There are quite a few shows about maternal relationships at the Fringe this year, many of them about how our mothers f**k us up. None I’ve seen is told with as much compassion as Isabelle Kabban’s story about living with a mother with bipolar.
There’s almost so much love and compassion here that there’s little room left for grit as Kabban recounts tales of her mum throwing trifle at her friend when she was fourteen and conversations when her mum feels judged by her as a late teen, while she spoons day-old spaghetti into her mouth, having not washed for three days.
It’s a simple, tenderly told show where Kabban’s distress is expressed through arm-wringing gestures set to heavy metal music and struggles through scenes in which her mother becomes increasingly distant and impassive. (Kabban pays her mother as being nearly emotionless, with a blank expressionless face).
She falls back on the trope of talking to a therapist to reveal the trauma that her mother caused and frustration about not being able to ‘fix’ her. But while the show doesn’t seem particularly original, Kabban’s performance is sincere and heartfelt and she is magnetically watchable.
Do Our Best, Underbelly Cowgate
(4 / 5)
Supremely confident Sephy can deal with anything, including the challenges of being in the girl guides, bullying and badge-winning. She’s attempting to win her performers and entertainers badge for the fourth time running, aged 30 – and we are treated to a rather long preamble about how devastatingly wonderful this performance will be before we discover the heartache behind her egotistical facade.
Remy Beasley writes and performs this clever show in which the sanctuary of the girl guides is a shelter from the desolation Sephy feels at the loss of her mother. The writing only gets better as the play progresses and Sephy’s supreme egotism ebbs away to reveal a lost girl looking for a hug in all the wrong places.
Remy Beasley is a mischievous performer, who seems to love making her audience squirm. She insults and manipulates key audience members with a knowing twinkle in her eye as she weaves a story about the keenly felt embarrassments of childhood. It’s funny and painful and beautiful and disastrous – and well worth an hour of your time.
A beautiful contemporary dance piece about miscarriage which with deft simplicity spans three generations of family and meditates on the stories not shared between families and lives unlived but still full imagined by those suffering from the loss of them.
Scene changes are denoted by a large off-white cloth, swept over the characters, who in seconds beneath the fabric, morph and age seamlessly. A toddling boy grows to adulthood and fathers his own child before our eyes. A girl meets a man, falls in love and gives birth with deceptively simple gestures – there is virtually no dialogue. The story becomes circular as parents raise children who raise children who become their parents, which might be intentional or not, but it made me think about reincarnation, maybe there was a subtle nod to the idea of every human feeling loss and pain and every birth being the result of generations of care and survival. It takes A village to raise a child and a village to mourn one.
Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein – Underbelly – McEwan Hall
(4 / 5)
A moving, well-polished, inventive production using projection screens, puppets, live music and mime to elegantly tell a story about Frankenstein’s monster and author Mary Shelley’s inspiration behind her gothic masterpiece.
Overhead projectors have never been this exciting before – they are about five of them in a row, each manned by a performer, and switched with balletic choreography from one to the next with moving slides which appear on a projection screen like live animation. Each image is wrought with precision – from Mary Shelley’s silhouetted forelock to the monster’s ‘watery eye’. These seamlessly switch to and from the actors so a silhouette made of paper on the overhead projector blends into scenes with actors silhouetted behind a screen.
Part of the fascination for the viewer is having all the moving parts laid out on the stage – you can see the performers creating misty morning landscapes by flickering their hands above the OHPs you can watch the flautist and the drums being played – you can see the actors floating intricately cut cardboard props behind the screen – yet none of this detracts from the central story.
Best of all, the tenderly told story of a human-like creature born into a world he doesn’t understand and which views him as monstrous is leant fresh pathos by an adorable malformed puppet whose attempts to make a basic human connection are thwarted at every turn.
The production is so slick and utterly unique, it’s a real marvel to behold.
America is Hard to See, Underbelly Cowgate
(4 / 5)
Set within the sugar cane fields of rural Florida, in the town of Miracle village, three miles east of Pahokee is a small community. The show begins with the actors, portraying the real-life inhabitants asking why anyone is interested in their small little town, with its cute little chapel and its God-fearing country folk (population 200)?
Theatre makers Life Jacket Theatre were interested because Florida’s enforcement laws have resulted in Miracle Village becoming almost entirely populated by sex offenders. The show interviews the ones whose victims were minors; children.
This community slowly became accepted by a local pastor, Patti, from Pahokee, who encouraged the men to join the choir. Turns out they sing like angels.
There are verbatim transcripts with characters explaining how Chad, the school teacher felt a deep connection with his 15-year-old pupil, how Chris was aghast to find his girlfriend was under-age.
A response from Chad’s victim, who it appears contacted the theatre company – is minimised to just one line: ‘He ruined my life’, and then we see Chad, disarmingly awkward, making sarcastic jokes about going to a Christian pray the gay away camp and playing piano in the Pajokee church choir.
