Tag Archives: Shoreditch Town Hall

“The Claim” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Tim Cowbury’s play tackles the topic of asylum seekers with intelligence and a beguiling sense of humour.

Following one claimant called Serge, the smart stroke is to play with language difficulties. Lumbered with a poor translator, confusion proliferates over Serge’s arrival in the UK and his motivation for staying. Working with often painfully funny material, the talented cast members bring clarity, whether characters are struggling to communicate in English or in French, with a skill that complements the playwright’s games with language.

The bigger theme is that Serge’s story isn’t the one his interviewers want to hear. In a careful twist, his life is “ordinary”. He has a home and a job and arrived in the UK for reasons he simply doesn’t understand. It’s a bold move for a playwright to underplay the drama with the mundane – and you couldn’t call The Claim gripping. Yet Ncuti Gatwa makes our everyday hero a figure who commands respect: when tears come, they are out of a controlled frustration.

Sadly, Cowbury stumbles with his two officials in search of a more dramatic backstory. There’s nothing wrong with the performances from Yusra Warsama and Nick Blakeley – both are thoughtful and creative actors – but Blakeley’s hapless interpreter can barely put a foot right, and the part comes close to old-fashioned Liberal bashing. Warsama’s intriguing role needs more material if Cowbury is to persuade us of the “fixed process” of a system more concerned with narrative than the truth.

Mark Maughan’s direction has a calm confidence befitting the play. The municipal setting of Shoreditch Town Hall helps, too. Characters frequently address the audience, a technique seldom as unnerving as it is intended to be, but the intention to provoke is admirable and the play’s fresh approach is welcome.

Until 26 January, then on UK tour.


Photo by Paul Samuel White

“Killer” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Here’s a combination to die for: a favourite writer, Philip Ridley, with one of the most exciting directors around, Jamie Lloyd. It’s a team that makes sense, full of irreverence and a keen intelligence. I’m guessing Lloyd is a long-term fan, excited by the chance to direct a revival of Ridley’s first hit, The Pitchfork Disney, alongside this latest piece. Killer is a short work, with a touch more whimsy than we might expect, but Ridley’s brilliant lyricism and imagination are in full flow. Using clever ‘binaural’ headphones, worn by the audience throughout, adds an immersive angle that should increase the show’s appeal even further.

The piece is a trilogy of tales of the unexpected; the theme of killing is loosely applied – metamorphosis just as much a focus, with people changing both consciously and miraculously. From gangland initiations, mass murderers and a man on the run from a psychopath, it’s Ridley’s inimitable humour that excites. The way he plays with genres shows a skill that many aspire to. Making the most basic stuff of fiction original again, the insane sounds sensible and nightmares funny. The voices we hear in all three monologues are from John MacMillan. We only get to see him twice, crouched over as we enter the first basement space, and a glimpse of him as a desperate man in the finale, but the voices he creates in our head complement the vivid imagery of the text. Technology aside, Macmillan’s performance is astonishing.

With a script this strong and this well delivered you might question the need for the headphones and a damp basement location that smells a bit. Yet the technology works well and is well used, with admirable restraint. Combined with pitch-black darkness and spooky lighting (Azusa Ono), there are genuinely scary moments – it’s good to have someone to hold hands with. Even odder is half hearing, over your headphones, a room full of people laughing like drains at some very funny lines as our author applies the admirable art of allusive alliteration. Ridley’s writing is strong enough to immerse us all by itself.

Until 8 April 2017


Photo by Matt Humphrey

“Grimm Tales” at Shoreditch Town Hall

The trend for immersive theatre reaches new heights in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall with Grimm Tales, which opened last night. Based on Philip Pullman’s recent retellings, adapted and directed by Philip Wilson, a small audience is taken around magically transformed spaces to experience the stories anew and undertake a journey of our own. Pullman’s fame should secure the show’s success, while Wilson’s theatrical creativity makes this a night to remember.

Five tales are tackled, from the well-known Red Riding Hood to the (to me) more obscure Hans-My-Hedgehog. Bizarre and macabre touches are preserved, expanded even, with a gleeful sense of humour. Following Pullman’s text, the storytelling is wonderfully clear. Unlike some theatre that takes on the immersive label, this evening never baffles and only satisfies. The stories have a rewarding personal resonance and make full use of the audience’s own imagination.

The cast, billed as The Storytellers, is impressive. Taking on a variety of roles, the players are constantly engaging and keep up a terrific pace. Simon Wegrzyn is particularly impressive as both the wolf and the eponymous Hedgehog Boy. And James Byng gets to show off his considerable skill as a puppeteer. Any bedtime story you might read will pale in comparison with the hard work going on here.

It’s the detail that makes the night. The set and costume designs by Tom Rogers are a marvel, with each room you arrive in a wonder of sights and smells. The aesthetic is lo-fi with a bricolage feel adding to the atmosphere of the location. Don’t be fooled though; the make-do-and-mend touches show off the sheer invention of the staging born from intelligence and experience. An umbrella turned into a bird was a personal favourite, but the theatrical touches are a continual delight.

I am sure that children would love Grimm Tales (eight years upwards is the recommendation) but I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t leap at the chance to run around in this world. The evening concludes with the chance to do just that, as other rooms, potential stories that have been tantalisingly glanced at as you move around, can be explored. The seven dwarfs’ dormitory made me laugh out loud. Fairytales made real – what’s not to wolf down?

Until 24 April 2014


Photo by Tom Medwell

Written 21 March 2014 for The London Magazine

“The New World Order” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Promenade theatre has been fashionable for several years now. Theatre practitioners often want us to leave our comfy auditoriums and test an audience’s dedication by taking it to new and often less salubrious locations. It’s best to be agnostic about the practice but Hydrocracker has a production of five short Harold Pinter plays, presented as The New World Order, which is worth going a long way for.

Certainly, at least as far as Shoreditch Town Hall. After being frisked and given identity cards, the audience is taken to meeting rooms and then travels down to the building’s scruffy basement, shovelling around its seemingly labyrinthine rooms. The constant theme is Pinter’s nightmarish vision of a state slipping into totalitarianism. The short plays unfold with increasing violence and fit well with the promenade format, but that is the only comfortable thing about the evening – this is powerful political theatre.

Whether The New World Order is more forceful because of this format is an open question. Director Ellie Jones does a superb job: not only in marshalling the audience (although it must help to have a cast playing soldiers who can shout at people) but also in maintaining tension, atmosphere and linking the scenes. Nonetheless, the complicity with the soldiers that is hinted at can’t really grow. You are given the chance to try and help one of those held prisoner but few will, not because they are unfeeling, but for fear of disrupting the performance. Putting actors into the audience never really works – you can sense them a mile off! And while the often incredibly close proximity to the action is intense, it can be intimidating which, sadly, stifles Pinter’s savage humour.

Jones’ direction is impressive because she appreciates the urgency of Pinter’s late political writing. As a recent production at The Print Room demonstrated, these plays are strong enough to be performed with minimal sets, and Jones anchors her work in the script, bringing out a stringent performance from Hugh Ross, who plays the terrifying Minister of Cultural Integrity, and a small but remarkable cameo from Jane Wood. And Jones has a final trick up her sleeve: as one of the victims is released, the audience follows him into the night. This denies the cast its well-deserved applause, yet provokes thought on the long journey home.

Until 11 December 2011


Photo by Matthew Andrews

Written 21 November 2011 for The London Magazine