Tag Archives: Bunker Theatre

“The Flies” at the Bunker Theatre

Exchange Theatre brings famous foreign works, seldom seen in the UK, to London and great credit to it for this. Alternating weekly between performances in English and French, the company remit feels increasingly important in our potentially insular times. And this chance to see Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 play is far too rare. Maybe it’s the high stakes – or great expectations – that make the production a disappointment. Regrettably, it cannot be recommended.

Sartre’s take on the story of Electra has the people of Argos enthralled by a cult of communal repentance, inspired by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra’s tortured guilt over the murder of Agamemnon. Examining how religion and fear control people should be a theatrical godsend. But the multi-disciplinary approach of director David Furlong ends up messy – a gnomic nightmare of techniques with a laboured pace that is purgatorial.

The cast suffers from characterisations that seldom work and ideas about presenting myth that never take off. Raul Fernandes proves one exception, as a rather natty Jupiter, who is allowed ambiguity. But attempts at modernising the story look cheap. While there’s good work from Soraya Spiers, attempts at physicality, from hand gestures to running around the stage, are generally poor. The “half human creatures”, by turn the populace and the Furies, come close to being embarrassing in their gowns and pointy hats, then fishnet tights and high heels. There are simply too many predictable attempts to be odd for the sake of it. Yet another problem (oh dear) is the live soundtrack. Not that the music is bad or poorly performed – by a group called A Riot In Heaven – but it proves distracting and the cast have to fight with it. Audibility is an issue too many times.

There’s a little more joy with the central roles of Electra and Orestes, played by Meena Rayann and Samy Elkhatib. Their youthful appeal suits both play and production. Injecting energy into some admittedly stilted lines proves a sometimes painful struggle. Elkhatib even has to use the word swashbuckling and ends up wooden too often, while Rayann appears too eager, too mad too quickly. Lessons could be learned from Juliet Dante who, fittingly, takes the part of The Tutor with calm. It’s not just appropriate to the role but makes the performance feel less forced. Rayaan and Elkhatib get better as the show goes on, and Electra’s bad faith and Orestes’ turn as a rock star are at least interesting.

To see Sartre mapped on to a Greek story is fascinating. It illuminates his philosophy as well as the classical tradition and calls into question cultural heritage. Existentialism may not be fashionable right now, but these ideas changed lives, and Sartre’s radical freedom can still shock and excite. It’s not that Exchange Theatre prevents his work from being clear – that would be unforgivable. But the production does nothing to serve him. Bad ideas circle the show like flies around… well, you know the saying.

Until 6 July 2019


“Eris” at the Bunker Theatre

Cormac Elliott does a fine job as the lead in John King’s new play. Elliott manages to hold the stage as an unappealing character called Seán, who searches for an unsuitable man to take to his sister’s wedding when his boyfriend, who he’s dumped anyway, isn’t invited. It’s a matter of taste about how sour you find this premise, but as a storyline it proves unfortunately unfruitful.

Airlock Theatre, under the direction of Robbie Taylor Hunt, tries hard to make the idea interesting. The ensemble use microphones to great effect and add a lot of physicality. All the cast take on multiple roles, which proves effective for scenes when Seán is on a dating app, or they join to perform as one, making the character of his nan a real highlight. Katherine Laheen and Clare McGrath both do well, Ashling O’Shea is poorly served as Seán’s best friend (a role surely ripe for satire), while Charlie Ferguson steals several scenes. It’s easy to enjoy the performances.

However, the best efforts of cast and crew struggle with King’s play. The jokes are old, tame and based on stereotypes. That titular Greek goddess of discord arrives too late and feels tacked on. By way of explaining the project, we’re told that “tolerance is not enough”: that the family should embrace Seán’s sexuality and whatever partner he chooses. A fair point, but the perils of self-righteousness that King documents deflate this aim. It’s difficult to bother about Seán, and I’m not prejudiced just because he uses his phone in the theatre…well, maybe a bit. His journey to embrace his feminine side, something that he’s been ashamed of, is interesting. But by the end, with his upstaging of the bride on her big day, Seán’s self-indulgence overpowers the play. This character is lucky to have got an invite anywhere, let alone a plus one.

Until 28 September 2018


Photo by Connor Harris

“Grotty” at the Bunker Theatre

Damsel Productions is an exciting young company on to a winner with Izzy Tennyson’s new play. Rolling up its sleeves and getting… well, very dirty, this show answers the palpable need for diversity and work from women on stage. So the first thing to say about Grotty is that you should go!

