“Safe” from The Hackney Empire

Highlighting the shocking statistic that a quarter of homeless and at-risk youths identify as LGBTQ+ is the laudable aim of this theatrical work created and directed by Alexis Gregory.

Safe is a verbatim piece with the words of four contributors – Jack, Samuel, Alicia and Tami – performed by Elijah Ferreira, Taofique Folarin, May Kelly and Mary Malone. Judiciously given equal consideration, all four are carefully shown as individuals and not just representatives of their sexuality.

These lives have not been easy. Hearing about them can be a challenge and many questions are raised. Abuse at home and school unites all four. There is a distressing amount of physical violence. Drugs and drink play a part too: Alicia’s account of her alcoholism is particularly forceful.

Gregory is smart to make sure we get to know the four before we learn about their housing problems. It’s important to see how ‘homelessness’ is more complex than the issue of sleeping on the streets. Support, in particular from the Albert Kennedy Trust, thankfully kicks in. Homes – in a profound sense – are a part of a wider support system.

For all the troubles Safe is a positive show. The spirit of this quartet shines out. Moments when the actors double as other characters (mostly parents) are well done but might be unnecessary? The words of the subjects are powerful enough without another layer of performance. Frankness, honesty and Jack’s emphasis on the joy of his transition into a man (a particularly welcome narrative) show four survivors who inspire.

Gregory’s finale for the show is strong. Including a poem from Yrsa Daley-Ward that mentions “many possible ends” the four begin to address one another. Discussing how they feel about being interviewed enforces the theme of testimony. It’s possible to see what part the very act of representation might play towards safety itself.

www.hackneyempire.co.uk

Photos by Jane Hobson

“Outside” from the Orange Tree Theatre

Following the show titled Inside last month, this companion set of three short plays comes as the Richmond venue’s return to live theatre is announced. Starting with a couple of Bernard Shaw pieces, on the 22nd of May, an exciting year ahead is planned. It’s still a wait but at least this weekend you can show support for the venue online.

Two Billion Beats

First we go outside to a school playground. Sonali Bhattacharyya’s play has two young sisters, Asha and Bettina, discussing bullying and racism. Zainab Hasan and Ashna Rabheru are excellent in the roles. The quality of the writing is indicated by how vividly a teacher, Mrs L., who never appears, is depicted. With plenty of insight, this is a piece that leaves you wanting more. It’s a shame the production ran into technical difficulties towards the end.

Robinah Kironde and Fiston Barek
Robinah Kironde and Fiston Barek

Prodigal

An estranged son in Kalungi Ssebandeke’s play returns to encounter his sister, after his mother’s death, and the action takes place at the door of their family home. The drama arrives quickly and is effective. Expanding the action to a conflict over a life insurance policy has potential. A complex history of immigration is explored sensitively while issues of masculinity are also raised.

I wonder if Fiston Barek’s performance as the titular character might include more sinister touches? We’re told of anger and “a cartoon image of what a man is” but see mostly charm. Opposite him, Robinah Kironde does an excellent job: her character is hurt and frustrated in equal measure with touches of confusion.

Those technical hitches resulted in this piece, wisely, starting again at one point. And I should add that I’ve promptly been given the chance to see the shows again. But as if another reminder were needed, it does make you miss a real-life experience. Even looking at a safety curtain when there is a problem is better than a notice on a screen.

Temi Wilkey at the Orange Tree Theatre Richmond
Temi Wilkey

The Kiss

The evening concludes with a monologue from Zoe Cooper that looks at recent experiences. Getting to know the character of Lou, ably performed by Temi Wilkey, is a treat. Moving out of town, Lou and her partner end up struggling with life under lockdown. Getting to know the neighbours, taking up new hobbies and behaving…a little…strangely are all included. It is possible that The Kiss could be funnier. But Lou’s reassessment of her life and future goals will surely resonate with many. The show is full of detail and admirably low key, like all three pieces it illustrates fine work on the part of director Georgia Green.

Until 17 April 2021

www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Ali Wright

“Playfight” from the Finborough Theatre

Julia Grogan’s provocative new drama is the exciting winner of the ETPEP Prize and has been given an online rehearsed reading that downright demands a full production soon. A startlingly bold coming-of-age story with very serious concerns (and extremely frank content), Playfight comes close to a jeremiad and must be any parents’ nightmare.

