Please note that A Very Expensive Poison is currently in previews.
Lucy Prebble’s play Enron was one of my favourite stage shows of the first decade of the 21st century, a vibrant and original take on a period of financial turmoil. Now she has turned her attention to the story of the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with a radioactive substance in 2006 London, most likely on the orders of the Russian state in which he had served as a “detective”.
A Very Expensive Poison, inspired by the book of the same name by Luke Harding has become a very expensive production, with a set based on a lightbox structure which contracts, expands, and changes scene and focus. It has also become a very long show, currently running at around three hours, which not only milks every single cliche around the Western view of the Russians, but also slows the pace of the plot right down to a painful crawl.
A strong opening scene, with Marina Litvinetko meeting her lawyer and finding the death of her husband is not being properly investigated, gives way quickly to a farcical approach which seems to lose sight of the fact that a man was left to die, horribly, because of a government need to eliminate him.
Some scenes are similar to those you would see in a sitcom, with the father of Litvinenko owing more to Alf Garnett than Stalin (and even Alexander himself having more than a touch of Rodney in Only Fools and Horses). There are oversized puppets of the Spitting Image type, and although Vladimir Putin/”The President” appears, he is sadly reduced to a personality that lacks real menace.
With a judicious trim in length, and a switch in focus to really develop the investigation into Litvinenko’s previous life in Russia and the events which led to his murder, this would be a solid thriller; or perhaps if Prebble wished to take this wholly down the black comedy route she should think carefully about the impact of the serious speeches about Chechnyan conflict and the Moscow theatre massacre in a scenario played for laughs.
I found A Very Expensive Poison a confused production which doesn’t quite know how to present itself. There are some interesting performances – MyAnna Buring catches the quiet desperation of the wife seeking answers, Reece Shearsmith has an undertone of steel as Putin which needs to be teased out more fully, Lloyd Hutchinson impresses in a range of roles including poisoning suspect Kotvun, and Gavin Spokes does his best as the detective who doesn’t comprehend the complexity of his case – but these are small compensations in a production which currently carries a fair amount of bloat.
A Very Expensive Poison is directed by John Crowley and continues in previews until the 7 September, closing on the 8 October. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.
An exhibition on gender identity, fluidity, and more is currently in residence at the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre.
Kiss My Genders includes photographs, sculpture, multimedia, and projections from the past fifty years to bring issues around topics as diverse as drag, gender dysphoria, beauty, storytelling, violence, and the celebration of self to the fore.
In an exhibition which sets out to be playfully provocative, unsettling our basic conceptions of what the word “gender” means, audiences can experience queer art, subversive film, alter egos, and much more, through a range of very personal (and sometimes disturbingly raw) works.
Kiss My Genders may not be to all tastes, but it utilising all the Hayward Gallery’s space it is sometimes unsettling to find an oversized rabbit suit on the floor, a wall of Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker stills, a sexually adventurous set of bum and cock photos, the eyes of a dying Candy Darling, a man dragged up as Marilyn Monroe, a hand poking through a pile of leaves at a crime scene.
Accompanied by a book with reproduction images and thoughtful essays, Kiss My Genders places itself firmly in the gender-fluid space of the 21st century, not just in celebration of its uniqueness, but also in acknowledgement of the wider society’s gaze.
Kiss My Genders continues at the Hayward Gallery until the 8 September. I found it an eye-opening and fascinating glimpse into this complex slice of life.
My second Camden Fringe stop yesterday was Broken Word’s duo of Chekhov comic plays: The Bear and The Proposal.
The Bear is perhaps the best known of the two, in which a mourning widow takes to drink in memory of her worthless husband, before meeting a burly, aggressive, manly creditor. Actors Abby Dunlavy and Julius Wills make the most of the sharp wit and the upending of a chaise longue (which I was slightly disappointed to hear was “part of the show”!). I liked Will Banister’s unhinged butler, too.
The Proposal has had a gender change in the person of Lomov (Dunlavy), an anxious soul of a girl in suit, waistcoat and glasses who seeks the hand in marriage of Natalya (Imogen Hunter), daughter of her Cowardesque landowner and neighbour (Banister). Arguments, point-scoring, and the seeds of an unhappy union-to-be border on the farcical in this skit.
If you only think of Chekhov for his dark and ponderous full-length plays, you may be surprised, delighted and certainly amused by the wit on show in these short plays. And The Proposal has a very funny ending, building throughout from a largely mute role from Wills.
Ditch that apostrophe in Chekhov’s, though! A Tale of Two Chekhov’s – The Bear directed by Imogen Hunter, The Proposal directed by Julius Wills – continues to romp and amuse at the Etcetera Theatre until the 25 August.
The first of my double bill of visits to the Camden Fridge yesterday was a curious retelling of the tale of Electra and Orestes, depicted in Truth After Murder as twins parted for many years after their mother, Clymenestra, killed their father, Agamemnon.
We’re in psychological territory here, with Orestes touting his book on the case, and Electra displaying just the kind of vacant staring daddy-worship that has led a complex to be named after her.