Tennyson guides us through a world seldom depicted – the lesbian sub-culture of East London – with fierce intelligence, wicked humour and a throbbing heart. The play is funny, but this isn’t a fun trip. Taking to the stage as “sad little lesbo” Rigby, Tennyson leads us on a revelatory journey about youth today. There’s a litany of millennial woes providing five-star laughs – from Facebook to flats – arguably more than enough for any coming-of-age story. But the major concern isn’t sexuality – it’s mental health. The “chronically disheartened” Rigby dangerously self-medicates, and the play is frank and frightening in its personal telling of this increasingly important issue.

Tennyson’s writing is invigorating, showing a yen for the macabre and a strong sense of the theatrical that some might feel needs tempering. There’s a lack of polish, which it’s tempting to suggest is a perverse, stubborn idea about being radical. But the raw ideas are profuse, exciting and profound. The script overreaches, but director Hannah Hauer-King does a good job at restraining it; her use of the performance space is brilliant – sympathetic to the script and aiding clarity.

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Grace Chilton
Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Grace Chilton

For all her bad posture and face pulling, Tennyson is incredibly magnetic. Her observational comedy is spot on, her talent for satire considerable, and she is a real original. Too many lines are hurried, there aren’t enough pauses for some great jokes, but I was transfixed by this performance. Her fellow actors often do better at the technical delivery of her words. With fewer idiosyncrasies, Rebekah Hinds and Grace Chilton put on a fine show as ex-lovers who have affairs with Rigby in turn, making a plot line crying out for elaboration work. And Anita-Joy Uwajeh is superb with her transformations into three roles.

Anita Joy Uwajeh
Anita Joy Uwajeh

So what really is grotty? It’s not the play’s explicit sexual content. Although Rigby’s encounters with symphorophilia are darkly hilarious, her definition of lesbian sex is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. What’s grotty turns out to be the connections between people: the characteristics and insights we pick up from lovers, the inheritance of our experiences. And this idea is, frankly, a downer. What happens to the capital-letter Self from such a premise? In Rigby’s demented, disturbing struggle, Self is compromised and objectified, becoming “an experience rather than a person”. And defined by work – “I am an intern” is the drug-induced cry – not an identity, just a job. Add a matricidal urge that would have a psychoanalyst doing cartwheels, leading to a twist brilliantly handled by Hauer-King, and we come close to being lost in Tennyson’s psyche – so compelling does it become. But the real kicker is this fear of connection when applied to a Structuralist simulacrum that offers love – a meeting with another, I suspect that should be an Other, who mirrors Rigby. And is rejected. At this point you just want to hug the girl. Not so much grotty as grim – but brilliant at the same time.

Until 26 May 2018


Photos by The Other Richard

“Electra” at the Bunker Theatre

We are all used to seeing a Greek tragedy updated, and this new production from John Ward and DumbWise Theatre at the brilliant Bunker Theatre uses both Euripides and Sophocles to show the drama of the Argos royal family. As a political thriller, it is gripping, if not a little enthralled by its own modern touches.

Lydia Larson takes the lead and sets the tone of the piece. Her Emo Electra is suitably “relentless”, full of “scowl and spit and cry”. Towards the end, the portrayal of madness becomes a little monotone, with too much time spent on the tips of her feet, but Larson is convincingly cynical and inspiringly fiery. She’s clearly her mother’s daughter and the show’s Clytemnestra, performed by Sian Martin, is riveting. The Machiavellian queen only hints that revenge was the motive for murdering her husband, coldly dismissing her daughters and manipulating whoever, whenever, at any opportunity. Dario Coates works hard as the returning son and heir, showing depth as a fragile young hero, but this Orestes doesn’t stand a chance against these marvellously formidable women.

You see Martin’s talents most in a scene when Clytemnestra is interviewed on television. Introducing technology is a valid technique, employed before, that Ward uses to focus on the political revolution in the play. The Chorus become virile rebels and courtiers creepy civil servants (there’s strong work here from Megan Leigh Mason) with both parties full of realpolitik as they battle for “hearts and minds”.

The script falls over itself to introduce contemporary touches, from frozen party foods to fake news. The aim is surely to make the show feel relevant, but it lacks finesse. And there’s a reliance on expletives that reveals the language is too frequently prosaic. Some parallels with current events are a little forced – an emphasis on “Godless Greeks” is a clever enough move, but it fights with the religious content of the story as no character really rejects superstition.

