The Living Record Festival

This online event for digital arts boasts over forty original productions. There’s poetry, music and comedy on offer. And many shows are hosted ‘on demand’, so they can be enjoyed at any time. With a focus on audio dramas and storytelling, here are four that took my fancy.

Breaking Up With Reality at the Living Record Festival

Breaking Up With Reality

This is an audio monologue, with effective percussive accompaniment, from theatre company Nod At The Fox. An “experiment” is the claim, but easy going comedy and smart reflections on life make it whimsical and charming. 

Our narrator, Eden Harbud, discusses his relationship with reality as if it were a romance! Bearing in mind the corona virus lockdown, the pressing question is whether reality has left for good or will it BRB?

It’s easy to connect to these lockdown experiences – lots of tea and tiredness. The writing shows plenty of imagination and comforting touches, even as the New Normal arrives. Any “reassuring” thoughts offered in this wise and gentle piece are gratefully received right now.

Skip Skip Skip Leanne Moden credit Tracy Gnoan
Leanne Moden photo by Tracy Gnoan

Skip, Skip, Skip

Skipped tracks on a CD player make an effective device to present a collection of poetry, written and performed by Leanne Moden. A love of music and nights out on the town are evoked in glorious detail: I won’t think about cigarette lighters in the same way again.

The poems share the theme of youth. And it’s nice to encounter coming of age vignettes that show teenage confidence. The girls here, sometimes, feel like royalty. Why shouldn’t they? 

There’s violence as well – recognisable from small town life. But with the help of some judicious humour, the energy of Moden’s verse propels us to positivity. Teenage years are described as “a rare bootleg import EP”: the argument and delivery here is brilliant.

Moden wants to “remember everything” (those details again) and since access to any show purchased is for 24 hours, you can attend this “listening party” more than once.

On Record at the Living Record Festival

On Record

Here’s a psychological thriller that’s a high quality, traditional affair. Some meta-speculation around the genre of radio drama is clever enough. Better still, the plot has a neat twist worthy of golden age detection fiction.

Ella Dorman-Gajic and Cameron Essam write and perform in the piece and impress on both counts. The script is sharp, aided by Essam’s direction, and believable characters are quickly established.

While the writers take the subject of domestic abuse seriously, and the piece is frightening, there’s a mystery within On Record that is superbly entertaining. Without spoilers, let your suspicions run wild and you should enjoy this half hour immensely.

Shifting Sands at the Living Record Festival

Shifting Sands

Tom Thornton’s drama is aptly named; it’s a fifty-minute show that wavers between examining a young man’s personal trauma and a dystopian sci-fi with a touch of mystery story too. Playing with expectations, sincerity and a surreal twist are not easy to combine, but Thornton unites them admirably.

An exciting big idea first. An “unprecedented change in human evolution” results in our internal dialogue being heard aloud! What a great idea for an audio play. It made me think about the work of psychologist Julian Jaynes. It’s a shame the notion isn’t developed and that the subsequent dystopia is less original. Touches of humour help but we still end up, predictably, with a “God like digital behemoth”.

When it comes to the telling of the story, Thornton is excellent. Our narrator is engaging and intriguing, while tragic events and an urgent desire for control generate sympathy. You might even suggest the experiences of this young man, for whom life is “twiddling its thumbs”, is a dystopia of a different kind.

Four stars for all

More audio plays are available. And there are filmed productions too: Skye Hallam’s Heads or Tails and Ram of God by Theodora van der Beek being two examples. Although this is a small selection of what’s on offer at The Living Record Festival, it seems safe to have faith in creative director Ross Drury and search out further treats.

Until 22 February 2020

“Public Domain” from the Southwark Playhouse

With so much of our lives spent online, a musical about the internet seems apposite to our lockdown times. The twist for this show, from Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, is that it is a verbatim piece. All the words spoken or sung are taken from the internet. The result is a snapshot of a recognisably confusing world, refocused and clarified with considerable talent.

Forristal and Clarke are a gifted duo. Their music is pop-inspired, electronic and generally perky. While sampled speech is not to my personal taste, it is integrated well. Blissfully, the show is streamed live. That more than makes up for some technical glitches on the first night. Forristal and Clarke’s voices are strong, their acting, taking on different characters, commendable. Adam Lenson’s direction aids clarity.