In various retellings and interpretations of the myth, Electra’s motivation for revenge has varied: here, she has been abandoned in an asylum for fifteen years for reasons which seem to come down to money. It’s sometime after an apocalyptic 4th World War and the internet has broken down.
In an intense hour in which the two actors really do get as close to the front rows of the audience as possible, they draw us into their nightmare and bizarre relationship. Orestes with memories of abuse of all kinds, fixated sexually on both his mother and a voice on the other end of his mobile phone, at first seems to be on his sister’s side, but things change.
Powerful performances from Riccardo Carollo and Mariana Elicetche mitigate what is ultimately a confused piece by Arif Alfaraz (who also directs). I found myself curiously detached from this pair who remain locked in their own hell, he with his gay porn magazines, she with her child’s tea set and memories of dear dead dad.
Truth After Murder runs at the Etcetera Theatre until 25 August.
I was invited to see this new production from the SWL Fringe company, which promised to be “a slice of Americana”. Written by Chad Beguelin and co-directed by Caroline Albrectsen and Claudio Salerno, Harbor brings white trash and the nouveau riche to Chiswick.
Harbor features just four characters: siblings Donna (Jessica Napier, all quiet desperation and hard veneer) and Kevin (Douglas Coghlan, convincing as a confused man wrestling with a past he thinks he’s outgrown); Donna’s fifteen-year old daughter Lottie (Constance Des Marais, who contributes a strong study of a young woman who has to mask her emotional instability); and Kevin’s wealthy husband Ted (Nicholas Gauci, nervously neurotic yet sweetly paternal to Lottie).
Donna, a singer who has so little success or talent that she prostitutes herself for money, lives in a foul-smelling and grubby van with Lottie, who is never in one place enough to be seen as anything other than the local freak. She’s learnt maturity from her mother’s irresponsibility and promiscuity.
Kevin, a writer who has produced little in ten years, lives in a designer home in the Hamptons, tastefully furnished with books, lamps and cacti. Ted is a designer who is losing commissions while resenting other people’s children (“babies are like petri dishes, full of germs”). Their marriage has left them smug, satisfied and double-barrelled.
In a succession of mainly two-hander scenes, Donna lands on her brother’s doorstep and slowly upturns their stability and relationship with her family revelations, drinking and weed smoking, and succession of “fag”, “fairy”, “homo” and “dick” jokes. It’s clear her motivation is a bit darker than simple mischief.
Uproariously funny in places, this play also veers into the thoughtful and even tragic, as Lottie and Ted both find their dreams collapsing, as new family units find their feet. Only Lottie is really likeable, with the adults proving themselves to truly have feet of clay.
There’s a beautifully directed scene between Ted and Lottie in a Macdonald’s diner, another with Donna and Lottie with a disembodied voice on the phone, another at Lottie’s birthday party when her mother ruins her happiness as she has done so many times before.
Scenes of normality, too, in locations ranging from the bathroom to a parking lot: small conversations all couples have, big revelations that can crack open the strongest bond.
I found Harbor much more than a succession of one-liners, or a revolving door of familial couples. Just as Lottie finds echoes of The House of Mirth or Mrs Dalloway in the life she experiences, there’s more going on below the surface than Kevin’s mommy neurosis, Ted’s dream of being a teenage cheerleader, or Donna trading hand jobs for cash.
Harbor runs at the Tabard Theatre until 24 August. It’s worth a trip out to West London if you want to catch something off the beaten track.
I believe this is my first show from the British Theatre Academy, one of a portfolio of five they are presenting in their summer season.
Once On This Island is a musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) and is described on the flyer as “a captivating calypso-flavoured re-telling of The Little Mermaid fairy tale”.
Directed and choreographed by Lee Proud, this production presents a vibrant young company to tell the story of the peasant orphan Ti Moune and her romance with a rich boy.
The stage of the Southwark Playhouse’s Large space is fully utilised with every inch brought into play with sound, colour, dancing and dynamic storytelling. The floor is decorated with island maps, and there are ribbons, shakers, tyres, boxes and ladders utilised at various points to suggest a change in location.
Matthew Chandler founded the British Theatre Academy to provide access to professional training for under-23s of all socioeconomic backgrounds, an ethos which seems echoed by the dedication and professionalism of the performers in this show.
It is hard to single out performers in such a small and tight-knit ensemble, and in fact the company as a whole has received a well-deserved Offies nomination, but Chrissie Bhima shines as Ti Moune, and several ensemble players caught the eye (sadly the programme does not team names with photographs, so I cannot credit them specifically).
I enjoyed the tricky and layered harmonies, the joyous atmosphere in the performance space, and the cultural richness of myth and legend depicted in Once On This Island, especially the spirit of Carnival in this week of the Notting Hill festivities.
The show continues until 31 August at the Southwark Playhouse.
The story of Anna Edson Taylor and her successful attempt to cross Niagara Falls in a barrel in 1901 has always fascinated me, so when an opportunity arose to see the musical based on her story I had to see it.
Mrs Taylor (there’s no hint of a husband) is first shown living with her sister, where she lives beyond her means and longs for adventure (and money). Seeing a gap in the market and feeling she has science behind her, she seeks to do what no woman – or man – has done before: to go over the Falls and survive.