Redemption through prayer and church song is a key theme. Chris and his new girlfriend, who is the progressive pastor’s daughter have a love song constucted around the real-life characters interviews, about young love and the frustrations when Chris breaks his parole agreement and returns to jail.
The quality of music and singing is very good – the lyrics are so-so – there are constructed from fragments of what real people have said. One is about a tour around a local sugarcane plant, which the performers try their best to infuse with fury but its still a tour around a sugar cane plant set to music. I’m not sure why this made the cut.
It feels like the agenda of the theatre group was to show the human-ness, the guilt, the grief, the mental torture that some of those in this community go through. With only court transcripts to present an alternative view of what really went on.
I find myself frequently asking why this subject. Why give a voice to a community of paedophiles? it makes for interesting theatre, but as a journalist I have to question the ethics of focusing a piece of work on the criminals and leaving their victims in the shadows.
I am very late to the Fringe this year. I usually go early early, when the 2for1s are still going strong and everyone’s swapping tips and racing to discover the show of the season. Coming later in the month is a much more sedate experience. Shows have been sifted and settled by critics, awards given out; every show knows its place in the critical pecking order and there’s no pressure that you might make or break a play’s chances of success by giving it its first review. There’s an air of calm acceptance muddled with bouts of end-of-Fringe hysteria. It’s lovely. I’m really enjoying the process of seeing things I already know will be good before I see them – and mining for any last tidbits that have so far gone unnoticed by reviewers.
There are a few reviewers, I’ve noticed, not having such a pleasant time as me. I was sat next to one guy today who is reviewing ten shows a day for his publication, all unpaid and all of which have to be turned around within 24 hours. It’s common to see reviewers frazzled, pale and broken at the Fringe, especially this late in the game. I know the practice of writing fast to tight deadlines hones your skills, but who really benefits from a hastily written review spunked out by a mind on no sleep? I’m not sure.
Anyway, I digress. Here are the treats I saw today, in the order that I saw them.
Bobby & Amy, Pleasance Courtyard, 12.45pm
(4 / 5)
This reminded me a bit of the wonderful Blackthorn by Charley Miles, which was a hit at Edinburgh last year, about two people in love, growing up and apart as the North Yorkshire town where they were born shifts over time.
Likewise, Bobby and Amy find each other as school kids, and their rural town is also threatened by the development of housing and destruction of the farmland where they like to play.
Bobby is neurologically atypical – a trope that seems to be increasingly popular ever since The Curious Incident proved that Autistic characters could be great vehicles for pathos and humour on the stage.
There’s also that rhythmic, poetic form of writing employed in this case by playwright Emily Jenkins that seems to have become a genre in itself. Characters are described in three adjectives, landscapes the same, sentences are spat out without transition words. The sun doesn’t shine, it ‘shoots’, a man who works in Bobby and Amy’s local chip shop has ‘skin like grease and breadcrumbs’. Words which seem to be chosen more for the sounds they make than the sense. Is there a school that teaches this style somewhere? I’ve heard it so many times on stage it has begun to feel like a formula. But there’s grace and charm to those words too and a moving story told with a light touch.
So the show feels like a pick’n’mix of lots of ideas that have been floating around in different forms, but it combines them in a way which is new and quite special.
Bobby (Will Howard) and Amy (Kimberley Jarvis) are both outcasts at school, they meet in the farmland around their town and spend many days playing in a folly on the local farmer’s land but when the farm’s cows are threatened by Foot and Mouth, the entire community is shaken and Bobby and Amy must make a stand.
The most impressive aspect of this show is how the actors shift through myriad characters, playing every member of the community from shopkeeps to farmers, giggling schoolgirls and government officials. But despite a town’s worth of people to juggle, the central characters are well-drawn portraits that capture the joys and heartache of childhood.
Like Animals – Summerhall, 2.15pm
(3 / 5)
This sweet, unusual show, performed and devised by real-life couple Kim Donohoe and Pete Lannon is about their worries that their love may fizzle out and also about two bizarre attempts in the Sixties and Seventies made by humans to get animals to speak.
In the Sixties, there was a NASA-funded experiment to communicate with dolphins. Margaret Lovatt lived with the dolphin Peter, all day and all night, trying to get him to replicate what she was saying. She also relived his sexual urges… manually. Kim and Pete re-enact the lessons Pete received (thankfully omitting the manual relief part) in a children’s paddling pool while wearing wet suits.
The other experiment was Alex the parrot, who learned from his teacher Dr. Irene Pepperberg, to discern the material an object was made of, its colour and shape.
While Alex was a great success story, Pete never really mastered speech. it’s difficult to talk through a blow-hole.
What did Alex really understand about the words and concepts he was sharing? what did Peter understand about this human who was sexually intimate with him?