The subject matter is wildly ambitious. And there are missteps. Like plenty of online content an edit would help. Touching on Facebook’s treatment of outsourced employees makes for a great number but is an issue that needs more time. Similarly, the topic of censorship feels tacked on – it deserves a show all of its own.

Francesca Forristal in Public Domain Photo The Other Richard
Francesca Forristal

Overall though, the book for Public Domain is impressive. The words, chosen for interest and importance rather than inherent musicality, flow remarkably well. Focus comes, first, from two fictional YouTubers (SwaggyWan and Millies Fitness). Made from several sources, they are credible creations that show us the positive and negative approaches to life online. Both prove funny and moving and leave you wanting to subscribe.

There’s another ‘pairing’ in the show: those YouTubers alongside Facebook mogul Mark Zuckberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. Television interviews or congressional hearings (which might remind you of the Donmar’s show, Committee) provide insight into a very different world from the struggling influences. It’s a strong, thought-provoking, contrast that works well.

Jordan Paul Clarke in Public Domain Photo The Other Richard
Jordan Paul Clarke

When it comes to how these different sets of people are presented, Forristal and Clarke gain further respect. The music provides a sincerity and emotive power to plenty of glib comments (it’s the internet, remember). Due attention is paid to the positives of the social networking; it helps people feel “a little less alone” and an unexpected finale emphasises this important point. Yet an underlying cynicism shows an intelligent approach. No matter what happens, our YouTubers want you to follow them!

The web is worldwide but at their best, Forristal and Clarke catch most by casting a narrow net. It’s easy to imagine Public Domain as a project as much as a finished piece. The subjects covered are so topical, further versions could surely be developed. And I know I’d watch.

Until 16 January 2021

Photos by The Other Richard

“The Dumb Waiter” at the Hampstead Theatre

First praise here goes to whoever prepared this venue for a socially distanced audience. Instead of depressing signs telling you where not to sit, photographs from previous performances are used on empty seats. What a lovely, colourful, touch. A nod to heritage is appropriate, given Hampstead Theatre’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which this Harold Pinter classic is a part of. And I get to say that I sat next to Anna Maxwell Martin in the theatre… kind of.

Of course, any theatre deserves praise for putting on a show at the moment. But getting to see this short piece, between long lockdowns and tier adjustments, is especially welcome as it is directed by the talented Alice Hamilton. It’s a story of hired killers, waiting for… something. Hamilton’s direction is confident and expert, respecting Pinter’s nuance and drama and appreciative of the playwright but not intimidated by him.

Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre credit Helen Maybanks
Shane Zaza and Alec Newman

Hamilton has secured fine performances from a talented duo: Alec Newman plays “senior partner” Ben, seemingly in charge of Shane Zaza’s Gus. Seemingly, as he knows as little about what is going on as his more anxious colleague. Through their skilled performances, the audience shares their confusion. A vague sense that whatever organisation they work for, and the enigmatic Wilson who is in charge, is being “tightened up” is compounded by bizarre messages the two men receive. What’s going on, and what’s happened previously, is never fully revealed, but glances at the men’s history prove chilling.

The production never overplays the more surreal touches from Pinter. That someone is playing “games” with Ben and Gus becomes more sinister as a result. The sense of menace is aided by James Perkins’ set, the “windowless dump” all action takes place in. We’ve all spent a little too long indoors lately, but under Hamilton’s steely control the claustrophobic tension in The Dumb Waiter builds marvellously – this is a director very much in charge.

Until 20 January 2020

“Overflow” at the Bush Theatre

Trans activist Travis Alabanza’s new play is set entirely in a toilet. Given that public conveniences are currently contested places the location is, if a little depressing, appropriate enough. But what Alabanza does within this limited space, and what is achieved with the play’s careful focus, is remarkable.

A theatre blog isn’t the best place to discuss trans rights. Like the Twitter comments Alabanza’s character Rosie decries, the issues are complex and emotive. And this play certainly manages to speak more eloquently about them than I could. Theatre, in Alabanza’s hands, proves a stirring forum: the argument put forward is intelligent and elaborated with a human experience that makes for a powerful show.

Reece Lyons in 'Overflow' at the Bush Theatre
Reece Lyons

The key is Rosie, a well-written character brought to life in a strong performance from Reece Lyons, ably directed by Debbie Hannan. Smart, sharp and often witty, Rosie proves a fascinating guide as we learn her history – fun and fraught – through different toilets. From hiding as a child, to school pranks, then discovering her identity in night clubs, the space performs more functions than I at least ever imagined. The smallest room was a place of sanctuary… until recently.