Michael John LaChiusa has created a score which in twenty songs weaves a harmonic narrative which works well in songs such as Anna’s There Is Greatness In Me in act one, or The Green (about the motivation of all public speakers to earn money) in act two.
Trudi Camilleri leads the cast with a set of pipes to rival the great Ethel Merman in a barn-storming turn that dominates proceedings. She convinces both as the selfish and arrogant adventuter, and the sad old woman facing destitution by the close of the show.
In a strong first half interesting relationships are explored between Anna and her straightlaced sister Jane (Emily Juler), and Anna and her showboating manager Frank Russell (Will Arundel, with whom Camilleri displays a cordial and warm frisson of friendship which suits both characters).
After the stunt/experiment is concluded, though, I found the second act a little indulgent and uneven, with one scene and number (Million Dollar Momma) adding little to the plot. Knowing that Anna survives removes any sense of tension and even the talk of an eroticised tiger doesn’t quite keep the pace moving, nor the reappearance of President McKinley’s assassin from act one, now a ghost.
The stage is in traverse with audience seating on each side, the sides of the set crammed with shelves of bric-a-brac and everyday detritus, with balconies holding the band (led by Connor Fogel) on one side, and the cast coming together on occasion to harmonise on the other.
Although this configuration can often work well, especially to suggest claustrophobia (such as in the interior of a barrel), the choice by director Dom O’Hanlon to stage songs back and forth between audience sides led to long stretches looking at the back of actors’ heads as they sang, which I found a little frustrating.
The beauty of this production is in the exquisite lighting design of Beth Gupwell, the period costumes of Lemington Ridley, and in the performance of the dynamic Camilleri and some of her supporting cast (Andrew Carter has a rolling bass as deep as the waters; Tom Blackmore – who also acts well as the nervous young soldier – has a fine tenor voice; Emma Ralston is a versatile alto).
I would personally trim the second act just a little and concentrate on Mrs Taylor’s great achievement, which remains notable even if money was her main motivator. I found myself craving more of this dynamic woman’s story long after Queen of the Mist ended.
Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a notoriously complex and difficult piece to stage, and rarely revived. In Peter Gynt, veteran playwright David Hare has taken the Norwegian classic as inspiration to create a new play, starring James McArdle as the titular hero.
Across three acts and two intervals, we watch Peter’s trajectory as he returns home to Scotland from conflict, is made an outcast from his village, becomes a wealthy arms dealer, survives a plane crash, finds himself in an asylum, and finally, wrecked at sea and back where he started.
The stage design by Cara Newman with high-up doors, a grassy plain, a precarious ramp, and more, takes the story to Florida and Africa. The complexity of set changes requires the two breaks which take the running time to over three hours, but the production is never a bore.
The story requires a large and diverse cast, of which Guy Henry is a particular stand-out as a French trader who even sings a bit, as well as a strange grotesque with a death obsession. In what amounts to an extended cameo at the end, Oliver Ford Davies commands the stage as the button moulder, who collects the souls of those who made no impact in life.
Peter Gynt is the story of the rise and fall of a fantasist (he describes his life as a series of film scenes and plots) who sees himself as heroic, but who ultimately fails to “be himself”. McArdle catches the spirit of the cocky soldier, the irresponsible money machine, and the broken philosopher perfectly, and is riveting to watch as the play progresses.
The decision to include songs is a little hit and miss: a dream sequence with horny cowgirls works well, but a solo from Gynt’s lost love in her bookshop store feels misplaced. The dream aspects of the play are agreeably odd – the troll supper, and the asylum coronation, on a tower of blood-red chairs.
Less successful are the thinly-veiled caricatures of Donald Trump on his golf course, and David Cameron “chillaxing”: much better are the scenes where Gynt tells his dying mother a story, or where he faces his own mortality.
Peter Gynt continues at the Olivier, National Theatre. Photo credits Manuel Harlan.
Tall Stories have become quite the specialist in transferring children’s books to stage, and their latest, The Gruffalo Live! is no exception.
The Lyric is normally the home of jukebox musical Thriller, a show that I have never felt the need to see, so the last time I was in the stalls here was probably in the 90s.
For The Gruffalo, surrounded by pre-schoolers and their parents, I decided that getting into the spirit of Julia Donaldson’s text was the best way to spend the hour.
With a detailed and atmospheric set of trees and logs, we find ourselves in the ‘Deep Dark Wood’ with Mouse, who just wants to find a tasty nut to eat.
She meets three predators on her travels, the spiv-like Mr Fox, uber-posh Captain Owl, and the vain Senor Snake. They are all interested in a morsel of mouse-lunch, but Mouse is off for lunch with a Gruffalo!
With audience participation: “there no such thing as a Gruffalo”, this moves fast and has a definite easy rapport with audience members large and small, just as they had years ago in Play School.
All three cast members are gifted actors, physical comics, and singers – Rebecca Newman as clever Mouse, Jake Addley as all the predators (necessitating lighting-quick changes, accents, and a lot of energy), and Elliot Rodriguez as Narrator/Gruffalo.