What do humans understand, or misunderstand when we speak to each other?
in between reassuring glances and quick cuddles, Kim and Pete attempt to draw a link between the gulf of understanding between animal and human and between human and human.
“Tell me you love me” says Kim, “Say it better”.
This comparison isn’t very clearly drawn and the dialogue feels overly repetitious and bit laboured. They keep asking each other “Shall we do the next bit?” which feels like rather lazy fourth-wall breaking and there is a long segment where they both pretend to be birds and I can’t work out why.
Nevertheless, its a very sweet and funny hour-long exploration of the gulfs of misunderstanding, even between the closest of couples and the cleverest of animals.
E8, Pleasance Dome
(4 / 5)
Set in a Pupil Referral Unit in Hackney, this play spans an hour in the lives of two teachers and two students staying behind at the end of yet another difficult day. The pupils’ personal circumstances are gradually revealed to show the challenges they face not only in their academic but also their personal lives.
There’s an outstanding performance by Alice Vilanculo as Bailey, an angry, terrified teen who, despite some promising mock exams, sees no future for herself.
The writing by Marika Mckennell is whip-smart with absolutely spot-on dialogue, contrasting the street slang of the pupils with the middle-class, softly spoken headteacher.
Once or twice, the piece began to veer into tell-not-show territory, with the headteacher played by Tina Chiang, offering up a polemic on the difficulties of a school system trying to deal with issues of historical and structural racism, classism and sexism, all while half the students have Asbos.
But there’s plenty of tense exposition too, as we learn about Biley’s struggles at home and Ryan (Harry McMullen)’s frustrating (yet highly credible) ineloquence reveals a story of cruel suffering.
The performances were all naturalistic and believable, but a strong ring of truth also surrounded the stories of these pupils who society has chosen to condemn before their lives have barely begun.
FREE FRINGE PICK – Amy Howerska: Serious Face, Three Sisters
(3 / 5)
Amy Howerska doesn’t believe comedy should be about making a serious point, she just wants comedy to be about making people laugh. She thinks stand-ups have got a bit too serious of late – and she’s here to keep things light.
She does exactly that in her free fringe show. Material ranges from her marriage, her family, her husband’s family, her engagement ring and her recent move to San Francisco for her husband’s job. That might sound like there isn’t much to work with there, but it turns out her family is bonkers and gave her enough material to fill a curtain shop.
There’s a bit of more generalised observational comedy about how American’s are obsessed with pharmaceuticals and difficult to befriend, delivered with Miranda Hart style mock-shock – and some hot takes on the dynamics of female friendships – but a lot of it is just about superficialities her own life. And her life is funny. She’s married a man with three sexy brothers who she openly lusts after at family gatherings, her sister is barmy and once took her to Russia to do shots of tequila off a naked woman. Her mother is so awful that in a therapy session the therapist openly sided with Amy and told her she was right to disown her. It’s all funny stuff, but it lacks a cohesive thread. There are no clever interlinking moments, no attempts to either generalise to make the audience feel part of her story or to truly be vulnerable enough and personal enough to create a really compelling yarn.
Amy freely admits that she doesn’t have a schtick or a USP, that’s the ostensible subject of this show and that’s more than fine for an entertaining free fringe show. But if she wants to take her work to wider audiences, she’ll need more than a few disconnected stories about her new life in the States.
Dark Sublime’, the title of which takes a line from the W.H. Auden poem ‘The More Loving One’ is about intergenerational relations, sci-fi fandom and whether you can love the art but hate the artist.
If you know Star Trek, you’ll know Marina Sirtis, who plays the central character, a middle-aged British soap star called Marianne, once played the resplendent empath Deanna Troy in The Next Generation. Marianne is getting less work than she used to, and has resigned herself to a life of good wine, radio plays, assorted boiled sweets and getting drunk on decent wine in the afternoon with her best friend and neighbour Kate (Jacqueline King), who she has always held a torch for.
If you are more than a casual Star Trek fan, or you’ve paid very close attention to the #MeToo movement, you’ll also know that Grace Lee Whitney, who played Kirk’s secretary Janice Rand in the original series, before having her contract cancelled after episode eight, later claimed in her autobiography that an unnamed executive sexually assaulted her.
Gene Roddenberry’s utopian series, commended for its diverse casting, was also overtly sexist. Female characters were lusted after and demeaned by the male characters. It was the Sixties, and sexual liberation and mini-skirts vied with rampant sexism. Reflecting back as a woke feminist, I now regret the time I covered myself in green body paint and posed for Rankin as an Orion slave girl in homage to Star Trek’s pilot episode (to his credit, Rankin decided I was a she-hulk and made me look very powerful in the photos).
Aaanyway, it didn’t stop there, this tension between the idealistic, progressive values shown on screen and the reality behind the scenes is something that the play references and runs parallel to, with a pig of an actor eyeing up the young fans and Marina explaining: “Things were different then.”