The show’s achievements are nonetheless impressive. With the help of strong musical accompaniment – the cast all play instruments and sing – and commendable work from lighting designer Sherry Coenen, this Electra is exciting. The decision to show some violence on stage (contra classic Greek tragedy) and to make the Chorus so dynamic, results in an action- filled show that is consistently, if not constantly, stimulating.

Until 24 March 2018


Photo by Lidia Crisafulli

“Ken” at the Bunker Theatre

This tribute piece to the multi-talented Ken Campbell, who died ten years ago, comes from the pen of his old friend the playwright Terry Johnson. Campbell is clearly much missed and this celebratory evening explains why: originality, intelligence and independence made him a presence in the theatre, while a maverick sense of humour made his company appealing.

A skilled impersonator, Jeremy Stockwell takes the title role, and the show is very much for those who will recognise his Ken straight away. But as he strides through the audience, with Tim Shortall’s design recreating late 1970s hippydom, his confidence and enthusiasm are highly entertaining. And there’s a touch of insanity: old-fashioned smut alongside experimental avant-garde makes for an edgy combination that could have been elaborated on. Campbell’s theatre was a long time before ‘safe spaces’, of course, but questioning some of his actions might make the show feel less cliquey. Instead, the atmosphere is convivial-clubby, if you are being harsh. Stockwell knows how to work a crowd, but I am just not sure how you’d feel if Ken’s wasn’t a club you wanted to belong to.

Johnson takes to the stage as himself, showing a modesty and honesty as impressive as his erudition. The finale, recounting Campbell’s funeral, is vividly written. The impact Campbell had on Johnson’s life, imbued with a confessional air and a great deal of humour, is moving and intensely personal. This isn’t your standard biography. Described as a “seeker” with a perpetually open mind, it’s Campbell’s antics, the kind of shows he put on, and the tricks he played that make him memorable. Indeed, some of it is so far-fetched that a writer wouldn’t dare to make it up. And it’s interesting to journey back to a time when theatre was so different: especially in an exciting venue that’s announced such a forward-thinking season for 2018. After all, who doesn’t want to learn about the holder of the world record for the longest ever play, or the man who took it upon himself to rename the RSC? This “Essex estuary incarnation of Pan” gets a fond farewell that is suitably idiosyncratic.

Until 24 February 2018


Photo by Robert Day

“The Enchanted” at the Bunker Theatre

Rene Denfeld is an investigator for death-row prisoners, discovering facts that might save their lives. But her award-winning novel, adapted by Joanne and Connie Treves, is a poetic affair with a magical strain. Bringing such lyricism to the stage is a big task and this attempt is both impressive and intriguing.

Our guide is the prison “monster” Arden, institutionalised his whole life and now awaiting execution. A mute bibliophile, he narrates even his own death, and Corey Montague-Sholay is terrific in the role. His is a captivating performance, with some contrived internal dialogue delivered naturally and a remarkable physicality (including a great catuspadapitham).

Montague-Sholay’s movement, directed by Emily Orme is a nice attempt to express the novel’s flights into both fantasy and despair. But as the director Connie Treves uses it too much; particularly when the whole cast join in for small reason. Likewise, chalk drawing over the set is a good idea, linking the world of legal documentation and the prison cell, but it could be employed with more restraint.

There are fewer reservations with the second major character, known as The Lady, who has the same job as Denfeld. Jade Ogugua tackles emotions sensitively and leads the plot, finding evidence to help a prisoner called York, with suitably intensity. There’s strong supporting work from Liam Harkins as various characters she meets while puzzling over the case’s history. It’s a shame The Lady’s love interest, a defrocked priest, feels tacked on.

I am loathe to criticise the Treves’ work on the adaptation – it is excellent. Having only just finished the novel, let’s go all out and call it exemplary. With a steel will, the tone of calm around the emotive issues raised is preserved. Ruthless in all the right places, the adaptation doesn’t just preserve Denfeld’s themes and style, but enhances them. The characters are more vivid and the action clearer. There might be flaws when it comes to the staging, but this development from page to script is superb.

Until 17 June 2017


Photo by Dina T

“Abigail” at The Bunker Theatre

This spiky, provocative tale, written by Fiona Doyle, chops back and forth through the one-year relationship between a damaged woman and the man who becomes her unwitting victim. A psychological thriller, imbued with the spirit of a nasty fairy tale, it packs a good deal into just an hour and cannot fail to impress.