The Gruffalo is a delightful show with something for everyone: laughs, catchy songs, a bit of suspense, a bit of education, the little guys winning, and a big dumb monster (“I’m afraid of trains!”).
The Gruffalo continues into September with matinee performances each day at the Lyric.
Peter Shaffer’s Equus remains a play of almost unbearable intensity, with its touch of the confessional, religious mania, and deep eroticism. It’s also hard to pull off, with humans depicting horses and a heavy dose of telling, not showing, other than those two pivotal scenes that close each act.
Dr Martin Dysart is a child psychiatrist, who uses games and tricks to get into the mind of those who come to the mental hospital for treatment. One such is disturbed teenager Alan Strang, who has blinded six horses in the stable where he worked.
At first Alan only communicates by singing TV ad jingles, but slowly Dysart starts to get through, but in doing so to reach the boy “in misery” (as friend and magistrate Hesther puts it) he only awakens his own unhappiness and neurosis.
Dysart can be a showy role: although originated by Alec McCowen on stage, actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Anthony Perkins, and Richard Burton (who went on to star in the film version which I have seen many times) were attracted to the role, which is on stage throughout the 2 hour 40 running time, and even before, as audiences adjust to the sparse set surrounded on three sides by white curtains.
Here, Zubin Varla is quiet, nervous, twitchy. At first his Dysart seems ineffectual, but slowly his compelling performance commands attention, and without any actorly bombast, becomes one of the best I’ve seen this year. The doctor who cannot “gallop”, who sits every night resenting the woman, his wife, opposite him, who dreams of sacrificing children.
As Alan, Ethan Kai provides a staggering breakrhrough performance of animal intensity as the plot develops, and we learn how his parents’ conflict with religion and his growing fascination with sex has led to him first becoming erotically obsessed with the Cruxifiction, then with the feel, smell and sweat of horses.
Using flashes and washes of coloured light, staged reconstructions, herbal cigarettes, and the imagination, Ned Bennett’s production, which has transferred from the Theatre Royal Stratford East, illuminstes Shaffer’s play and underlines its power to provoke, shock, disturb and profoundly move an audience.
Although this is ultimately a two-hander for most of its running time, the supporting cast remain essential, with Ira Mandela Siobhan’s Nugget, Robert Fitch’s Mr Strang, Doreene Blackstock’s Mrs Strang, and Natalie Radmail-Quirke’s Hesther of particular note.
Shelly Maxwell’s strong and sensual choreography, Giles Thomas’s sound design, and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting all contribute to making this a powerful revival I will remember for a long time.
Equus continues at the Trafalgar Studios until 7 September. Photo credits The Other Richard.
Welcome to another instalment of an occasional feature showcasing and celebrating the most interesting fringe venues I have visited across London. If you would like your theatre represented here, please let me know, and if I haven’t already been to see you, I will make it my mission to do so.
The second of my Fringe Focus features takes me to Islington, a few miles north of the city, and to the King’s Head Theatre, a long-standing space behind a pub on Upper Street. I asked the theatre to answer some questions on this iconic space, which I visited earlier this year to see This Island’s Mine and Southern Belles.
Interview with Germma Orleans-Thompson, Marketing Assistant
The Kings Head Theatre is quite an iconic fringe venue. What would you say was its USP within the London theatre scene?
We give a platform to emerging companies and artists in addition to our new writing festival Playmill which allows them to showcase their work in a London venue. Due to our Equity fringe agreement, everyone at the King’s Head Theatre both on and off stage must be paid a legal wage which we are very proud of and keen to see more theatres sign up to.
The performance space is quite small, but with a lot of possibilities. What has been your favourite show to stage there, and what was special about it?
Southern Belles has been my favourite show at the King’s Head Theatre as I believe it celebrates what we do best; discovering hidden gems from the past and making great LGBT theatre. Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest playwrights of all time, and so much of his work remains unknown.
There are a few theatres based in Islington pubs. What makes yours different, and do you have opportunities for mutual support and collaboration?
Apart from being the first pub theatre in London since Shakespeare’s time [founded in 1970], bringing opera to a more accessible, small scale space is something that we have pioneered. We love our neighbours and would love to work more collaboratively going forward.
You programme a fair amount of LGBTQ theatre, including the current Queer Season. Do you see the King’s Head as an important venue for shows like these?
Yes, the King’s Head Theatre has championed LGBTQIA+ work since early in
our history and continue to do. We gave a safe space to shows that did not have
anywhere else to go and we have retained that through till now. It’s especially
needed now at a time where so many other LGBTQIA+ venues are closing.
What has been your biggest challenge when programming theatre for the space?
We have so many applications from wonderful shows that it’s hard to fit
as many of them in as we would like!
What can we expect from the King’s Head for the future?
More fabulous operas, more excellent LGBTQIA+ work and more of the shows
that you know and love in a brand new venue!
You don’t receive revenue from the pub in which you are based, but rather rent the space: how can audiences and theatre-lovers support your theatre going forward?
First and foremost; buy a ticket! Ticket sales make up a large part of our revenue and you can never underestimate the power of spreading the word of a brilliant show!