The play’s three school friends talk bluntly about sex, death, love and religion. There’s humour of a kind here, although deadpan responses are relied on too much. First loves and a deep desire to work out what is “normal” prove touching. And it’s never in doubt that the characters of Kiera, Zainab and Lucy are “full of promise”. That potential is a fact that makes the play extremly depressing.

As well as orgasms and excitement about the future, it is the issues Grogan highlights that dominate. And these are truly shocking. Alongside teenage troubles with faith and sexuality (we expect that, right?) relationships to sex are seriously skewed. The acceptance of hard-core pornography and violence is disturbing. “Shame, blame and guilt” don’t just belong to Lucy’s church. Self-harming, homophobia and alcoholic parents seem almost tacked on as a grim backdrop to everyday life – it is physical violence that destroys all three young lives.

The performers – Robyn Cara, Hannah Millward and Helen Monks – work wonders with their character’s emotional ups and downs. There’s no lack of drama, so the generally underplayed tone and tight control shown in Blanche McIntyre’s direction are essential. Extra credit, of course, comes from the fact that the performers are working in isolation. Even though the piece has plenty of scenes that are phone calls, it’s impossible not to imagine how much more effective it would be – let’s hope will be – on a stage.

Playfight isn’t perfect. A central motif of an oak tree is over-burdened metaphorically and an attempt at basing some metaphysical speculation around its age fails to convince (although I’d love to see what a set designer could add). The much-discussed small-town setting is too vague, so what impact this might have had on the characters gets lost. The powerful energy in the play escalates with such rapidity that conclusion lacks control. But maybe that was the intention? Grogan’s work left me uncomfortably breathless and a play this urgent, aiming to spark so much debate, deserves a wide audience.

Until 8 April 2021

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

“Talking Gods” from Arrows & Traps Theatre

Reimagining Greek myths is not new. But if this first show of an online season is a benchmark, then theatre lovers are in a legendary treat. The creative compulsion to retell old stories for our times – in this case, Olympian gods in the modern world – is forcefully present, here. And the retelling is both thought-provoking and entertaining.

The first myth up is that of Persephone and the focus, I’d argue, is maternity: we hear most from the young girl’s mother, Demeter, and aunt, Hestia. Framing the story around motherhood and family proves moving and makes the myth very much about women (the men we hear from remind us that toxic masculinity is nothing new).

Behind a strong concept, writer and director Ross McGregor’s script does a heavenly job. Full of effective imagery, there’s a neat balancing of incredible events with a contemporary sensibility. And a good deal of humour… why not? Updating the story provides fun touches: Hestia runs a website called hearthandhome.com and these gods have Instagram accounts.

McGregor doesn’t shy away from making his gods suffer (if social media is involved, you know that’s coming). And he makes them scary at times. Generational battles and current concerns are both evoked but with a consistently light touch that aids the creation of compelling characters.

Demeter, now an eco-warrior who wants radical action, doesn’t have much patience for the younger generation – she’s had things tougher (how about a support group for people who have been eaten by their father?). And she also has some sensible ideas about soup. Meanwhile, Hestia is a modest character of enormous appeal. And if Persephone herself seems a little too naïve (the editing slips here), her treatment by Apollo is heart-wrenching.

Nicolle Smartt in Talking Gods

The show has a true star in its performer – Nicolle Smartt. Playing all three roles, taking full advantage of McGregor’s characterisations, she ensures each is clearly delineated and equally compelling. It is hard to believe it is the same woman in each part. Hearing the views of all three, each perspective is made thoroughly convincing. Such a strong performance should not be missed.

Four more coming up

The stories of Orpheus, Pygmalion, Aphrodite and Icarus are still to come, with a show every night at 7.30. The cast list is impressive and, with the ambition of focusing on issues that have come to the fore during lockdown – and if McGregor maintains such firm control – the project has huge potential. Enjoy the week.

Until 9 April 2021

www.arrowsandtraps.com/talkinggods

“Inside” from the Orange Tree Theatre

Joining the list of theatres streaming shows live, this offering from Richmond is a high-quality affair. A better-than-most monologue and two two-handers show three different approaches to stories about the Covid-19 lockdown.