Joshua McTaggart directs with appropriate efficiency. We see the couples’ first meeting, holidays and arguments, circling around their sole anniversary. The short scenes are tensely interspaced and the quick changes in chronology a credit to the superb actors. Mark Rose makes his unnamed character satisfyingly rounded, an affable presence, he gives a performance of great technical skill when it comes to depicting physical injury. Tia Bannon tackles even more violent shifts just as admirably, being charming one minute, spooky and scary the next. Stories about a traumatised past are especially well delivered, with too much sympathy carefully avoided.

McTaggart and Doyle don’t dally over their efforts, giving less than the bare minimum to pin a lot down. Avoiding details makes the writing admirably crisp – I look forward to more work from this team – but it doesn’t aid clarity. While creating a sense of mystery is all very well, at times the intrigue becomes frustrating. Since Doyle is enamoured of withholding information, only partly as a technique for suspense, it would be churlish to give too much away. The clue is in the title (thanks, Wikipedia) as Abigail is usually associated with the role of handmaid. Suffice to say subservience here has a dangerous edge. The twists are great and this world of poison, graves and glass splinters is evocative. But it could benefit from elaboration.

Until 4 February 2017


Photo by Anton Belmonté for 176 Flamingo Lane

“Muted” at The Bunker Theatre

As the penultimate instalment of an excitingly diverse inaugural season this new venue, right next to the Menier Chocolate Factory, presents a musical. It’s a new, British, piece – always welcome – with strong song writing from Tim Prottey-Jones and Tori Allen-Martin that makes it easy to recommend the show to anyone interested in musical theatre.

Allen-Martin, brimming with talent, also performs as Lauren, caught in a love triangle with two old friends, former members of a promising rock band. Jake is Lauren’s current boyfriend, a role Jos Slovick expertly creates an interesting sinister edge for, while former partner Michael is suffering from depression following a traumatic event. Michael is played by David Leopold, with the character’s selective mutism leading to an admirably intense performance. He is joined in a series of flashbacks by his younger self, a role tackled impressively by Edd Campbell Bird.

Jos Slovick
Jos Slovick

Sarah Henley’s book reveals the back story too slowly, adding a sense of mystery that isn’t needed as the story contains plenty of drama. The roles of Michael’s uncle and mother (strong performances by Mark Hawkins and Helen Hobson) could easily bear elaboration. Director Jamie Jackson is keen to impress a mark on the show. Unfortunately, the super-stylish set from Sarah Beaton, a moated island for Michael that the cast paddle around in and an overused swing, along with some modish choreography, also repetitive, prove distracting.

A lot of the production is simply trying too hard – unnecessary when the basics are all present and correct. Muted has some important contemporary concerns and fresh dialogue that Jackson secures strong performances with. The neat idea of having a central character that doesn’t speak or sing until late in the show is nicely handled and twists in the story are engaging. Most importantly, the songs are good; a forceful collection of mature numbers that come together satisfactorily in an increasingly powerful second half. Muted is a musical whose praise should be loudly shouted.

Until 7 January 2017


Photos by Savannah Photographic

“Tonight with Donny Stixx” at the Bunker Theatre

Eighty minutes is a long time for a monologue. Holding an audience and taking them on a journey for such a span is an awe-inspiring feat. And with a storyteller like Philip Ridley, accompanied by a faultless performance from Sean Michael Verey and aided by director David Mercatali, this twisted tale is one not to miss.

Donny Stixx is a teenage magician. No secret is made of the fact that he is unstable and it’s soon clear he has committed an atrocious crime. But we’re told to expect the unexpected and Ridley’s imagination prevents any predictability. Cleverly, Donny isn’t an unsympathetic character. There’s the hope the boy might be as talented as he is delusional, a wish cruelly dismantled. Ridley’s peculiar brand of humour is central here. “What’s funny?” puzzles Donny. Harsh (bad) jokes are bravely played with, raising questions, teasing and probing the audience.

Dealing with such a downright scary character needs a fine balance that Verey masters. Fanaticism and some frighteningly convincing panic attacks aren’t easy to watch. There’s an array of voices – family, neighbours and his unfortunately unglamorous assistant – all cleverly delivered. The mix of intrigue and sympathy is well managed.

Ridley has a light touch when it comes to contemporary questions. Internet trolls play a part, as do the cult of celebrity and art as therapy. Where some might hammer at these themes, Ridley never loses the focus of telling a story. Taking us into the mind of Donny Stixx may not be pleasant, but it’s an unforgettable trip.

Photo by Savannah Photographic


Until 3 December 2016