Tag Archives: Pleasance Theatre

“Catching Comets” at the Pleasance Theatre

Piers Black’s monologue provides a look at modern masculinity and movies through the character of Toby – an apprehensive astronomer, who, bless him, is far more diffident than he should be. Toby’s love life is combined with a fantasy about saving the world, inspired by action films. As Toby imagines the man he wants to be – as compensation for feeling small, stupid, and scared – a tale unfolds that is slim but sweet.

It’s hard not to see Catching Comets in relation to lots of men that theatre-makers have shown us lately. Toby is a good bloke – surprisingly, annoyingly so: apologetic to a fault and deliberately far from toxic. But, despite the recognition that many models of masculinity are just silly, what to replace them with is a bigger question. There’s a strange preoccupation here that apologising is a failing. And there’s an anger in the character that Black could explore more. Regrettably, the woman Toby loves (his “magical time-melting girl” – nice phrase) is a shadowy figure. As with “the best friend” Emma, Black’s women are too indulgent and a touch saintly.

It’s possible that discussing toxic masculinity brings about the kind of ‘A-Level’ analysis that annoys Toby. After all, Catching Comets is a comedy. The humour is a mixed bag, though. Toby’s insecurities are – regrettably – predictable and repetitive. It’s hard to laugh too hard at a character you feel sorry for. The jokes around the spoof action film in Toby’s head are much better. With clever parallels to the character’s ‘real’ life, appearing at moments of stress, the Bond-style hero is shown as truly ridiculous. The details are great (I loved his coat, described as “newly polished Jaguar fur”).

There’s no doubt Catching Comets is a great showcase for performer Alastair Michael. With help from Black’s direction (as well as Chi-San Howard as movement director) Michael’s physicality is impressive. He does well with the contrast between Toby’s timidity and his action hero alter ego, as well as cameo characters. Best of all, Michael sets up a great rapport with the audience. Oh, and his comedy Dutch accent is brilliant.

Not surprisingly, resolution is a lot to ask from Black. We know how action movies end… and, disappointingly, it isn’t much of a spoiler to mention the conclusion of Catching Comets.

Catching Comets at the Pleasance Theatre

Having criticised Hollywood heroes, Black has backed himself into a corner – and ends up leaving Toby hanging. But denying us a happy ending feels a let-down, especially when there have been plenty of laughs. It’s a testament to Toby winning us over that is seems a shame he can’t sort out what kind of hero he might really be. At least there’s plenty of room for a sequel.

Until 19 September 2021

www.pleasance.co.uk

“Destiny” at the Pleasance Theatre

Over the next five weeks, Londoners have the chance to see shows from all over the country just five minutes from Caledonian Road Tube. Five shows, supported by different theatres, will visit as part of the Pleasance’s National Partnership Awards. If this first offering, from Florence Espeut-Nickless and supported by Bristol Old Vic Ferment, is anything to go by there are real treats in store.

Nobody disagrees that in theatre’s drive for inclusivity white working-class women’s voices need to be heard. As the story of a girl called Destiny from a council estate, this monologue fits that brief. But that the setting is rural Wiltshire is also important. This voice, this accent – literally – isn’t one that we hear on stage. I’m reasonably eclectic in my theatre trips but, apart from Shakespearean rustics, I don’t recall hearing it before.

While important, inclusivity in itself doesn’t make the show worth seeing. It must be good theatre, too! Thankfully, Destiny stands on its own merits and is easy to recommend.

As an autobiographical show, Espeut-Nickless’ writing has a sincere and authentic tone. There’s a clear structure and motivation behind a monologue that provides insight and drama, with careful control aided by director and dramaturg Jesse Jones. And there is a real conviction behind Espeut-Nickless’ performance that wins further admiration.

As for what happens to Destiny, as Espeut-Nickless’ said while thanking the audience after deserved applause, the play isn’t enjoyable as such. There’s a depressing inevitability to the way the character is used by men and poorly treated by those we expect to help her. Destiny’s encounters with the legal profession and social services are truly awful, making the piece grim but powerful.