Guidesky and I

This smart script by Deborah Bruce is a superb vehicle for the wonderful Samantha Spiro. Acknowledging how difficult this past year has been, the character of Diana is clearing out her deceased mother’s home and trying not to “unravel” at the same time. With some excellent sound design from Anna Clock, an elegant stream-of-consciousness monologue increases in tension throughout its half-hour duration. It’s clever to make Diana an unappealing character who’s short-tempered, stressed and angry (I’m sure we can all recognise some of this in ourselves of late). A problem with an online order, which holds the piece together admirably, proves startlingly effective and surprisingly moving.

Ishia-Bennison-inside-at-the-orange-tree-theatre
Ishia Bennison

When the Daffodils

Joel Tan’s piece is less successful, although there are strong performances from Ishia Bennison and Jessica Murrain, who do well to hide a mawkish tone. Small pleasures and the importance of the caring profession are handled well enough. But Tan elaborates into a poorly sketched dystopian future where a “consensus” has resulted in older people quite literally imprisoned in their homes. It’s easy to see where the thinking comes from and, although there’s surely a debate to be had around such a topic, Tan’s contrived twists add confusion rather than substance.

Inside-from-the-Orange-Tree-Theatre-credit-Ali-Wright
Fisayo Akinade and Sasha Winslow

Ursa Major

For more big topics highlighted by Covid-19, Joe White has a young man with OCD in conversation with a “houseless” woman. If the backstories about Jay and Callisto aren’t quite convincing, the performances from Fisayo Akinade and Sasha Winslow are fine and the characters themselves likeable. White ticks boxes about lockdown life, and he does it well, with an underlying challenge about “normal interaction” that is sharp. Dark energy provides an impressive and effective metaphor throughout and there’s some welcome humour. Moving away from the theme of lockdown to think about distance more generally (well done!), White even provides a sweet ending.

Outside

For all the shows, the direction from Anna Himali Howard deserves high praise, as respecting the tone of each writer benefits the event overall. United by an “underlying feeling of unease”, at times excessively, it’s no surprise that Inside isn’t cheerful. But each playwright has managed to reflect our times. Maybe things will perk up for the second programme (15-17 April) when the theme, like us, moves away from our homes?

Until 27 March 2021

www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Ali Wright

“Scaramouche Jones” from stream.theatre

This revival of Justin Butcher’s 2001 play affords the opportunity to see an intriguing and acclaimed text. The “long and weary” life of its centenarian character, a famous clown, of course, recalled on the night of his death at the end of the 20th century, is a compelling yarn that balances elements of the fantastic with weighty concerns. 

Scaramouche’s life is colourful, to say the least. But it is also one filled with trauma and pain. His birth in a brothel in Trinidad, his life as a snake-charming slave and eventual arrival as an immigrant in Britain show us a world where people “mingle and co-mingle”. The globe-trotting Scaramouche covers a lot of ground.

As a consideration of Privilege, with a capital P, the character’s complexion (without make-up) proves a fascinating motif. Jones’ skin helps him in bizarre and unexpected ways. His whiteness saves his life. But note, it is also a mark of pain: frosted tears, white sand and lime from burials all contribute to the “seven white masks” that are the play’s subtitle. Start your debate.

The text is full of vivid images and incredible characters. Scaramouche’s mother, the “charming villains” he meets, and the “beggars and invalids from the four corners of the globe” create the world picture Jones aims for. And such a vast canvas makes the play a tricky one to perform.

To describe this particularly ambitious monologue as competent is not faint praise. Director Ian Talbot’s presentation is clear and concise. But the use of sound effects is overplayed – they add little to the descriptions of events. And both Talbot and his performer, Shane Richie, try to inject energy unnecessarily. Along with lots of accents of, erm, variable success, Richie’s delivery becomes grating, his sense of rhythm too monotonous.

Richie does rise to the play’s central scene. Scaramouche’s time in a concentration camp is a strong moment for all. Nailing the emotion and ambiguity of the play’s hardest, and best, scene becomes an unforgettable moment. It’s as a grave-digger that Scaramouche, incredibly, discovers his ability to make children laugh. His big picture approach ensures these ‘tears of a clown’ are peculiarly original, poignant and thought-provoking. 