My thanks to Germma.
I would like to add that the King’s Head Theatre is currently looking to move to new premises behind the current space, and are seeking additional funding to ensure this happens in 2020. Although I am quite fond of the 110-seat space which currently exists, a new space is Islington Square will be quite exciting, and will boast a larger auditorium and a smaller studio theatre.
Beatrice Vincent’s show Before I Am Lost opens at the Etcetera Theatre on 16 August. It focuses on a specific point in the life of the poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D.
I asked Beatrice a few questions about the show.
Why has H.D. been such an inspiration for you?
Throwing me in at the deep end there! How long do you want this interview to be?
In all honesty I think there’s an element of her coming into my life at the perfect time; I studied English Literature at university, and we had one lecture on her in my second year, I think.
The main poem I remember looking at was The Master, written during her work with Sigmund Freud in the 1930s. It’s lengthy and complex and beautiful and essentially boils down to her saying, “shut up, Sigmund, I like women.”
Having only recently accepted that I, too, was somewhat less straight than I initially thought, her refusal to have herself and her sexuality dismissed was something that I had desperately needed.
Of course I went straight to the library, took out the fat volume of her selected poems, and set to reading. What really struck me about her work is how ahead of her time she was in her world views. I’m constantly harping on about how she was doing in 1918 what Carol Ann Duffy is praised for doing now – she described the experience of being a well-educated young woman as being in a bell jar before Sylvia Plath was born. This is the mother of women’s poetry as we know it today.
I could talk about her all day, about her intelligence and her artistry, but more than anything else there’s just something about her writing that makes me feel less alone. There’s that wonderful scene Alan Bennett wrote for The History Boys, where Hector says, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.” H.D. really brings these words to life for me, so I want to bring her to life for other people who might benefit from knowing her and her poetry.
Female poets are often dismissed as odd, dark or disturbed. How do you bring your subject to life and avoid these stereotypes?
It’s a tricky subject, as most people’s first ports of call for female poets are figures like Plath and Sexton who are famous for their darkness.
What I love about H.D. is that she refuses to ever really descend into that kind of despair – of course there is pain and anger and deep sadness in her writing at times, but there’s always resilience as well.
In terms of bringing her to life and avoiding those female poet stereotypes, I think it’s as simple as giving voice to the woman herself. Because she’s so little known, a quick Google search and a read of her Wikipedia page will tell you almost nothing about the real woman she was.
I’ve been hugely frustrated in my research process for Before I am Lost, reading introductions and notes on her work and her life all written by men. It’s a subject I talk about in the show itself – the way men historicise women. They tend to focus on the despair, on the fragility, or completely erase these and make the woman into an infallible saint.
That’s why I’ve been hugely grateful to her for writing autobiographical novels. I read HERmione, Asphodel, and Bid Me To Live as research for the show, and they’ve been immeasurably helpful in painting a vivid picture of the woman she was. Obviously you have to take novelisations with a pinch of salt, especially her Hermione novels, but it’s generally accepted if she hadn’t changed the names in Bid Me To Live, she could have called it a straight-up autobiography.
I think very few writers just do all the research in one block and then all the writing, so I already a fair number of ideas and lines scribbled down when I read the novels. This meant I had a few wonderful moments where I would come across an image or a feeling she had written that I already had in my draft, and as corny as it sounds, those really felt like gifts saying “you’re doing okay, you’re getting this right”.
Of course we can never truly know everything a historical person would have said and felt, but I can say with certainty that the H.D. I’m presenting in Before I Am Lost is real and honest and human.
How is your show informed or influenced by the avant garde writing movement in which H.D. was a major participant?
It’s something I must admit I would struggle to pin down – writing her spoken voice is obviously a far cry from replicating her written voice, but I like to think there’s still a poetic quality to the text of Before I am Lost.
More overtly I think this influence is mostly felt in the presence of the other writers themselves in the play. For example, H.D. was heavily influenced by Pound in her early life, so his voice is one that the audience hears, and because of how well documented their relationship was, most of what he says in the play he said in real life.
H.D.’s life revolved around literature, whether contemporary or canonical, so that’s something I’ve tried to bring in as well. She’s constantly quoting – I’d be really impressed if an audience member caught all of the literary allusions that are in there!
H.D. had a long relationship with fellow creative Bryher, who was heavily involved in helping refugees escape from Nazi oppression. Although your play is set in 1919, does their relationship inform your work in any way?
This is an interesting question as it’s been something we’ve really battled with in the rehearsal room. As I was already a huge fan of H.D. when I began the writing process, I was aware of her relationship with Bryher and the things they achieved while together.
In doing the research for this particular show, I concentrated on the period before Bryher and H.D. meet, and their very early relationship, but I wasn’t quite able to rid myself of the knowledge of who H.D. would become in her later life.
When rehearsals started, Ross [McGregor, director] had to say to me, “you love her too much, she’s not as strong as you’re playing her” and he was absolutely right. I was playing the H.D. I had first fallen in love with – the woman who argued with Freud about lesbian love, who wrote, “woman is perfect” – but that woman hadn’t quite been born in 1919.