Almost as important as Marina’s character is Oli (Kwaku Mills) a young, passionate, gay, black geek of 21 years old. He is a fan of Marina’s female-fronted hokey sci-fi series, he hunts her out and for a brief few months, they get to know each other. The generational void between them is massive, fraught with misunderstanding and strained pauses, but they also teach each other something.
Marina Sirtis is beautifully nuanced in her characterisation of Marianne, flickering between unarticulated yearning and bouts of angry resentment that her life hasn’t turned out quite the way she hoped, but scenes between Marianne and Kate feel under-rehearsed and one entire scene where they discuss Marianne’s upcoming trip to Oli’s Comicon-style convention feels totally redundant.
In fact the whole two and a half hour show could have been squeezed into about 80 minutes. There’s not enough action to fill it out and it sometimes meanders from one vague theme to the next without ever hammering a point home.
I did wonder if removing LGBTQI icon Sophie Ward’s character entirely might have tightened up the script, she plays Kate’s love interest, a younger hippy who works in finance, but scenes with the two of them together tended to drag and feel like an unneccessary add-on to the main plot.
There are loads of interesting ideas here about what older generations might learn from younger ones and vice versa, and a strong affection for science-fiction pervades everything. But somehow the exploration of the themes is unsatisfactory.
The set, by Tim McQuillen-Wright, is a mid-century modern living room which turn’s into a 60’s space-ship, with a decorative pineapple glowing different colours and the coffee table and TV screen transforming into operations consoles. The rainbow stained glass in the door frame gives voice to the onboard AI computer, voiced by Mark Gatiss.
This set allows us glimpses of the camp, non-sensical series that Marianne made, with Simon Thorp galumphing manfully about the stage, laser blaster aloft, spouting intergalactic drivel. It’s funny, but could be funnier if the words made a little more sense.
Writer Michael Dennis also wrote a short drama for the Queers series starring Mark Gatiss which aired on Channel 4 last year, to mark 50 years since laws were passed exempting gay men from prosecution. This is his first play and to get it on at Trafalgar Studios is a big win. But I felt it could have benefitted from a few more test runs before boldly going into the uncharted and sometimes harsh realities of a live audience.
This is a tightly-focused, searing performance about how death in custody has a ripple effect for the deceased family that permanently damages them.
The writing, by Tom Wainwright is taut and highly emotional, weaving in themes of West African death rituals, the scariness of not knowing for sure what happens to someone when they die and the feeling of having to keep fighting – whatever the cost -when that family member has died unjustly. I loved that it was really clear about its overall message: that police racism is something that costs lives, but within that there was a lot of nuance; how long should you fight for the memory of someone who is gone at the expense of fully living your own life? What does it mean to be too black – or not black enough? how much is a girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife really part of their other half’s family?
The story is about Brian, we know before the play begins that Brian has died: the stage is strewn with flowers, cuddly toys and tributes. The walls display hand-written messages: ‘Black Lives really do Matter’, ‘RIP Brian’, ‘Brian <3 Another Life Lost’.
This play is as much about the repercussions of grief as it is about injustice. It reminded me a little bit of Nine Nights, in that it focused on the aftermath of a death, rather than the death itself and referenced the death traditions of the family. The Mother, played with humour and pathos by Muna Otaru, was tortured by dreams that her son, Brian, had not passed over to the other side, his soul trapped in a limbo state. Her dreams were presented by the rest of the cast speaking like zombies stuck in a slot machine: ‘cherry, cherry, cherry, bar, bar, bar’ delivered with jittering heads and deep monotone voices. Paired with the flickering red lighting, it was genuinely unsettling.
Each character is fully fleshed out, each facing their own deeply personal struggle. Sister, played with strong physicality and earnest determination by Ewa Dina takes up campaigning for justice on behalf of Brian. Brother (Urban Wolf) suffers a painful mix of guilt and anger and lashes out, feeling that he can never live up to his brother’s memory. Lover, played by Rochelle James, feels like an outsider from the family; her pain is deep but she is forced to move on -and in a slightly trite speech, explains why she’s picked a white man for her new partner – because he’s less likely to be stopped by police, ‘and that’s important’. It felt a bit on the nose, but I don’t doubt that this is a common coping mechanism.
The set, by Fran Horler, looked a bit flimsy, there were a lot of walls, which were removed to reveal more walls, all with the same cut-out of Brian’s head in the middle of them. I think one wall might have sufficed.
There was also a visual metaphor about the burden of grief and the women carrying handbags that was unnecessary and distracting.
The concept for this show came to creator Urban Wolf, aka Urbain Hayo during the riots after Mark Duggan’s death. Mark Duggan was shot because police thought he was holding a gun – it transpired that he had dropped the weapon before police apprehended him and yet an inquest ruled that the killing was lawful. His family continued to fight for justice for Duggan and have now brought a civil suit against the Met police with the hope of getting a verdict of unlawful killing.