Alabanza provides an essential dramatic twist for Overflow. For it seems that Rosie’s experience of toilets has got worse as society commends itself for being more liberal. The show is punctuated by knocks on the door from men waiting outside; Rosie is under threat. There are also discussions of how women have become more hostile to Rosie, making the space she considers her own one that she now wants to wreck.

The rage that culminates in the destruction of Max Johns’ clever set – the circular shape recalling an arena, adding to the drama – becomes understandable and also moving. And touches of bravado to hide her fear deliberately fail to convince: this isn’t what Rosie wants, rather the wish is to “swim not drown” in these metaphorical waters. It’s Rosie’s address to women – an appeal to sisterhood – carefully drawn together as the piece culminates, that provides Alabanza’s strongest points. And a hope for a kinder future.

Until 16 January 2021

Photos by Sharron Wallace

“The Pirates of Penzance” at the Palace Theatre

Sasha Regan’s all male productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have a loyal following. For full disclosure, I consider myself such a fan so an effort at an impartial blog is tricky. And after such a terrible year for the theatre, seeing one of Regan’s shows is an especial treat. A theatrical highlight of 2020, well, that isn’t saying much… but this show is perfection any year.

The genius behind Regan’s productions (I told you I was biased) is a sense of fun and innocence. The shows are stripped back to basics with fantastic charm. Robyn Wilson-Owen’s design has make do and mend creativity. The brilliant costumes aren’t really drag; they deliberately look like something grabbed from a costume box. And the music comes from just a piano, with Richard Baker’s fantastic musical direction making the most of Sullivan’s tunes. 

That ‘g’ word

A campy sense of humour works with Gilbert’s topsy-turvy scenarios and distinctive satire. We can laugh at the Victoriana… but remember, that’s what Gilbert was doing too. It’s unusual to see a radical version of a classic that will appeal so to traditionalists. I feel like using the ‘g’ word again.

The special treat for this event is seeing the show in such a large venue. Regan’s base is the tiny Union Theatre and although the shows have successfully toured, and found a second home at Wilton’s Music Hall, the majestic Palace Theatre is a much larger venue. There’s a fantastic appeal in seeing a piece that deflates pomposity in such a grand setting. Given that the high tech set for the Harry Potter blockbuster is still visible, the feeling that a troupe have cheekily sneaked on to the stage is enchanting.

A pretence of spontaneity to performances – offside remarks and deliberate gaffes – is, as such things have to be, cleverly rehearsed. The ensemble is enormously hard working, nearly all swapping roles at least once: adding to the fun as they play a pirate one moment and a lady the next.

The show’s leads are the final treat

The show’s leads are the final treat. It is a thrill to see them perform so masterfully on a large stage. Leon Craig as Ruth adds a touch of pantomime dame that is appropriate, while David McKenchie’s patter as the modern major general is spot on. Oliver Savile’s Pirate King is suitably swashbuckling, able to swish his coat tails masterfully.

Tom Senior’s performance as the “slave to duty” Frederic is truly special. Not only does Senior sound wonderful, he brings a sincerity to the role that demonstrates excellent acting skills. Frederick doesn’t think he’s a source of fun, even if the rest of us do. His love at first sight with Mabel ends up deeply moving as a result. As a final triumph for the show, Alan Richardson’s Mabel is breath-taking. Such an extraordinary voice is worth hearing at any opportunity. Richardson’s comic skills are a joy but, again, carefully controlled. We need to fall for Mabel just like Frederic does. That we do just that illustrates Richardson’s star quality; always at home on the West End stage and hopefully to be seen on one frequently in 2021.

Until 13 December 2020

“The Boss of It All” from the Soho Theatre

While most of us have surely had enough of Zoom meetings this year, writer and director Jack McNamara uses the format to great effect in updating this show to these coronavirus times. 

Continuing the strong work this year from theatre company New Perspectives, the office-based comedy, originally a Lars von Trier film, is a clear candidate for adaptation. The result is nonetheless impressive.