What might make the story predictable is cleverly used. The fact that the audience can see what is coming next still creates tension. And there is an impressive subtlety to our heroine. Destiny has charm – mostly from her irrepressible optimism – to match her rough edges. Poor decisions abound… but what choices does Destiny really have? How can this lonely teen deal with the traumatic situations she faces? Understandably naïve (and poorly educated) Destiny’s ignorance becomes a powerful challenge to the audience.

The run for Destiny is short… try to catch it this weekend or look out for a promised digital on-demand performance to be announced soon. Other shows are supported by the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Leicester’s Curve Theatre, Manchester’s HOME and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, with the diverse programme running until 11 September.

Until 7 August 2021

www.pleasancetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Chelsey Cliff

“The Rage of Narcissus” at the Pleasance Theatre

Sergio Blanco’s play is described as auto-fiction. It features events and conversation that may or may not be true. The author is presented as a character – an invention – and the actor introduces himself, thereby highlighting a second fiction. The result is a mind-bending piece that’s heavy with theory but gripping nonetheless – a very special combination of erudition and theatre that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

The strategy, relentlessly playing with the line between fiction and fact – what Blanco may have done and what he has certainly made up – is complicated and not to all tastes. It’s stimulating, puzzling and profound all at once, but it isn’t easy. It’s down to director and translator Daniel Goldman and the sole performer, Sam Crane, to aid comprehension – which they do brilliantly.

Sam Crane in 'The Rage of Narcissus' by Sergio Blanco at the Pleasance Theatre

Yet, in keeping with the play’s remit, Goldman and Crane never miss a chance to enforce theatre’s artificiality: designer Natalie Johnson’s set is mirrored, and the lighting by Richard Williamson takes a dominant role. The audience is destabilised and left continually questioning.

Things only get tougher when it comes to the ideas in the play. At its centre is a lecture about Narcissus that takes us to big questions about ‘art’ with blunt directness. Blanco’s is not a reading list I could keep up with, Derrida and Heidegger are thrown in casually. I wonder if André Gide would be a good one to mention: his treatise on Narcissus includes the idea that gazing at one’s reflection means losing oneself as a result. Which is, maybe, what happens next.

The Rage of Narcissus is more than a metaphysical mystery story, though. Inspired by bloodspots on a hotel room carpet, and a casual sexual partner who becomes obsessed, we get a ‘real’ murder story, too, that’s also of startling originality. It’s not just storytelling that Blanco wants dissecting. Alongside all the theory there are proper goosebumps.

The text has a forensic quality. Crane coldly narrates horrific events and then passionate encounters. A question arises as to the humour that follows. Crane slips into a cheekiness, accompanied by distinctly British giggles from the audience, that jar with Blanco’s frankness. For in tandem with the precision of the writing there’s a visceral quality that engages with all those cerebral concerns. If you think myth and murder is a potent combination, throw in sex and danger, too.

Blanco’s self-reflexive writing is likened to a Möbius strip or Escher drawing on stage. Fair enough, and helpful. But the description of a sex party attended towards the play’s finale struck me more forcefully: “The idea was to keep things moving. To try new things. To mix and combine…”. That could be a description of both the script’s virtues and its excesses. It’s to Goldman and Crane’s credit that all of this is brought out so vividly. Blanco has written an orgy of a text and this production knows better than to try and tame it.

Until 8 March 2020

www.pleasance.co.uk

Photos by Ali Wright

“Fix” at the Pleasance Theatre

In her psychological thriller, Julie Tsang uses Chinese mythology, ghost stories and fairy tales to intriguing effect. When an unsuspecting repairman is called to an isolated house in the woods, his unusual client and an exploration into his past, combined with some psychedelic touches, are sure to hold your attention.

Tsang’s script benefits from careful direction by Jen Tan, along with fine performances from Mikey Anthony-Howe and Tina Chiang. Both luxuriate in Tsang’s poetic imagery, which makes the presence of a surrounding forest feel palpable. Ali Hunter’s lighting design goes a long way to add atmosphere – it deserves special praise as the piece could easily be one for radio (which is fine for Tsang’s future career but vaguely frustrating in a theatre).