The death of Duggan sparked a series of riots in Tottenham that then spread like wildfire across impoverished and ethnically diverse areas of London; Hackney, Woolwich, Lewisham, Croydon, Peckham, Battersea, Walthamstow. and then across England.
According to the charity Inquest, which supports families whose members have died in state care or detention, 1711 people have died in police custody to date since records began. There were 18 across England and Wales in 2018, and just one in the Met so far this year, four last year.
Numbers for death in custody are small compared to incidences of stop and search: incidences of stop and search under section 60 increased by 8,000 by the Met alone last year. Section 60 allows officers to search freely within any given area. The Met argues this is a response to the rise in knife crime.
The stop and search element in the play was slightly skimmed over and as it’s such a massive problem in the news right now, I wondered why more wasn’t made of this. Brian’s surviving brother, played by Urban Wolf, could have been the subject of a stop and search, being a young black man with a chip on his shoulder who hangs around night clubs, he’d be a perfect target for the kind of racist police behaviour the play was trying to highlight.
Aside from this element, there were a couple more inconsistencies – the play seemed to be dated by some of the Met responses – the deceased, Brian, is referred to as an ‘IC3 male’ and also as ‘it’ in the Met press release. My police friend, who came with me to see the play, reliably informs me that such jargon is now longer used in Met police statements, because it is offensive and dehumanising. Now they would say ‘he’ and ‘black male’. The IPCC is also no longer called the IPCC, it’s now the IOPC.
These are small quibbles, and the broader message, that death in custody happens sometimes because of police brutality and racism still stands. It’s powerfully done, with each of the characters sent on their own painful trajectory in the aftermath of Brian’s death. But if Urban Wolf hopes to attract members of the Met to see his show – as he stated in an interview with ITV, these discrepancies need to be cleaned up so they can’t be used to undermine his incredibly important message.
Sarah Kosar’s last play, Mumburger was about a family whose mother’s last wish when she died was for them to eat her body, in burger form. It was about processing grief and processing meat. Compelling and repulsive by turns.
This new, more large-scope work was actually written before Mumburger. It was Kosar’s calling card in 2013 when she moved to London from America and got accepted into some prestigious young writers’ schemes.
Armadillo is set in America. It’s about a girl, Sam, who was abducted when she was 13 and returned to her family a couple of days later, seemingly unscathed. But, aged 27, she begins reliving the trauma when she sees on TV (a fractured background projection of nightmarish faces conveys the news) another young girl has been abducted.
She also likes to have sex with guns involved, because they make her feel safe, but Sam and her husband John are forced to go cold turkey after a sex game goes bad.
The guns are treated like an addiction; the couple have a mantra of abstinence – ‘no gun, more fun’ which they repeat whenever tempted to revert back to their old ways.
Sam, the armadillo, is a tough but disturbed, slight girl, dressed like a ninja turtle (or, indeed an armadillo) in green neon socks, brown khakis and tight green tank top, which she sheds layers off but it always looks the same (symbolic, eh?). She is the perfect vehicle to persuade us that, in a violent world, guns can be a useful form of protection – but the story doesn’t go far enough to convince us that guns are ever necessary – and I would have liked to have been taken up to that point of sympathising with Sam’s need for a gun.
This production would probably play differently in America, where owning a firearm is a constitutional right – the water pistols they use to try to help them get clean from their gun addiction might seem more ridiculous in a country where you can pick up a pink coloured rifle ‘for girls’ from the weapons aisle in K-mart.
I also wondered if the script had been tweaked and somewhat neutered with the British audience in mind – the overall message of the play was a little muddled and obscure and I wondered if this was due to a toning down of possible references to American gun law from a director’s perspective or if the writer had always wanted to make an ambiguous message.
Anyway, the result was that I left feeling a little bit unclear on what the main message was. The play touches on many intriguing themes like trauma, the twisted way abuse makes people feel, an individual’s right to choose and, of course, gun ownership but there wasn’t a clear journey for any of the themes.
Direction by Sarah Joyce is confident and poised; taught tableaux sex scenes, with lights flickering on and off, mirror the darker, more sinister enactments of the final moments – and each scene is directed with an underpinning of realistic and truthful actions – this production is not played for laughs, and doesn’t acknowledge its own slightly unusual premise, and this makes it utterly believable.
It’s also testament to Kosar’s confident writing and the conviction of the three actors – Michelle Fox as Sam, the Armadillo of the story, Mark Quartley as John, her husband, and Nima Taleghani as Sam’s dopey brother Scotty – that potentially implausible scenes are rendered believable.
Designer Jasmine Swan has cluttered the set with the accoutrements of a modern apartment; there’s a TV, a computer, a sofa, loo, shower, bed, pond, trees – it’s a bit encumbered and rather literal for a play that dips its toes into the surreal.
