Tag Archives: Soho Theatre

“Shedding a Skin” at the Soho Theatre

EM Forster fans, as I am, are sure to adore Amanda Wilkin’s play. The story of Myah’s journey to find herself and a place in her community has a broad appeal reminiscent of Forster’s dictum to “only connect”. Like the novelist Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Wilkin adopts the maxim to our own times and uses it for her purposes. What good company Wilkin keeps.

To be clear, Shedding a Skin had me hooked before the thought of Forster entered my head. Myah is a great creation from the start. As her “triad” of work, love and home collapses – seeing her storm out of a “corporate hell hole” in style, and end her relationship and tenancy – it’s impossible not to feel empathy for her troubles. Especially when all problems are related with a great sense of humour.

Plenty of Myah’s appeal comes from the fantastic performance Wilkin herself gives. Embodying the “bit of a nerd”, who giggles too loudly and overshares, with such charm, her firm comedic skill and strong stage presence hold the attention. This is a relatively long monologue that really speeds by.

Surprisingly, Myah isn’t even the heroine of the show. Her new flat mate, the elderly Mildred, is carefully depicted and becomes a tangible presence. Dealing with a card of “house rules” and plenty of forthright opinions provides laughs. And, as the story unfolds, Mildred is developed marvellously – from a figure that reminds Myah of her childhood into someone who connects her to heritage and community. What could have been just a foil becomes an inspiration.

Further reasons for the success of this Verity Bargate Award-winning script are down to Elayce Ismail’s firm direction – the show’s pace is strong without feeling rushed – and Rosanna Vize’s clever set of blinds and fabrics that are slowly stripped away. Shedding – mostly of expectations it seems – sounds painful, but is made celebratory by the production.

Short voiceovers punctuate Myah’s narrative, retelling instances of resolution and defiance in different parts of the world. Certainly evocative, coming progressively closer geographically to the action on stage, the additions are arguably unnecessary. Myah and the deep truths that Wilkin appreciates are enough for me. The search for connections and empathy between generations, races and sexualities is a stirring endeavour that had me in happy tears by the end of the show.

Until 17 July with a live streamed performance on the 15th July 2021

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Helen Murray

“Typical” from the Soho Theatre

Based on real events, Ryan Calais Cameron’s play about the death of a Black man in police custody is powerful and important. Even the suggestion that such events deserve the show’s title is stirring. As for the work of director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour and her star Richard Blackwood – it is exemplary.

The poetry of Typical is key to the show’s success – it sold out at the Edinburgh Festival and received rave reviews on its London transfer. Cameron’s ability with words deserves further antonyms to his play’s title. And Blackwood’s delivery of the script is a revelation – in this specially filmed version, he handles rhythm with at first playfulness and then power. Also excellent is the show’s pacing, which Osei-Kuffour and her camera crew do so well with, ensuring every minute of this hour-long performance is essential.

Time is taken to establish Blackwood’s character. In his engaging performance, we come to know a man who jokes that he is “a hazard”. He’s got bad taste in music and good ideas about the design of a toaster. Appealing and believable, his plans for a night out and learning about his friends and family are endearing.

It doesn’t take long before attempts to have fun go wrong. The fact that there’s no plot spoiler here is depressing… but the drama still works. Indeed, tension mounts as our hero – and that’s the best word – struggles to keep his cool in the face of ‘casual’ racism that becomes violent. It would be good if the woman we meet had more personality, but Cameron makes a point about the sexual stereotypes that surround black men concisely and powerfully.

A subsequent fight and then encounter with the police (all the more frustrating as it takes place in a hospital) brings us to a final third. It’s a section that deserves the trigger warning that comes with the show. It is a further tribute to Blackwood that it is physically uncomfortable to watch. Inspired by events surrounding a former paratrooper who died in 1998, Typical is dedicated to Christopher Alder. This outstanding show serves as a moving tribute to him and the many more men and women who have died in police custody.

www.sohotheatreondemand.com

Photo by Franklyn Rogers

“What Girls Are Made Of” at the Soho Theatre

Many dream of being a rock star at some point in their youth but for Cora Bissett, when just out of school in Fife, it actually happened. Her band, Darlingheart, had a contract and backed big Britpop names…for a short time at least. This play looks back at that success, and its consequences, using Bissett’s diaries. With the help of musicians Emma Smith, Simon Donaldson and Harry Ward, who brilliantly take on cameo roles as well as accompanying her, Bissett sings and narrates her biography like a true star.