There’s still strength in her, of course, but she hasn’t completely embraced it yet. I think Bryher was a hugely positive influence on H.D. and is certainly a big presence in the show, but I’ve had to constantly keep in mind that their relationship is only just beginning, and the defiance that I think Bryher nurtured in H.D. is only just starting to take form.
On the surface the play is about the birth of H.D.’s daughter Perdita, but if we’ve pulled it off right then it’s just as much the birth of H.D. herself, and Bryher plays a big part in that.
What should Camden Fringe audiences expect from Before I Am Lost?
Turning up for a one person show is always a risk, I know. Putting yourself in one performer’s hands is a huge leap of faith, and I’m so grateful to all the people who will be putting their evenings in my hands over the next week.
Although now I’ve gone through the process it feels disingenuous to claim it’s just me that audience is trusting with their time: this show is the product of so many people’s hard work, not just my own. I’m really lucky to have friends who are incredibly talented and generous with their time, so I’ve never felt like I was on my own with this project.
So in as far as I can call it a one person show, I feel this is different to others I’ve seen, mostly because it’s not addressed to the audience.
The conversation is between mother and child, so it’s very intimate. But there’s also an immediacy to it – she’s in labour for the duration of the show, so there’s absolutely a sense of the clock ticking. And her belief that she’ll die in childbirth means that she’s more honest about her emotions and about her experiences than she would otherwise be.
I should probably note that we’re talking mid-stage labour, where a modern woman would think “maybe I should pack a bag and go to the hospital now,” so they don’t need to prepare themselves for an hour of blood and screaming (though my housemate insists this would be a selling point).
H.D. was a major force in the Imagist movement who is often overshadowed by the more showy Ezra Pound. Do you feel that female poets will ever find their rightful place in the canon?
I certainly hope so! That’s why I wrote this play, after all. It might just be because that’s my area of interest, but it seems like pulling brilliant women out of obscurity is something that’s really in vogue at the moment.
Obviously Morgan Lloyd Malcom’s Emilia had been a revelation for a lot of people (and going to see it was actually a really important moment for me in the writing process for Before I am Lost). I’m hoping this trend continues as more than just a theatrical fad as I know there are so many works out there that deserve to be read.
For my part, I’m hoping that I can bring Hilda Doolittle out from the shadow of Pound or Lawrence to stand on her own two feet as she rightly deserves.
Now I’m thinking perhaps our next show will have to be about Felicia Hemans (she sold more books of poetry in the 19th century than Byron. He hated this, look her up).
What’s next for Cobalt Theatre?
The big question! I’m hoping that this won’t be Before I am Lost’s only outing. My aim with the show was to bring H.D. into the light, so I don’t think I’ll feel totally satisfied by a 5 day run in a 40 seater theatre, even if I end up selling out every night.
There’s no solid plans as yet, but I’m definitely keeping it in my back pocket for when the next opportunity arises. I’m not at all done with Hilda Doolittle – in twenty years I’ll be back with a two hander about her conversations with Freud, but as someone in my mid-twenties I don’t feel ready to write that yet.
In terms of the more immediate future, I’m trying to balance writing with keeping up acting work and the day job as well, but there are more than a few things I’d love to get off the ground properly. Now I just have to pick which one goes first!
Incidentally, I’m rather excited at the prospect of seeing a further play about Felicia Hemans, a very neglected voice among some fabulous female poets of the 18th and 19th centuries (and when I am in my late sixties, I’ll be there watching the two-hander between H.D, and Freud!).
Marc Blake’s tales of being a tour guide for brash and wealthy Americans becomes a show which mines those experiences for comedy potential in yesterday’s final visit to the Camden Fringe.
Utilising a table, laptop, presentation screen, and a chair, Blake’s show takes the form of telling a rather nice new tour group (us, the audience) about the perks of having a lanyard, the stress of no sleep, bad tippers, scrapping group leaders, and honesty bars, illustrating the trip from Ireland’s Shannon to Paris via Dublin, Wales, Scotland, and London (“they went to Wicked, I went to a bar”).
From airport pick-up to coach tours, boat trips, and the sleeper train, Blake’s charges – Jamie, macho and rather dumb: Gail, rather sweet; Michelle, dozy and tight-fisted – manoevere their groups to tourist hotspots which would bore the most steely of tour operators.
Funny, filled with character, and occasionally interactive, How Far is Lunch benefits from Blake’s engaging persona, honed from all those years on the road being nice to clients, matey with coach drivers and other tour guides, and occasionally having a spare hour of cursing and the occasional flicker of escape from those irritating Yanks!
I felt the show may benefit from a bit if a trim to tighten its focus, but there’s definite potential here for an hour will will resonate with anyone who has travelled with, or in close proximity to, a tour group like the one described, and Blake’s good humour throughout is infectious.
How Far is Lunch runs at the Etcetera Theatre until the 18th August.
Show two at the Camden Fringe was this short and immersive piece of physical theatre from the newly-graduated Bear Foot theatre company, who left the BRIT School of Performing Arts in Croydon in the spring.