Mikey Anthony-Howe in 'Fix' at the Pleasance Theatre
Mikey Anthony-Howe

Anthony-Howe does a good job of rooting us in the here and now as no-nonsense Kevin, whose past comes to be revealed bit by bit. But it’s Chiang’s portrayal of Li Na that’s the main point of interest. This is strangely ambiguous figure – her intentions, even her age, are deliberately confusing – and Chiang does a great job to convey all this. She moves from a frightened creature to one in control, even command. Capable of being physically threatening and then caring for Kevin, Li Na is mercurial enough that, with some creepy touches and plenty of imagination, the play’s rougher edges are smoothed over nicely.

Although the denouement may be too briefly handled, and the loose ends perhaps too plentiful, this high-quality storytelling is both entertaining and absorbing.

Until 1 February 2020

www.pleasance.co.uk

Photos by Nicole Latchana

“Neck or Nothing” at the Pleasance Theatre

The idea behind Christopher Neels’ and Callum Cameron’s play has potential. Using an inventor to examine men’s mental health is a neat experiment. The agoraphobic oddball Jens makes an amenable hero, easily recognisable as a geek who attempts to deal with childhood trauma by creating an invincible suit and become a real-life superhero. It’s not a bad way to examine what might be thought a peculiarly masculine, yet distinct from macho, effort to escape from real problems and genuine discussion. Getting a laugh out of a serious topic is fine, but the jokes here just aren’t good enough. Ironically, the humour feels like a cop-out so that the play, like Jens, doesn’t engage with the big issues it raises.

Neels and Cameron also direct and are a little too indulgent with their text. This is a short show that drags at times and has too many tentative moments. But they are lucky with their cast, a trio of performers who manage to make the three main roles consistently appealing. James Murfitt takes the lead as Jens, likeable even during his delusions of grandeur, conveying his mania with refreshing subtlety. The support Jens obtains from his brother is credible through the efforts of David North, while his long-suffering partner becomes increasingly interesting in the capable hands of Katy Daghorn.

While the characters aren’t badly written, and are certainly well performed, the play’s structure is messy and there are too many questionable decisions along the way. Things are fine when we’re confined to Jens’ workshop/garage – his world is, by turns, entertaining and moving. But nearly all the other scenes are tacked on, a couple feel like sketches written for something else, and the cast are overwhelmed with extra roles that go nowhere. The action meanders and the conclusion is poor. You can bet that what the super suit should look like was a subject of debate with designer Sophia Pardon and the outcome is funny. But Neck or Nothing would feel much fuller if Jens had just a little more credibility and, as a result, his family more reason to indulge him. Pardon’s video projections, scenes from films and the bears that are the focus of Jens’ fears, are far more effective, but the show relies too heavily on them. It’s admirable that they provide structure and insight, but it’s unfortunate that they also highlight the script’s flaws.

Until 4 May 2019

www.pleasance.co.uk

Photo by Veronika Casarova

“Call Me Vicky” at the Pleasance Theatre 

Representation on stage has its own affirming power. Identifying with characters in a play can be special and it’s sincerely hoped that Nicola and Stacey Victoria Bland’s story of a young transsexual satisfies a target audience. The value of the endeavour isn’t under question, but its execution is regrettably flawed.

Taking the title role, Matt Greenwood gives a credible performance that powers the show. And there’s admirable support from Nicola Bland as best friend Debbie. But the rest of the cast are hampered by clichéd dialogue, especially poor Wendi Peters whose salt-of-the-earth mum character is an embarrassment – she literally has a lap tray of pie and mash at one point. Meanwhile, Fat Pearl, host of the seedy club Vicky ends up living in, makes a very uncomfortable role for Ben Welch. It’s not clear how much exploitation of the vulnerable staff is going on. And what self-respecting drag queen has only one pair of shoes? Nobody is helped by Victoria Gimby’s fussy direction, while the use of the space is poor and there’s far too much running around carrying drinks. 

Welch manages to get the crowd going despite his material. But hasn’t an important issue been lost? Drag queens and the trans community are not always happy fellow travellers – it’s puzzling that this isn’t raised. And similar oversights run throughout the play, becoming increasingly frustrating. Maybe it’s because there is so much going on: substance abuse, prostitution, police prejudice and Vicky’s horrific imprisonment. All are rushed through at terrific speed with short scenes and sloshy sentiment thrown in – one character (admirably performed by Stacey Victoria Bland) dies of an overdose with only the most basic back story.