It turns out that the big break came at a high cost. And since this is real life on stage, the price is prosaic and predictable; the band work hard and are ripped off. They split up and attempts at a new direction for Bissett fail; she ends up broke and busking, feeling a failure twice over. This is not a new tale for creative folk. And Bissett’s own editing, alighting on moments of personal significance, leads to a disjointed feel to the action that could be fine tuned. Thankfully, Bissett’s telling saves the show. With some neat theatrical touches from director Orlan O’Loughlin, and strong sound design from Michael John McCarthy, the winning tone throughout is of warmth and honesty; mistakes so freely admitted are easy to forgive.

While Bissett’s aim to is explain what made her the woman she is today – her family as much as her career, a task achieved with moving integrity – we could do with seeing more of her in the present. The more recent story of her finding love and being a mother as well as taking control of her creativity could be elaborated on. For the truth is that Bissett gets more interesting as she grows up. Less of the nostalgia and more of what she she wants for her and her child’s future would be welcome. The success of the show at the Edinburgh Festival and a world tour show that Bissett has enormous appeal as a performer. As the rousing final number proves, forget young dreams;  it’s right now that Bissett is really cool.

Until 28 September 2019

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic

“Tumulus”at the Soho Theatre

Theatre can never have enough thrillers for my liking so playwright Christopher Adams’ trip into my favourite genre is welcome. Setting his murder mystery amidst the sleazy ‘chem sex’ scene makes it topical. Touching themes of addiction and ageism make it serious. And movement director Natasha Harrison’s work should please a theatre crowd. But at heart Tumulus is a good thriller; with a solid plot, that unfolds nicely, and satisfying twists and turns, it makes for a hugely entertaining hour.

Let’s not knock the show’s arty touches. Sound effects are mostly provided by the cast – radio drama style – while minimal props are moved around balletically. It all adds atmosphere, by turns appropriately noirish and drug induced, as well as giving the cast a chance to shine. And director Matt Steinberg never allows the powerful sound and lighting design (from Christopher Nairne and Nick Manning respectively) to overwhelm the story. A dead body has been found on Hampstead Heath, dismissed by all as an overdose – part of an epidemic affecting young gay men – but the victim’s kind-of-boyfriend, Anthony, has his suspicions.

Harry Lister Smith

The clever twist lies with our unusual amateur detective who drives the show with his narration. Anthony, played with vigour and intelligence by Ciarán Owens, has demons and flaws as all sleuthing heroes must and they are depicted viscerally here. Addicted to drugs, slowly realizing how much the young man he was occasionally seeing meant to him, hallucinations are the instigation to his investigation. Ghostly visitations add a spooky edge to the show, made effective by the performance from Harry Lister Smith. He plays the ghost of the first victim, another former partner of Antony’s and a further young man in danger, flipping roles with consummate skill. The same technique, and ability, is seen with Ian Hallard’s performance of even more characters as he jumps between being a therapist, different party guests and even a dog walker who found the body. Hallard distinguishes each role carefully and makes the whole thing look effortless thereby aiding Steinberg’s success in keeping the whole show tight and speedy.

Ian Hallard

There’s still more to praise as Tumulus is also a funny play. Humour and suspense are a tricky combination and Adams does falter at times with a little too much repetition and a search for lyricism he doesn’t quite master. But with keen observations the laughs focusing on London life, which nicely root the action in time and place, are impressive. Hallard has some lovely comic touches and Owens a wryness around his character’s pretentions that adds depth. This take on the gumshoe anti-hero is compulsive stuff with careful nods to tradition that prove witty as well as aiding tension. Adams has a thorough knowledge of the genre – that includes the necessity for novelty – and he delivers. On all counts Tumulus adds up a great show.

Until 4 May 2019

www.sohotheatre.com

Photos by Darren Bell

“Fabric” at the Soho Theatre

Abi Zakarian’s play is truly exciting – this is theatre that believes it can change minds and lives. Bravo, Damsel Productions! But let’s not forget that facilitating this is a behind-the-scenes team of considerable talent. The care taken to develop characters, on and off-stage, the precise plotting and structure – this is how you write a play – and Hannah Hauer-King’s direction are all impeccable. The solo performer, Nancy Sullivan, astounds with her passion and physicality… but don’t forget the technical ability it takes to cry your eyes out and not lose a line. Applause, please, for the craft on offer here.

