, and its participants casualties, the legacy in every which way life-long and shadowy, a condition this slick and showy, if sometimes overly busy production, illustrates skilfully. The Unreturning runs through 2 February 

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http://www.stratfordeast.com/whats-on/all-shows/the-unreturning

 

EMPTY SPACE: INTRONAUTS @ JACKSONS LANE

THEATRE/PERFORMANCE 

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At the risk of sounding wantonly churlish, this production from Green Ginger as part of London Mime Festival is such a catalog of careening, unfortunate conceptual and narrative errors that it very nearly exhausts any sense of goodwill towards its good intentions that an audience member may harbor. In the near future, people (privileged, perhaps, although the class structures underpinning the process are never made implicit) are able to purchase and have bodily inserted a miniaturised human worker, the intronaut of the title, to carry out essential maintenance tasks. The poor, exploited, overworked title character is cursed to spend her days mired in the dirty work, sent cavalierly to the distressed regions of the host, suffering the biological hostilities of the gullet, gut and anal passage (in the blunt opening sequence).

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The piece continually flirts with the intriguing premise that host and worker share similar profiles of isolation, frustration, boredom, a certain sadness just on the edge of crushing despondency, but this interesting idea is never properly developed (the host’s insomniac state, his inability to concentrate, prevents his worker from finding much rest between punishing chores). Fatally, the creators decide to embody the intronaut, who, in the performance by one of the company members, comes off as a stroppy, insufferable teenager, indulging in a protracted series of cringingly juvenile behaviour, in great and regrettable contrast to the powerfully poetic use of the puppet elsewhere, who with visual ease and elegance suggests the vulnerability, terror and fragility of the intronaut’s existence.

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The sophisticated visual production is leagues ahead of all other aspects (there is a great use of projections upon a scrim screen and a beautiful sequence of the brain materialised as a rounded cabinet, the drawers of which each hold an emotional memory or trigger) and you wish the creators had trusted this to carry the show and jettison the dialogue and the awkward performances (neither member is a gifted enough actor to lend proper nuance and depth to the central relationship). Perhaps the hush of gesture and behaviour, a mute communication, playing to the physical strengths of the artists, may have better emotionally defined the tender, unwieldy contours of the relationship.

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The brief textual transmissions between the two, the host hesitant, the intronaut speaking in a robotic childlike voice trying greatly to comprehend the increasingly desperate demands, provide some of the most effective and poignant moments, all the better for brevity. When the host requests a visit to his brain (a no-go zone for the intronaut for the dangers inherent) to research and “solve” his melancholy, the ethical dilemma is swiftly dispensed in favour of a great adventure, born of a stew of resentment, ennui and sudden empowerment, not exactly in the host’s best interest. In the end, the intronaut just wants to party, losing herself in a cerebral cavity, leaving her host (as in a clip from a Laurel and Hardy sketch he glumly watches at one point) in a perpetual lugubrious slapstick gestural loop. Intronauts ran from 11 Jan-13 Jan

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https://mimelondon.com/

TALK OF THE TOWN: EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE @ APOLLO THEATRE

THEATRE 

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Imagine the surprise, on careers day in class, when 16-year-old Jamie demonstratively, declaratively states his aspirations to become nothing short of the most fabulous drag queen to ever rise from the environs of Sheffield. To the great consternation and concern of his teacher Miss Hedges (at my performance portrayed by a  rather underpowered, uncertain Michelle Visage of Rupaul’s Drag Race) and his classmates, Jamie sets off on his inspiring journey to full expression, defying judgement, hostility and rejection.

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This feel-good  hit musical coasts along on the energy and goodwill of its cast and the skillful sensitivity of its musical score (most devastatingly in the second-act “He’s My Boy”, sung with raw soul by actress Rebecca McKinnis, acknowledging the great complexity of her love for her son, a bewildering mix of protectiveness and fear and anger and wonder and sadness-she emerges as the strongest and most poignant character of the show). The music and lyrics are a collaboration between Dan Gillespie Sells (of pop group The Feeling) and Tom MacRae, also responsible for the production’s script.

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Its intentions, rightly so for a West End show, are towards big celebration and euphoria, but (especially and admirably in the second act) real life is allowed to flower enough for brief engagement with the more sour and dark aspects of Jamie’s story, entrenched behavioural threats to his stability and sense of self for a moment throwing him off course. His relationship with his father, although left commendably unresolved, is the narrative that suffers the greatest from its broad parameters.

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With the assistance of a group of veteran drag queens down at the local club (who take Jamie under their fiercely watchful care) and former drag legend Loco Chanelle tenderly mentoring him in the finery of the profession (and the unequivocal support of his mom and “auntie” Ray), Jamie is given the solid foundation he needs to flourish. The unemphatic diversity on display in Jamie’s school is a laudable aspect to the production, a respectable reflection of the U.K. educational system (Jamie’s best friend, Pritti-a tender performance from Lucie Shorthouse-faces her own struggles against discrimination and prejudice as a young Muslim woman).

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Anyone who thinks Jamie’s intention to attend his prom in a dress and heels will not be realised (and that the school will not come to his defense, even the token school bully and censorious administration) has clearly never seen this type of musical bauble before, an effervescent and buoyant slice of optimism. The audience floats out of the theatre on a high of the best of human conduct.

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The only thing left tantalisingly absent is the scene of Jamie’s initial drag performance as his alter-ego Mimi Me-the first act rather frustratingly concludes just as he is to take the stage, leaving the audience to imagine myriad scenarios of (fabulous or fledgling) triumph. The show is based on a 2011 BBC3 documentary starring the real-life Jamie Campbell.  Everybody’s Talking About Jamie books through 28/2019

https://www.everybodystalkingaboutjamie.co.uk/

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WADING IN OPTIMISM: DRIP @ BUSH THEATRE

THEATRE 

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Very sweet (and very slight), this one-man piece concerns teenage Liam’s attempt to win back the favour of his fellow outcast Caz after he spectacularly fails her by pulling out of a synchronised swimming performance at the last moment, thereby forfeiting their opportunity to participate in a school wide competition Caz is hoping to win (Liam, paralysed with fear, has neglected to reveal to Caz his complete lack of swimming skills).

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The play is arranged as Liam’s appearance at an assembly, the production’s stage manager serving double duty as a school administrator to whom Liam directs lighting and sound cues. Armed with an acoustic guitar, Liam narrates (and sings in a series of awkward, gently aching confessionals) the tale of his and Caz’s relationship, their kinship and mutual support against an otherwise hostile, ostracising world. Lest the audience’s attention begin to wander as Liam’s monologue unfurls, the character often engages directly with the crowd, canvassing our participation (at various stages handing out water guns, beach balls, bells and, in the climactic number, bunting-and enjoining the crowd into a singalong).

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An early request to have the audience don ponchos (which were handed out as you entered the theatre) so as to embody the pool water that inspires so much apprehension doesn’t quite have significant enough payoff in the moment. Much of the enjoyment and captivation of this hour-long show depends upon the sole performer, and Andrew Finnigan brings loads of geeky, earnest charm to the role, a tender yearning (every quiver of doubt and elation is felt), suggesting a slow build towards self-discovery and confidence. There is a love interest throughout (fellow schoolmate Josh), initially admired from afar, then brought into close alignment after coming to Liam’s aid, embroiling the two in an ambiguous relationship tinged with hope.

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Originally an entry at the Edinburgh Fringe (the work of Tom Wells and Matthew Robbins), this is content to be a modest trifle, never edging into darker territory or complication, optimistic that its characters will find their way out of tricky adolescence to healthy senses of self. Drip closed on 22 December

https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/drip/

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