Until 11 April 2021

www.stream.theatre

Photo by Bonnie Britain

“The Picture of Dorian Gray”

Henry Filloux-Bennett’s excellent new show is only loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s classic novel – and is all the better for that. Yes, Dorian sells his soul for eternal youth but, in the neatest of twists, it is only beauty that exists online. With skilful direction from Tamara Harvey, Filloux-Bennett uses the story for a stirring and topical condemnation of social media, focusing on its impact on mental health.

The plotting is strong, with a lot packed into 90 minutes. The conceit of an interview provides an effective framework and a nice cameo for none other than Stephen Fry. As we try to work out what has happened amongst a group of social media stars, there are elements of a mystery thriller, a touch of horror (as we get to see what happens to Dorian) and also romance. 

The love story provides highlights for the show’s titular lead, played by Fionn Whitehead, and gives his co-star Emma McDonald a chance to impress. The pumped-up part for McDonald’s Sybil Vane is excellent, her performance superb. Sybil’s chance for fame leads to heightened emotions McDonald makes deeply moving. And Sybil is just one of the characters, familiar from Wilde’s original, the show does so well with.

A gallery of portraits

Alfred Enoch in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Two older men take Dorian under their wings and Filloux-Bennett makes the most of this fascinating triangle. With Alfred Enoch’s version of Henry Wotton, the idea of an ‘influencer’ is brilliantly elaborated: the role would suit Wilde himself! Aided by cheeky crudity on top of appropriated epigrams, the role confirms Filloux-Bennett is unintimidated by his source. Enoch is sexy, scary and just human enough in the part to make you question Wotton’s every word. Russell Tovey’s Basil Hallward uses the tension of his character’s potential homosexuality especially well, and brings a sinister edge to the part.

As for the triangle’s third member, there might be some quibbles about Dorian’s much discussed “dazzling” charm. Might it be a mistake to see the Instagram pictures that create so many followers? How much are we supposed to fall for him? Whitehead does best when confronting Dorian’s mental breakdown, with conspiracy theories that enforce concerns about social media, and a vicious streak that is frightening.

Joanna Lumley in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Joanna Lumley

A further strong move from Filloux-Bennett comes with the character of Lady Narborough, played by Joanna Lumley. For Wilde, a hostess who “treats her guests exactly as an auctioneer treats his goods”, the character surely becomes Filloux-Bennett’s authorial voice (he deserves one): decrying the “devastating consequences” of going viral and living life online. Lumley brings plenty of nuance to a part that does a lot of explaining – the roles of philanthropist and mother figure to Dorian are both interesting complications.

While this Picture of Dorian Gray may not need to be set so specifically during lockdown, it is a benchmark for its times. Of many excellent shows provided, or even especially produced, to watch at home, this is one of the few that doesn’t make you feel you are missing something and would rather just see it live. The show has collaborative credits – Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley, New Wolsey, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd – are all involved. It’s a welcome irony that, as theatres are starting plans to reopen (fingers crossed), so much has been achieved with their doors closed.

Until 31 March 2021

www.pictureofdoriangray.com  

“Adventurous” from stream.theatre

This debut play from actor Ian Hallard is a charming comedy about love in lockdown. As the middle-aged Rosalind and Richard get to know one another, over Zoom chats and then a drunken dinner IRL, we get to fall in love with two quirky characters who both have enormous appeal. And not just because Rosalind wants to be a National Trust volunteer, which makes her my kind of woman. Hallard has enough observations on our times, on middle-class life and on modern romance to make the show jolly. Awkward chuckles abound – the two never catch each other’s references, and there are laugh-out-loud jokes about aubergines and Arlene Foster (now there’s a combination).

The show is driven by the fantastic chemistry between Hallard and his co-star Sara Crowe. I can pat myself on the back for praising their previous performance in the show Tonight at 8.30. With director Khadifa Wong’s help, the performers’ generosity to one another is clear and aids the show immeasurably. Hallard has written two convincing back stories (that win considerable sympathy) but it is Crowe who gets to surprise. Rosalind is a “late starter” with a little ruthless streak that makes a good twist for such a gentle comedy. Her journey of self-discovery is portrayed with such skill that the play’s tidy ending leaves you wishing her well for adventures that are sure to follow.