Zakarian’s skill is to see a big picture and make her play of one woman’s story so thoroughly contextualised. This is the Holy Grail for many a political writer, and notoriously difficult. But with control and attention, which Hauer-King consistently nurtures, we understand that the title is inspired by the fabric of society. The structure of female lives, shaped and prepared for abuse, are the weft and warp we see woven before us in a depiction of systemic misogyny. To crib from Rozsika Parker, Zakarian creates a subversive tapestry for our consideration.

We follow Leah from her courtship through to marriage and then to a court case where she tries to prosecute her husband’s friend after he rapes her. But this final traumatic scene, depressing in its predictable futility, is presaged with drama and intelligence. The sickening moments of Leah in the witness box – when she comes into the audience itself – are a culmination of how she has been treated all along. There’s an uncomfortable link to the indebtedness her own family and mother-in-law expect her to feel at having found an eligible bachelor. And there’s a traumatic wedding night with her new husband that is very difficult to watch. The journey is handled adroitly. After presenting a gorgeously bubbly and endearing character at first, Sullivan deepens Leah’s appeal with great observations and carefully balanced humour. Yet voiceovers alert us that something has gone wrong, and tension mounts ferociously.

Rips, tears and bodily fluids stain the perfect life Leah aims for, using dresses she wears on key occasions as metaphors, building a sense of menace and highlighting that, for women, presentation becomes a constant burden. As Leah’s life unravels, how the pressures and punishments of expectations and prejudice enwrap her become literal; her clothing is used as evidence in court. Fabric reports on the state of things with magnificent insight. But there is, thankfully, an optimism in the ability to unpick and expose, as the talented women who have made this play have done. With threads loosened, there is the chance to breath and await what will be woven anew.

Until 22 September 2018

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by The Other Richard

“Underground Railroad Game” at the Soho Theatre

It’s often claimed that New York theatre critics have more power than their London counterparts. That Ben Brantley and Jesse Green included this piece in a list of best American plays in the last quarter century should have you putting on your trainers and running up Dean Street. Created and performed by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard Underground Railroad Game is a real original that examines racism and history by making the audience laugh and squirm in turn. Confrontation and explicit content are balanced by insight and humility. Best of all, it’s eminently theatrical – no other medium could produce the same effect. It’s nice when reviewers get it right.

The idea is that the audience are US school children attending classes about the American Civil War, learning about slavery and the eponymous escape route set up by Abolitionists at the same time. The teachers holding the class use performance and a level of enthusiasm that beggars belief. If it’s years since you’ve been in a classroom, this one is barely recognisable (for a UK audience, the spinning jenny and land enclosure just couldn’t lend themselves to such dramatics), as we are encouraged to cheer and sing along. But Kidwell and Sheppard create joyously endearing characters and make these sections fun. There’s a degree of sweet naivety behind this sharp satire that leads to great comedy.

The Audience Participation in the show (so dreaded it deserves capital letters) needs to be mentioned. Not just because it’s a personal phobia but since in a sense a London audience isn’t seeing the show at its best. Soho Theatre is a great choice of venue, but even here a UK crowd likes a fourth wall. I’ll own up to being bad at joining in… anything embarrassing, and I study my shoes. It’s a pity, as Sheppard in particular is superb at dealing with the crowd, but his is a masterclass that just isn’t welcome. Furthermore, the play is culturally specific – that’s not a fault, the writing is precise and articulate. But the effort serves, inadvertently, to remind us of our distance from our American cousins. It’s fascinating but less potent than it would be for the makers’ home crowd.

There is much more to Underground Railroad Gamethan a spoof exercise in education. To make sure the legacy of history is clear, Kidwell and Sheppard’s characters begin a romance that doesn’t just comment on race today, but is infused by it. Again, there are some sweet moments and some very funny ones, mostly from male crassness. But as the couple’s affair spills into and takes over their class presentations – it’s brilliantly disorientating – making us question the role of exhibitionism, there are some very uncomfortable scenes. Taibi Magar’s direction helps here – the show is boldly paced with long pauses that build tension.