The actors are Hannah, Olivia, Ruby and Eva. The setting is a police station. There’s a missing person, and a suggestion of foul play. A mother and wife, Ida. A daughter, Summer. A father and husband, Sam.
Opening to the four cast members with their backs to the audience, and the sound of Aretha Franklin’s A Little Prayer for You, we are pulled in to a story where all portray Ida, pulled in for questioning, then break out for flashbacks including Sam and Summer, sometimes true, sometimes false.
This is a very short show, roughly half the length of Nine, which I saw three weeks ago at the Drayton Arms in Gloucester Road. But every word, every action, every piece of physical and vocal synchronicity, every action is perfectly placed until the performers and their characters blend into one.
It’s a tale of domestic violence, of interpretation, of family, of premeditation, of violence – it’s probably not the one you imagine. It’s intense and accomplished and I look forward to seeing what these performers and their company develop next.
Together for Seven runs for the third and final time tomorrow, the 15 August, at the Etcetera Theatre.
This is my first year sampling the Camden Fringe, so I chose a few shows running in the daytime at the tiny Etcetera Theatre above the Oxford Arms on the colourful and characterful Camden High Street.
Be More Bee was an extra show, as I had already booked two later the same day. The premise of a comedy looking at Britain’s favourite insect, the bee, appealed to me.
Jenni Mackenzie-Jones, the delightful co-deviser, writer, co-producer and performer of this piece, let me know the day before that this was a play with audience interaction and was also the first performance before an audience, so I was very intrigued.
On arrival the stage was set with various props such as a paddling pool with plastic ducks, a stool, a pull-along suitcase, some vegetables, a crate, some sticks, a tombola. Under our seats are paper napkins, and our numbered ticket serves as a raffle entry.
Bea is already interacting with the audience, asking our names, making observations, putting us at ease. It becomes clear we are a group arriving into Britain, and we learn about Morris dancing, the social hierarchy of the bee, the vegetable contest, the eroticism of maypole dancing, and more.
This is our show as much as hers, and is never a bore. We bond, we laugh, we meditate, we form a paper chain, we can play games for prizes, and we learn a lot about bees, Bea and each other.
As graduates of the Acting for Collaborative and Devised Theatre course at Central, both Mackenzie-Jones and director Valentin Stoev (also co-devisor and co-producer), are at ease with audience participation (and manipulation, in the nicest way!).
Running slightly over the advertised time, I found Be More Bee paced just right, raising questions and awareness of self and others, and culminating in a surprising and evocative ending.
I very much enjoyed the chance to experience this sweet-centred and clever show, which ran at the Etcetera on 13-14 August.
A play in the Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes proves to be wildly inventive in its new translation by Mark O’Thomas.
Tiago Rodrigues’s play centres on a little girl, tall and precocious, with a huge vocabulary. This is Giraffe, who introduces the piece as her school project, and hopes we “won’t be bored”.
With a foul-mouthed teddy bear inexplicably called Judy Garland, plus a whole parade of characters (dad, soup man, panther, policeman, bank clerk, PM and Anton Chekhov) all played by the versatile Gyuri Sarossy, this play charms, amuses, chills and moves in a 70 minute runtime.
Giraffe’s journey to get money for the Discovery Channel ultimately leads her to finally face the death of her mother, and understand how hard it is for her father to support a growing and inquisitive girl.
Eve Ponsonby is delightful as the central character, bouncing around in her pigtails and undies, defining words, sharing curiosity about her developing body, and finding the courage to let go of her teddy pal (played by Nathan Welsh wearing a bear suit and behaving like a petulant, potty-mouthed toddler).
Now and then the play veered into strange territory with discussions of paedophilia, and the sight of a half-clad little girl cuddling with a grown man dressed as a cuddly toy might be a touch on the weird side, but Wiebke Green gets the maximum impact from the material and directs her trio of actors well.
This will strike a chord with the young at heart, with those who remember growing up or the grief of first loss, or those who have open hearts and quirky souls. Whether you follow a line of Post-its, remember your mother’s scent, or rebel against authority, there’s something here to keep the interest.
Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes ran at the Directors’ Festival at the Orange Tree Theatre from 3-11 August.
One of four shows comprising the Directors’ Festival of new graduates from St Mary’s University in Twickenham, Elinor Cook’s three-hander proves to be a complex, mystical and rather muddled piece about relationships, machismo, and the meaning of life.
Rachel sets the scene, as Dan and Will are stranded up on a mountain in extreme cold, lost. They are expetienced adventurers, friends from childhood, and both in love with her, although the disjointed flashback structure shows that they have both taken her for granted.
An academic whose enthusiasm stretches from the folk-song tradition to the Romantic poets, Rachel sets her heart on a lucrative tenure in Boston just as much as the boy “superhero conquerors” want the impossible in the wilds of Peru.
Ellie Goodall catches the setting and sense of the piece, adapting the small stage area and props – boxes, pieces of wood, books – to evoke snatches of time and memory one can perhaps assume are filtered through the mind of the dying mountaineer.
Scene changes lead to snatches of songs as the actors busy themselves in place-setting, and the melodies are as mystical as the stories of Tam Lin or the legend of St Christopher.