The shower is particularly redundant – none of the characters takes a shower – and then when you finally see a use for the pond, when Sam decides to go swimming, she doesn’t use the pond. Instead, the bed becomes a symbol for the swimming pool – and taking a deep-dive into her subconscious.
I felt that a bed a fridge and a sofa would have been sufficient to suggest an apartment and allow more space for the actors to play their gun-fights without being restricted by so much furniture.
It was an interesting, smart production, but might have benefited from less clutter, both physically and narratively.
After her Edinburgh and Vault Festival hit ‘My World Has Exploded A Little Bit’, Bella Heesom’s second play is an exploration of ladybits, and the ways in which our society and environment have negatively affected our attitudes towards them.
Heesom plays the Brain and Sara Alexander plays the Vulva in
this surreal dialogue which spans the ways we feel about our bodies from
infancy to adulthood. Brain is uptight and stiff as she processes the messages
she learns from men and boys and how to behave, what to hate about her body and
why sex is all about pleasing men. Vulva is a sensuous, innocent and feral
creature, that Brain constantly tries to discipline and contain.
At first Vulva and Brain get along, they play together in the woodchip-covered floor of the cocoon-womb-woodland set, hung with moist ferns, designed by Elizabeth Harper and lit within alternating hues of red and green by Jess Bernberg. It’s like they’re performing inside a moist terrarium. It’s earthy – just how Heesom says she wants sex to be.
The script is beautiful, with its poetic descriptions of erupting orgasms and fear about letting go with a sexual partner.
When Brain goes to secondary school and learns about periods
and sex, her relationship with Vulva, gets more corrupted.
‘The boys say you smell of fish,’ says Brain.
‘Is that bad?’ asks Vulva.
‘But don’t they eat fish?’ says Vulva, her eyes wide and
Through a series of deceptively simple messages projected on the rear wall, like ‘Only boys masturbate’ and ‘Virginity = precious’ or ‘ Sex = penis in vagina’, we see how our ways of speaking about sex, even from a young age, lead to a fractured sense of sexual identity for women. As the story goes on, you see the sorry lot of women everywhere represented by the arguments between Vulva and Brain which reveal increasing dissociation between the act of sex and what our culture deems to be ‘sexy’.
As she grows up, we see Brain trying hard to process these conflicting messages about how she should look and behave. She starts oppressing poor Vulva in the process. Through a series of arguments, physical battles, and dance sequences, the fractured relationship builds to a point of near destruction. Vulva is being killed by the thousand cuts that we a society have internalised – that women have to be a thousand different things every day – that we are here predominantly to entertain – and that our sexual selves are insignificant.
That is until Vulva rises from the ashes and attempts to heal the severed connection between itself and the Brain.
There’s bravery and daring in this piece. It takes courage to put this much questing vulnerability into a performance, but it pays off by resonating with, I imagine, every woman in its audience.
This show will take you on an emotional journey – and hopefully, ultimately, a healing one.
Mother. Virgin. Whore – the modern sex worker has to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Joana Nastari’s show invites us to examine our own prejudices and preconceptions of what a sex worker is and to challenge them.
The show begins like a cabaret of strippers; different strippers talk about their experiences – and strip. This can involve different strippers on different nights depending on when you see the show but last night we saw ‘Selena’, real name Esmerelda – who also goes by The Topless Romantic.
She is effervescent in all red underwear. She shares some cringy moments from her time as a ‘stripper baby’ – which means a newbie stripper – in a disarmingly funny routine that’s part stand-up, part confessional theatre, part strip show. Even she can’t define it, calling it: whatever this is. She holds something back though – saying therapy helped a bit but stripping changed her life – we never fully learn about the trauma she endured at a young age that she says made her feel she didn’t fit well in her own body.
‘Prince of Provocation’ ChiyoGomes performs his frenetic striptease to “My Name Is Prince” by Prince and The New Power Generation.
And then it’s on to the main bit – Joana Nastari. She looks a bit like a young Liv Tyler and her dancing is A-maze-ing.
“I’m Holly and I babysit grown men. A therapist in thigh highs,” she declares, before a backdrop of in feathered palm trees. Tonight she is her stripper alter ego Holly, who has yet to confess to her mother what her real job is.
We see Holly on a typical night, hustling for customers and being fined every time she looks at her phone by the woman who runs the club. It looks exhausting – gyrating for men whose breath smells of fags and idiotic city boys who want to save her but not pay her. If anyone thought stripping was an easy job this proves it’s not at all.
The pacing here is a bit erratic and some parts are over-laboured as we see Holly getting high and trying to drum up custom by chatting up every group in the club room “Hi,I’m Holly” is repeated dozens of times and it gets a bit worn out as a theatrical device.
Holly takes too many uppers and ends up tripping through her ancestry – back through the transport ships her ancestors took to Brazil, further back, to a time where they lived in a sort of Jungle Book, where their bodies weren’t ornaments, but instruments of power. Holly’s ancestor used her body to fight a wolf, it seems.