Ironically, all this pushes the story of Vicky’s transition aside, as it does another subplot that really suffers – a burgeoning love story with a punk rocker, played tenderly by Adam Young, that is yearning to be fleshed out. That the events are based on a true story is certainly awful – but bringing them to the stage needs more of an effort. This is a debut piece and, in a rush to bear witness to events, too many sacrifices have been made to characters and even comprehension – it’s difficult to keep track of events as trauma after trauma occurs and the impact of each is unexplored. The aim may be laudable, but the play is not.

Until 9 March 2019

www.pleasance.co.uk

Photo by Fabio Santos

“In Lipstick” at the Pleasance Theatre

You might want some quiet time after Annie Jenkins’ new play. That it creates a need to pause for thought is the first recommendation for this high quality show. A modest story of two troubled women, whose relationship is disrupted when one starts an affair with a colleague, Jenkins aims for a fresh look at family and offers insight into safety, security and love.

The bizarre bond between housemates Cynthia and the older Maud is both disquieting and reassuring – a powerful observation on intense affection. The younger is an agoraphobic insomniac and the other a former victim of domestic abuse with an alcohol problem, so you’d expect the play to be grim. But the couple have moments of blissful abandon, with their “songs and stories” containing “glitter and sparkle”, as they perform Shirley Bassey songs and eat chicken nuggets. They’ve been happy in their isolated world. Yet as Maud begins her affair with Dennis, who we learn has his own demons, a sense of threat grows.

The trio of characters benefit from sterling depictions by the talented cast. Caroline Faber and James Doherty play the middle aged couple to perfection in their awkward courting scenes. Faber’s work alongside Cynthia is just as strong; a mix of maternal exasperation and tenderness with a touch of fear. As Cynthia, Alice Sykes gives a phenomenally committed performance establishing the complex vulnerability of the role from the start, always maintaining intrigue; the glimpse of her applying lipstick through her tears is tremendously powerful.

For all the praise that the performers deserve, the characters never quite convince. The dialogue feels contrived, not just the stories told but the obsession with facts that reflects a search for stability. There is a literary feel to the play that shows unquestionable promise on Jenkins part but is also studied. Situations are both banal and extraordinary so there’s a conflict between motivations that aren’t entirely credible yet a show that works overall. The biggest accolade should go to director Alice Hamilton whose work ensures the production’s success. Using a revolving stage and plenty of incidental music, the play is paced bravely showing confidence and giving the audience time to absorb. The atmosphere Hamilton creates perfectly complements the play. With a manic final scene the tempo escalates thereby increasing the shock of events and leaving the piece’s culminating cry for help as a forlorn moment of theatrical potency.

Until 27 January 2019

www.pleasance.co.uk

Photo by Ali Wright

“Tobacco Road” at the Pleasance Theatre

Part of the Caledonian Express season that brings highlights of the Edinburgh Festival to London, Incognito Theatre’s tale of London gangs in the 1920s is hugely entertaining.

It’s a story of self-proclaimed “scum” in South London rising up the ladder of the criminal underworld. The piece is devised by the company and careful preparation has resulted in characters all successfully delineated. There’s a touch of the committee about the plot, which is sometimes predictable, but it is always engaging. The biggest twist is to include two women, Freda and Elsie, admirably performed by Atlanta Hayward and Jennie Eggleton, whose reputation for violence is never questioned. Joining forces with a trio of friends, Alfie and Tommy, driven by the ambitious Felix, they make a formidable five. In the male roles, Angus Castle-Doughty, Alex Maxwell and George John work exceptionally well together. An interesting undercurrent between them all is the aftermath of the First World War, ripe for further exploration.

The dialogue is occasionally clunky, a lot of historical background is added clumsily. But the physicality that the company brings to the stage makes up for any shortcomings; these crooks start out slap stick and become menacingly slick. Aided by Roberta Zuric’s direction, and choreographer Zak Nemorin,with only tea chests and a rope for props, the show is atmospheric and exciting. Castle-Doughty is particularly strong in a boxing scene; indeed several fight scenes are handled well by all. As the gang’s success brings on drunken reveling, it is the performers’ skill with movement that conveys a sense of hedonistic escape carrying danger with it.