Kidwell’s teacher takes the part of a slave woman in a visually arresting tableau that shows the power of racial stereotypes in sexual fantasies. This is a bold statement to make, and such powerful honesty is truly inspiring. From here we’ve enough faith in Kidwell and Sheppard’s integrity to know a scene will arrive that objectifies the white male body in turn. Cue a fantasia of “sexual detention” where Teacher Caroline strips Teacher Stuart and uses a ruler on him. And the uncomfortable truth is that, yes, his nudity is more shocking than hers. Point proved. The bravery of both scenes from the performers is remarkable and they are superbly acted. It’s testament that such explicit elements are thought provoking rather than just shocking. And you get to check if your shoes need polishing.

Until 13 October 2018

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Aly Wight

“The One” at the Soho Theatre

While this revival of Vicky Jones’ 2014 play may well offer insight into fast-evolving sexual politics, a piece this strong needs no excuse to be staged again and again. This intelligently written relationship drama is as funny as it is dramatic – and remarkably brave, as well as frank, in addressing the power dynamics between those in love.

Harry and Jo’s affair serves as the battleground to examine some pretty dark fantasies and fears. It would be too easy to say they are dysfunctional; even though we are provided with a foil in Harry’s besotted friend Kerry, expertly depicted by Julia Sandiford, presented as the woman he should really be with. Though they’re viciously cruel to one another, playing with the vulnerabilities partners know most about, we believe that Harry and Jo believe that their love is “above the rules”. And we come to pity them for their “kind of funny, kind of sad” state.

Jones is careful to make this conflict between man and woman even handed, it would make pretty poor drama otherwise. But Harry is not a likeable figure. While not a stereotype, his sexual hang-ups are tiresomely predictable and his mansplaining is fuelled by having shacked up with a former student. He doesn’t even understand his power or privilege and The One is clear that such ignorance is no excuse. But he isn’t a villain and John Hopkins, who takes the part, works admirably well to make this clear.

Jo is the kind of blissful breath of fresh air for female characters that has brought Jones and her sometime collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge such success. A femme fatale who kills the thing she loves, Jo’s complex, unapologetic and far from a victim (note how little backstory she has). Playing with honesty is a dangerous game and Jo is determined to have the upper hand. Knocking down taboos like nine pins makes her exciting to watch and, frankly, exhausting, and Tuppence Middleton goes all out in the role.

Director Steve Marmion is in perfect sympathy with the fast-paced script, never failing to pause for a punchline – of which there are many – perfectly reflecting the brilliant dialogue. It is the confrontational qualities that appeal most in Jones’ story. The sexual violence and discussions of rape are not for the faint hearted, and gasp-worthy moments, arising from both humour and tension, confirm the play’s power to deal with both our most topical and universal issues. This is a play for today that has real staying power.

Until 25 August 2018

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Flesh and Bone” at the Soho Theatre

I’ve a soft spot for verse plays, so am predisposed to the “Shakespeare-inspired lyricism” in Elliot Warren’s piece about the poor in contemporary London. Such overt poeticising isn’t to all tastes, which makes it heartening to see audiences love the award-winning Flesh and Bone – making the piece literally exceptional.

Bluntly, Warren plays with syntax, adds choice quotes and puts in a lot of ‘eths. The language is blue, as well as purplish, and the invective needs to be more inventive. But you can tell the technique is well employed as it never gets tired. A gimmick? I guess. But the aim is to make us reconsider poverty and petty crime, class and gentrification, anew and the result is confrontational as well as entertaining.

Warren, with co-director and co-actor Olivia Brady (also credited with the story’s creation) have starred in a production of Steven Berkoff’s East and the influence is clear. Anthony Burgess springs to mind, with Warren’s character of Terrence reminiscent of a droog. And a scene of fighting with rats might have Philip Ridley as a source. All great stuff and well used.

You might want more plot, or at least more original story lines. Instead Flesh and Bone boasts strong monologues that have been shared out with equanimity… maybe to a fault. But all the cast members get a chance to shine.