The drunken dancing we saw earlier in the strip club is transformed into powerful, piston-like movements here in this dream-like parallel life, the lights descend to a dull green and she reconnects with her real self.
This transcendent experience is moving but doesn’t fit in well with the rest of the play – whose message is all about letting strippers get on with their jobs and being a good ally. The wolf-fight scene was let down by some of the writing – “I howl – the wolf howls” – repeated x 3, lacks the profound resonance that Nastari may have intended , while the dance and lighting and smoke machines here were effective this scene as a whole just seemed like it was from a different play about body acceptance rather than the job of stripping – maybe it would have fitted better in “Gazing at her Wondrous Vulva the Woman Applauded Herself” which I’m reviewing next – maybe they could make something together. I’d definitely want to see that.
Ad Libido was selected for Litmus Fest at the Pleasance Theatre last year and following a successful run at Vault and the Fringe, it now arrives at Soho theatre.
Fran Bushe’s comedy show tells the story of her long ordeal of trying to enjoy sex ever since the age of 16. Now 31, Fran has been diagnosed with ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’ a rather antiquated term for women who don’t enjoy penetration. Told with warmth and sincerity, she keeps nothing back as she reads verbatim from her teenage diaries, describes her admiration for dolphins in coitus and recounts her adventures at a sex camp.
We’re also treated to songs inspired by past lovers,
including ‘I can Fix You’ about a man who thinks he is the best at sex and an
ode to being honest in the bedroom.
While being very, very specific about Fran’s misadventures,
the tightly-structured play also strikes a universal note about the pressures women
and girls are put under to perform and cater to mens’ egos in the bedroom.
With a set covered in
gold tinsel and Fran’s turquoise dungarees and glitter top sparkling up the
room, its hard to feel down about Fran’s sad Yoni. This is ultimately an
uplifting show about self-acceptance and self-expression – and Doing It on your
The audience are treated to free lube and asked to write messages to their teenage selves, inspired by the play – which Fran posts to her Instagram – there are plenty of notes saying ‘It’s OK to Wait’ but quite a lot along the lines of ‘Everything will be fine’ and ‘Sex isn’t wrong’. If there’s one show to send your teenage daughters to, let it be this imaginative, fun and ultimately uplifting one.
The worst piece of theatre I ever saw was at Edinburgh in 2013. Two pretty, very posh girls had hired one of the stages in the Pleasance to talk about how they were so posh and so privileged that they couldn’t feel empathy. Their life had just been so damn easy, they couldn’t even imagine what hardship was like. They had had such an easy ride, they claimed, they couldn’t even cry. They proceeded, over the next hour, to demonstrate this by showing video and audio clips of sad things and then showing that they were unaffected by them; Bambi dies, nothing, Pheobe in Friends gives up her babies, nothing. They began rubbing each others’ eyes with onions – still nothing. The video clips got increasingly graphic until the point where the show became offensive. They started playing audio clips of the last surviving moments of people who died in the Twin Towers – the calls they made to their loved ones before they were killed in the September 11 attacks. They stood in front of them and shrugged.
So very little thought or imagination had gone into the show, it was astounding. It was as though they’d only planned the show the evening before.
Barzakh, part of conceptual artist Sean Rogg’s ongoing Waldorf Project wasn’t as bad as that show. It was very unpleasant – in that all the participants were subjected to physical discomfort and manhandled – but it wasn’t thoughtless – or entirely pointless.
Quite the opposite, in fact, I got the sense that rather a lot of thought and even care had gone into, say, considering the exact amount of pressure the performers could apply to our heads in order to tilt them backwards and pour cheap booze down our throats without causing any actual pain.
Barzakh is an Arabic word meaning “obstacle”, “hindrance”, “separation”, or “barrier”, designating a place between hell and heaven, which probably should have given me a bit of a clue about the experience.
“My guard / torturer/alien was a bit too forceful and actually smacked my forehead into the concrete wall at this point.”
Inside a warehouse near Welwyn Garden City, me and my fellow victims were asked to strip and change into black t-shirts and shorts, then dragged by actors dressed in a plastic-y black suit with something like a charcoal pore minimising mask on their face one by one to another room where we were made to stand against the wall. My guard / torturer/alien was a bit too forceful and actually smacked my forehead into the concrete wall at this point. This was followed by an interminable wait facing the blank concrete wall, whenever I turned around, my head was gripped and turned back to the wall, then I felt a push to the back of my knees and I was ‘encouraged’ to kneel, fed some sort of jelly and had cheap vodka poured down my throat, then led to another room where custard was thrown at me, then left to wait to face a wall again.
The viscous liquids and periods of passive waiting continued for a couple of hours. It was at best, a bit boring and at worst extremely unpleasant – we got so cold from the liquids on our bodies that we were shaking with the cold.