The ending is not satisfying. It’s clear the gang is trapped in their lifestyle, which makes a morality tale of sorts, but the conclusion arrives too abruptly; cliff-hangers seldom work well in theatre. When the houselights come up, it’s a shock and a shame. But ending the story too soon goes to show how engrossing Tobacco Road is – addictive and well performed, go see.

Until 17 November 2018

www.pleasance.co.uk

Photo by Tim Hall

“Freeman” at the Pleasance Theatre

Mental health and criminal justice are big topics. Add racism, then try to explore the links between all three, and any endeavour risks overreaching itself. To avoid this danger, the intelligent approach from the Strictly Arts Theatre company is a documentary one that benefits from unwavering intensity. Freeman presents facts – painful and disturbing – in a furious fashion.

The show’s ambition is all the more remarkable given that it takes in 200 years of history. Centring on the story of the first African American who pled insanity for a crime, we see cases where the care of those suffering from mental illness is exacerbated by racism right up to the present day. Presentation is the key, tightly controlled by director Danièle Sander and executed with conviction by an amazing cast. The text, devised with writer Camilla Whitehill, is full of calm moments, contrasting with a physicality that is often frightening. There’s a lot of dance – movement encapsulates violence and death – with clever lighting and subtle projections.

Williams Freeman, who gives the play its title, was a 19th-century slave who was wrongfully imprisoned and beaten so badly in jail it brain damaged him. Corey Campbell takes the part with skill, retaining sympathy despite the horrific, literally insane, revenge Freeman took on an innocent family. Freeman’s defence argument was based on the Daniel M’naghten rules, and the point is made that such a consideration was offered to a white man first. Taking on the M’naghten role alongside that of Freeman’s lawyer (and various other racists) gives Pip Barclay the chance to shine.

Acting as a litany for six tragic figures, with each story the whole cast responds as a team, playing smaller parts or using their bodies as props. It seems important to name the other four, too. The story of Sandra Bland is performed by Kimisha Lewis, who conveys the escalating situation of an arrest marvellously. And Michael Bailey, David Oluwale and Sarah Reed form a trio of British sufferers of poor mental health, each portrayed with finesse as well as passion by Keiren Amos, Marcel White and Aimee Powell. If there’s a fault, these other stories aren’t given enough time. The show comes in at under an hour, while each could justify a whole play. More detail is often called for. Freeman is effective, moving and informative, but it would be good if there were more of it.

Until 21 October 2018

www.pleasance.co.uk

Photo by Richard Kiely

“A Gym Thing” at the Pleasance Theatre

As the humour in Tom Vallen’s play shows, it’s temptingly easy to make fun of the idea that someone can be addicted to exercise. Along with being such a baffling notion to most of us, the macho rituals surrounding a workout create plenty of smiles. But Vallen aims to use the jokes pointedly in his serious play. Sponsored by the Body Dismorphic Disorder Foundation, this is a dramatic look at a psychological problem with tragic consequences that’s thought-provoking and important.

As a writing debut the piece is modest but sound. A slightly too speedy journey into body dysmorphia, with little grounding and only suggested explanations, is documented rather than explored. Another debut, as director, from Philip Scott-Wallace is more assured with the cast thoroughly drilled and their comings and goings choreographed nicely. Undoubtedly, Vallen has written a brilliant showcase for his acting talent as he takes the central role of Will. His physicality in the piece is sure to impress while the descent into anxiety is meticulously delivered.

Vallen’s co-stars also do well. Jennifer Brooke fleshes out her role as Will’s girlfriend Rebecca remarkably, suggesting the real woman beyond Will’s romantic ideas. As Will’s womanising gym buddy, a character of surprising depth, and then Rebecca’s colleague, Gabriel Akuwudike makes the most of two chances to impress, skipping between the roles to great effect. Showing the impact on friends and loved ones of such a damaging mental health condition is a sobering addition. There is a notable lack of sympathy for the play’s once amiable lead, who turns psychotic so abruptly, that gives the play dramatic bite.

Until 13 May 2018

www.pleasance.co.uk

Photo by Boris Mitkov