Adeyinka Akinrinade is the girl on the periphery of the action, the catalyst for the final breakout. Although the sound design of whistling winds made it hard to decipher her opening speech, she blossoms into a tower of strength, as alluring as a mermaid but as immovable as the mountains.
Nicholas Armfield, as whiny yet confident Welshman Will, and Luke MacGregor, as geeky yet petulant Dan, evoke both little boys lost and the toxic masculinity too many pints can bring.
Pilgrims is an intriguing play, but it leaves the audience a tad confused and unsettled. Cook’s language is both poetic and earthy, but I felt the characters didn’t quite come through with enough clarity.
Pilgrims ran as part of the Directors’ Festival 2019 at the Orange Tree Theatre from 3-11 August.
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The 1995 film is one of my all-time favourites, with an easy and passionate chemistry between stars Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
Now, under the direction of Trevor Nunn (who was in the house last night), the musical version by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman has set up shop at the Menier Chocolate Factory with Jenna Russell as Francesca and Edward Baker-Duly as Robert.
This story of middle-aged soulmates finding each other too late and for too short a time has lush melodies, but lacks the passionate aspects of the tale and clogs the show with too much extraneous material such as Francesca’s family at the fair, Robert’s waitress ex-wife, and a totally unnecessary opener to act two which has the feel of a country hoedown.
The Bridges of Madison County should sink or swim on the relationship between the Italian housewife who feels taken for granted and the freewheeling photographer who finds himself lost in her driveway: you don’t need anything else.
The songs are good, here and there, although I felt Russell struggled now and then with both the accent and some of the range. She also, sadly, lacked the yearning and emotion which should be present in Francesca, even we see in flashback how an early personal tragedy pushes her into a marriage of convenience.
Baker-Duly does better as Robert, although his portrayal is rather one-note, a bit cocky and far too like EE’s Kevin Bacon in his straggly hair and ever-present smile. He feels more calculating than conflicted, and I didn’t really engage with him until his final solo number.
Although there is undoubted talent in the character parts – Gillian Kirkpatrick as nosy neighbour Marge, Shanay Holmes as the ex-wife Marian who sings in her waitress uniform, Paul F Monaghan in fine blues voice as Charlie – the show still needs a judicious trim from 2 hours 45.
The set, by Jon Bausor, is far too complex, busy, and given to distracting noises at changeover and during quieter moments. It also requires half the audience to look over their shoulders for some scenes. Better, when you see through the clutter and the projections, is Tim Lutkin’s understated lighting design, full of warm purples and passionate reds.
Curious, too, was the absence of music in Francesca’s house. A woman of her ability to feel would not be content with just the weather report! I also felt the loss of key scenes between the leading couple that would make us care a bit more.
Ultimately, I wasn’t sure why this material has gone from novel and film to a stage musical. Nunn has form with the musicalisation of novels for the stage, but The Bridges of Madison County has more of the notorious 2008 production of Gone With The Wind about it than the mighty Les Mis.
The Bridges of Madison County continues at Menier Chocolate Factory until 14 September. Photo credits by Johan Persson.
The celebrated 1990s novel by Louis de Bernieres has already been adapted for the screen and now comes to the stage and the West End.
A complex and muddled love story is brought to life in this ambitious adaptation by Rona Munro, directed by Melly Still. Adding some traditional Greek vocalisations, the titular mandolin (and imagined orchestrations) and the odd Italian operatic aria, this flirts with being a musical but retains its ponderous dialogue and scene-setting from the source material.
For much of the first half, Alex Mugnaioni’s Captain Corelli is on the sidelines, watching the story unfold in Cephalonia before his character joins in. Pelagia (Madison Clare), the educated daughter of the local doctor, falls for the physical charms of local soldier Mandras (Ashley Gayle) and they are betrothed on the eve of war despite their clear unsuitability.
Meanwhile, Italian sergeant Carlo (Ryan Donaldson) falls in love with sensitive comrade Francesco (Fred Fergus) as they bond on the battlefield. Carlo’s strength and loyalty becomes key to the fate of his Captain in act two.
With an innovative use of a set which suggests a range of locations, and projections which range from describing the island to providing a wash of blood at times of conflict, this production helps move a ponderous piece of theatre together.
It may be hard to care for the pompous musical Captain and the haughty Greek girl who spurns, then loves him, but with characters on the periphery to help like Carlo, the idealistic doctor (Joseph Long), the tough mother of Mandras (Eve Polycarpou), and the family’s goat and pine marten (Luisa Guerreiro and Elizabeth Mary Williams, both gifted and inventive physical theatre and circus performers), their story has a solid base.
Less powerful are the politics of war and the interminable battle scenes, although Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and Jon Nicholls’s sound design evokes the tension and danger of conflict effectively.
A lengthy show at 2 hr 40, this probably does more justice to the book than the film, but a prior primer about the Second World War, the partisans, and the fate of Cephalonia (shown to become a tourist trap by the time two generations have grown) may be in order to avoid confusion.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the end of August. Photo credits Marc Brenner.