There’s fun from the start as an actress, Kristina, is recruited into a scam by unscrupulous IT boss, Ravn. The jokes about Kristina’s seriousness and pretensions are solid; that she isn’t very successful is worked in well. It will be her job to take the blame for his decisions – pretending to be titular CEO. Needless to say, Kristina ends up taking the role a little too seriously, helping to make “worlds work”, then worrying about her “moral duty”.

A “visionary” IT webinar and staff appraisals follow and are both terrific. A team building exercise works less well (don’t they always?) and the finale isn’t hard to see coming. Ravn’s plot for the company, and the question of whether or not he will take responsibility, are deliberately deflated by the show’s satirical PoMo tone – but that irony is itself predictable. Likewise, oh-so-knowing narration between the scenes enforces how forced the humour is. Which is not to say that you won’t laugh…just that the script is contrived and heavy-handed here.

“Confusing, incompetent and spineless”

Adding a sense of joy and fun are strong performances that bring some lightness to the show. Josie Lawrence is excellent as Kristina. To see such an accomplished improvisor joke about the format provides an extra edge. Lawrence is joined by Ross Armstrong, as “giggling shitbag” Ravn, who is just as good. A checklist for poor leadership – “confusing, incompetent and spineless” – each is given its due to great effect. 

Those unfortunate enough to work for Ravn also aid the piece. The team has, not surprisingly, a “lot of baggage” – Yuriko Kotani and Angela Bain are especially good with their bizarre backstories. Such eccentrics, traumatised by working from home, get yet more laughs. McNamara is consistently strong with the particular trials of our times so updating The Boss of It All proves a Zoom meeting worth attending.

“A Christmas Carol” at the Bridge Theatre

Although Christmas 2020 is sure to be very different, theatres are trying their best for the festival season. There are pantos out there (at the National Theatre, the Palladium and the Hackney Empire) and plenty of other versions of Charles Dickens’ perennial favourite are on offer. But Nicholas Hytner’s venue always promises good value and this neat, concise version, adapted by Hytner himself, does not disappoint.

The production boats an excellent cast. Simon Russell Beale as Ebenezer Scrooge would be a must see at any time – he is excellent and takes the role as seriously as he would any Shakespearean lead. Joining him to narrate and perform all other roles are Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo, both showing a masterful physicality and excellent portfolio of accents. The trio form such a superb ensemble, it’s hard to imagine you need more performers to bring the story to the stage.

The key to the show’s success is good old-fashioned story telling. Aided by Jon Clark’s lighting design and an effective set from Rose Revitt, there’s a cosy feel of the tale unfolding. And suitably spooky touches for each of the ghosts who arrive to teach Scrooge the meaning of Christmas. The almost obligatory video design (from Luke Halls and Zakk Hein) is good but hardly necessary with story tellers this proficient.

There’s fun (and even Christmas jumpers) as Hytner’s adaptation injects plenty of humour. Figueiredo adds some lovely comic touches throughout. But the trick is to take the show seriously; Russell Beale’s Scrooge is carefully distanced from caricature. Seeing Dickens’ complex character sincerely brought to life makes a refreshing change that adds considerable drama. 

Now is the time for comfort theatre and Nicholas Hytner knows it. Injecting just the right amount of nostalgia into proceedings strikes a fine balance of escapism into Christmas pasts just as the present one might not be so great.

Until 16 January 2020

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“GHBoy” at the Charing Cross Theatre

Tackling the topic of drug addiction among gay men, Paul Harvard’s debut play provides the perverse pleasure of seeing a piece about a health issue that has nothing to do with coronavirus. It’s escapism of a sort, I suppose, but GHBoy proves grim without being hard hitting and is, regrettably, rambling.

An impressive sincerity

Capably directed by Jon Pashley, the show is well acted. Very much a vehicle for Jimmy Essex, in the demanding lead role of Robert, there’s an impressive sincerity to the writing and the performance. But understanding or sympathising with Robert is a challenge: a middle-aged man saying he needs to grow up isn’t much of an excuse for so much bizarrely infantile behaviour.

Robert’s problems – self-medication with drugs and sex, driven by low self-esteem, abuse and his father’s death – arrive on stage in a torrent. So quickly, in fact, that there’s little time to really know the character and scant background detail. While what happens sounds dramatic – along with the inclusion of a crime story – too many rapid incidents make GHBoy confusing.