Until 28 March 2021

www.stream.theatre

“Treason The Musical” in Concert

Talented performers have been assembled for this concert version of Ricky Allan’s new musical. The singing is fantastic. Every member of the cast gives a great deal to the coherent, Celtic-inspired score, which in itself is pleasant enough. But this brief telling of the story of the Gunpowder Plot – even if there are plans to expand the show – is poor. And the lyrics are terrible.

Allan and Kieran Lynn’s book for the show uses a narrator to take us through the history. It’s a sensible idea, and Debris Stevenson is more than up to the task. But there’s an over-reliance on the role that, admittedly, the concert format doesn’t aid. Too often we end up hearing what we’ve just heard told again through song. So, while we don’t learn much from the show, it also manages to feel repetitive. Yes, we know the story, but the chosen structure hinders drama. It’s a perverse achievement to rob such events of tension.

Even worse, the verse in the narration is blunt and uninspired. And those qualities are carried into the lyrics with painful results.

At times, listening to the lyrics becomes a game of count the cliché. There are paths to choose and things to prove and even a “tangled web” – and that’s just in one song. Sometimes the lyrics are nonsensical: the plotter Robert Catesby reveals his intentions and then asks would-be accomplices not to tell anyone. I started to wonder if Allan only chose the subject because he could think of rhymes for the surname Percy.

A plan to focus on the characters’ emotions – their love lives and religious beliefs – has potential. The marriage of Thomas and Martha Percy leads to wonderful performances from Lucie Jones and Bradley Jaden. And there’s the start of an interesting triangular relationship with arch-plotter Robert Catesby – another excellent performance from Oliver Tompsett.

Musicals can – and do – deal with history in more inventive ways that make past events feel alive and complex. But there’s no nuance in Treason either in presenting the story or in the lyrics. The dire number for King James (that even the performance of Daniel Boys cannot save) presents a complex character as a sex-crazed cut-out. Simplifying complexity is understandable, but Allan makes the past flat.

The concert is presumably designed to pique interest in the project, with the promise of a stage version to follow this year or next. Maybe that’s why we never get to see Guido Fawkes – who we would presume to be the show’s star. Or maybe we never will? That would be the kind of bold move Treason needs. Before that, though, I fear a lot of these lyrics need to end up on a bonfire.

Until 14 March 2021

www.treasonthemusical.com

Photo by Gavin Nugent

March’s New Moon Monologues

I like a new writing night. There’s always a sense of excitement, of experimentation, and the potential for a discovery that theatregoers crave. Even online, these events are an important part of the theatre “eco-system” nurturing talent and providing insight into creativity as well as entertainment. This monthly series – of a high standard – should be in diaries for the rest of lockdown.

There are ten performances on offer, all created by women and mostly performed by the writers themselves. A loose theme – “begin again” – works well, providing structure without constraining. Produced by The Queens of Cups (Grace O’Keefe and Erin Holland) there’s a pleasing variety with plenty of poetry. And it starts with a song! O’Keefe shows how we are all feeling with Everything Sucks – a welcome, jolly, entrée despite current conditions.

Overall, there’s a lot of angst – hardly a surprise given the state of the world – and the big topics covered tick contemporary concerns. Run is a moving, lyrical piece by Emily Hindle about mourning, Seven Years To The Day has Noga Flaishon tackle the complexities of sexual abuse and Bianca Watkins takes on environmental issues in Plan B. Only one piece addresses lockdown specifically – a pleasant surprise – and even better, Lorna O’Dea’s Smile admits the problems we have all faced while managing to be affirming.

At the risk of suggesting some Top of the Pops countdown – there really is something for everyone here – two sketches battled for my number one. Grazed Knees is a short that addresses the life-long experience of a working-class woman and shows considerable wisdom and political bite from its author and performer Elspeth McColl. Jamie Lakritz’s piece, Amissa, benefits from Meryl Griffiths’ performance, capturing an engaging character’s journey of self-discovery later in life: intriguing, moving and well-structured.

Join on Saturday or enjoy the show online for the rest of the month. And get ready for the next series on the theme ‘coming clean’.

www.thequeensofcups.com