Warren and Brady star as an onstage couple with terrific chemistry. Her role is the weakest written but the performance compensates. Similarly, strong turns from Michael Jinks and Nick T Frost, as family members, disguise that depth of character comes from skilful sleights of hand: the sex lives of both men shouldn’t really surprise us but, just in case, I won’t be a plot spoiler. The character of their neighbour Jamal is more interesting (his scene, entitled ‘Hellfire’, is one of many that makes this a script to buy) and Alessandro Babalola steals the show in the role, using his remarkable physicality and vocal skills to great effect. When the action itself isn’t original, Warren and Brady’s direction kicks in. There are few props and no scenery. Instead, the cast – working together brilliantly – shape the stage remarkably. This is first-class choreography.

Tackling the topic of inequality unfortunately results in political naivety. A sense of paranoia isn’t hard to spot. It pains me to write so contrary to the author’s intentions, but the characters are cast as victims. And yet, while the aim of giving voice to a class often denied one isn’t overwhelmingly successful, the attempt is more than laudable. These voices are alive, lusty and exciting… as well as thought-provoking. And the result is a show that’s a five star treat.

Until 21 July 2018

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by Owen Baker

“Flutter” at the Soho Theatre

Unlike plenty of pastimes, arguably including going to the theatre, gambling appeals to all ages and social groups. So a high-street betting shop has great potential as a location for drama, which Justin Hopper’s play utilises fully, if without sufficient focus. Flutter does, inevitably, deal with the topic of compulsive gambling. But its strength lies in showing a cross-section of society drawn to an unusual kind of community centre – which might make you think twice when you walk past a Ladbrokes again.

The play is predictable. Even big twists can be seen coming a long way off. There’s an interesting theme trying to get out, with several characters stuck in habits and in thrall to tradition, while betting on what might happen in the future frightens them. Rather than exploring this, Hopper develops a pedestrian drama, albeit one full of events and comedy. Flutter never quite runs smoothly enough and, regrettably, Gavin Dent’s direction doesn’t make the going any fairer, with fits and starts that are awkward.

Hopper’s crafting of characters is good, though. And Dent has produced strong work from his cast. Nicken Kotak and Abby Cassidy do well as young lovers with a storyline that’s too compressed. Shango Baku captivates as elderly regular Yankee Bob, while Richie Donaldson and Greg Snowden both play troubled characters with winning style. The storylines aren’t well developed but the characters themselves convince. Leading the way, with a modest tale of mature love, are Antonia Kemi Coker as the shop’s manager, and Mark Keegan as her most loyal punter, Dennis. Theirs is a long-standing affection waiting to blossom – admittedly sentimental but believable and moving. With them, the play’s qualities – likeable personalities and effective performances – coalesce, making it odds on you will enjoy the show.

Until 16 June 2018

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by JMK Productions

“Fury” at the Soho Theatre

Damsel Productions’ third show confirms that this young team can pick a great play. And that co-founder/director Hannah Hauer-King is a confident, fresh talent. An intelligent interaction with the story of Medea, achingly contemporary and set on a South London council estate, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s script has a brave lyricism and the production is gut-wrenchingly gripping.

There are more topical concerns here than you can shake a stick at: gentrification, a clash of classes and the collapse of the welfare state. Yet there’s no trace of ticking boxes, rather a sincere wish to question the demonisation of a “terrified and lonely” single mother. Sarah Ridgeway takes the main role, a performance magically more than the sum of its parts, made intense by the play’s aim of “showing us the pieces of her life”.

An Argonaut is notably absent here. Instead there’s an upstairs neighbour, a student called Tom who comes to dominate and abuse. The role is perhaps the play’s weakest link as he’s too creepy from the start, besides the fact that anyone at college who hires a cleaner is suspect. Thankfully, when a truly evil side is shown, Hauer-King has established enough momentum for Alex Austin to shine in the part.

Eclair-Powell’s most fruitful synthesis from Euripides is the reconfiguration of the Greek chorus. Performed by a talented trio, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Daniel Kendrick and Anita-Joy Uwajeh, they are beautifully choreographed and their singing sounds great. They do so much: shaping action and interpretation, by turns interrogatory, accusatory and sympathetic. Adopting secondary characters roots us in the real world and ensures Fury is stimulatingly layered.

Towards the bloody finale, the chorus appear as social workers. This Medea’s revenge and desperation is not focused on a single man. Casting her net as wide as can be, Eclair-Powell’s ambition is brilliantly refocused – it isn’t just one woman’s life we see on stage but our whole society.

Until 30 July 2016

www.sohotheatre.com

Photo by The Other Richard