A central scene – where Robert’s conversation with his mother and his friend are interwoven – shows promise. There is a sense of mounting pressure and of a man trapped by his decisions. But this technique only works the once. Most of the time, overlapping dialogue with flashbacks and fantasies, scenes feel truncated and cinematic rather than theatrical.

Strong support

Jimmy Essex and Devesh Kishore in GHBoy at the Charing Cross Theatre
Jimmy Essex and Devesh Kishore

There’s strong support for Essex’s performance to enjoy. Robert’s youthful lover and his therapist, played by Marc Bosch and Devesh Kishore respectively, both do well and Harvard has managed to make these smaller roles effective. There’s also an impressive performance from Sylvester Akinrolabu, who plays different sexual partners for Robert with clarity.

Ultimately the play’s problems mount and prove inescapable. Harvard has taken on too much. So much so that the script seems to resort to two finales. A reprise with characters confronting Robert summarises his problems without adding drama. Then a suggestion that Robert’s art therapy may prove a solution is offered as an unconvincing parting note. Neither conclusion amounts to much despite the considerable effort taken by all involved.

Until 20 December 2020

Photos by Bettina John

“The Fabulist Fox Sister” from the Southwark Playhouse

The life of Kate Fox, the 19th-century “mother of all mediums”, makes a rich subject matter for this very funny monologue with music. Writer and performer Michael Conley imagines Fox’s final audience as she reveals her seances were really just theatre all along.

Always brash, Conley’s version of Fox as a straight-talking New Yorker is liberated by being at the end of her long career. It’s a simple device used effectively to give us a lot of history as well as an air of recklessness that adds a touch of the unexpected. When Kate proclaims,

“Fuck it, I’m retiring”

It means you’re never quite sure what will be revealed next.

Fox’s life, “famous before famous meant disposable”, was remarkable. And, along with playful period detail, the twisted justification for exploiting “rich guys with dead kids” provides some weight to the show that director Adam Lenson does well to highlight. Still, it’s really Conley’s depiction of Fox that adds the spirit to this spiritualist.

Conley’s script is full of good jokes. Fox’s mother being so stupid she couldn’t understand buttons really tickled me. Along with sibling rivalry (hence the title) and Kate’s love of one particular spirit – Jim Beam – word play, repetition and dead pan asides are all expertly delivered. Even Kate’s deliberately bad jokes get laughs: that’s when you know Conley has great comic skills.

The Fabulist Fox Sister is aided by jolly, very catchy tunes from Luke Bateman, who has a clever ear for using period touches. The songs are consistently strong, only once disappointing when a serious tone is attempted. In every other case the music adds considerably to amusement.

“believe in something”

Conley makes Fox funny but more than a figure of fun. An enormous ego, totally devoid of sensitivity toward others, which should make her revolting means her presence fills the stage. That Kate and her sisters sometimes believed their own lies adds a melancholy touch to the show. But there’s a whimsy to both script and music that works superbly. Conley makes you believe that Fox could have pulled off her incredible career. If nothing else, you end up believing in her. And having a lot of fun along the way.

Until 6 December 2020

Photos by Jane Hobson

“Magnetic North” from the British Museum

Presented by the multi-disciplinary arts company Border Crossings as part of its Origins Festival, this online event accompanies the British Museum exhibition Arctic: culture and climate.

Dance, poetry and discussions are interspersed with fantastic footage of scenery and wildlife. And there should be plenty of thought provoked by cultures so different from our own.

With music and a soundscape from indigenous Sami band Vassvik running throughout, the storytelling from Ishmael Angaluuk Hope is fascinating and the poetry of Taqralik Partridge poses important challenges.

While it is true you have to sign up for the event, I wonder if more of an introduction might be a good idea? Ignorance is no defence, but this is the first exhibition of its kind in the UK and more context would have been welcome. Even after visiting the museum on the same day, I can’t be alone in being a little puzzled by the Greenlandic mask dancing.

So, attendance of the exhibition is strongly recommended. It’s interesting to see themes the curators have picked out elaborated by the performers, with links between a story told and an artwork seen. There are challenges to colonial assumptions and, of course, an emphasis on the threats posed to these cultures by climate change. This latter concern is especially well handled in a discussion between two young women – Caitlyn Baikie and Mya Rose-Craig – that is inspiring. Linked to the show, the event is excellent. Organisers should be thrilled with the collaboration.

The exhibition runs until 21 February 2021