There was a bit where we had just been covered in a poo-like substance that contained coffee grounds and were encouraged to jump up and down very closely together, so the gritty bits scratched our skin. This, I think, was meant to make us a bit warmer, but it was followed by a slow hands-and-knees crawl across a cold, uneven floor, so it didn’t do much to increase our body temperatures.
During the final part of the evening, the actors changed into angelic white gowns. Finally! I thought – this must be the ‘heaven’ part of the experience, we’ll feel transcendent euphoria! We’ll hug and laugh and bond and feel amazing. But no. They had us lay down and then shone really intense strobe lighting in our eyes for far too long – ten minutes maybe? it was painful. There was a moment of calm, when they laid a silvery fabric over us. I wasn’t too cold and the hard floor wasn’t totally uncomfortable, the silver thing made interesting patterns in front of my eyes and I wasn’t in any major discomfort, my thoughts were allowed to flow freely and a voice in my head appeared and said: “This will all be over soon”.
“If he’s managed to recreate any human experience, it’s not that of someone who has climbed Everest, it’s more like recreating the feeling of a wet weekend spent camping in Bognor Regis.”
Three and a half hours, that’s how long it took. It felt like seven.
Sean Rogg is very convincing – when you read the quotes from him in this article publicising Barzakh, in Wired – you think, ‘Wow! this guy has tapped into something transcendental, something truly mind-altering’. And maybe he thinks he has. He calls it ’empathy creation’ – but all good theatre creates empathy – so he’s rather missing the point if he thinks he’s unique in creating it. Maybe no-one close to him has had a chance to have a quiet word in his ear and explain that making people feel cold, bored and uncomfortable is not a unique route to creating a mind-altering experience. If he’s managed to recreate any human experience, it’s not that of someone who has spent a month in silent meditation or a person who’s successfully climbed Everest, he’s basically recreating the feeling of a wet weekend spent camping in Bognor Regis.
I was so intrigued by the scientist quoted in the Wired article who seemed to be totally convinced by Sean Rogg and wanted to turn the show into an experiment – according to the headline – I gave him a call. It turns out that Daniel Richardson, who is an experimental psychologist at UCL, is interested in what Sean Rogg is working on and wants to see it succeed, but as the article wrongly implies, he’s not about to stick heart monitors on participants or do DNA swabs, because “Obviously, you have to have certain ethical protocols. I am doing science, I can’t do it without full consent and there are lots of health and safety considerations.”
I did have a lingering concern that we weren’t told where the fire exits were in the dimly lit, vast space in which there were both open candle flames and large swathes of fabric, also, call me a killjoy, but the aforementioned cold, uneven concrete floors and being pushed across lines of cold custard on the floor to make us trip up are just a couple of areas where I wondered whether they had skimped on health and safety assessment.
However, Daniel would genuinely like to see Sean’s ‘experiment’ succeed. “I was intrigued by this idea that he can create something similar to a religious epiphany,” he told me. “You don’t usually get that after three hours in a warehouse in London.”
I’ve heard from other participants that the earlier chapters in The Waldorf Project were lighter and more fun-filled, and perhaps if you had been to the other chapters, this chapter would have made more sense taken in the context of the whole. Also – maybe Sean had begun to achieve something wonderful in these chapters and then took a wrong turn with this latest one.
I voice my feeling that what is happening in the experiment isn’t ’empathy creation’ as Sean Rogg hopes but maybe, if anything, bonding through shared experience. In this case – a thoroughly unpleasant experience, somewhat akin to an evil day spa.
“I would like to see it succeed,” Daniel tells me, “I entirely agree [that it is more like bonding than empathy] and Sean would be open to that idea.”
“But there is a theory that if people experience dehumanisation then they double-down with wanting to connect to others – so if you increase cortisol levels, which is linked to stress response, this may increase empathy.”
So maybe there’s something in this idea – maybe the issue wasn’t that the experience was a bit miserable – maybe we weren’t dehumanised enough to achieve a result?!
It’s at least an interesting test of how far people will be subjected to humiliation and degradation if they are told it’s for their own entertainment (and a £70 ticket fee).
The resulting feeling was less evocative of transcendental experience and more akin to a boring, wet weekend of camping. A bit miserable and cold – but at least you can go home and have a hot shower at the end.
Given all of this, I was left with the impression that this immersive experience wasn’t like the girls with the onions, in fact I think a lot of thought had gone into the work, however ill-judged it might have been. I don’t think this was a cynical attempt to separate people from their cash (again; £70), or to simply sadistically torture naive Nathan Barley types who think it sounds cool (cos they read about it in Vice). I just think Sean Rogg has taken the ‘experiment’ in a direction that doesn’t work and maybe has an over-inflated ego when it comes to the grandness of what he’s trying to achieve. By all accounts, chapters one through three focused more on sensual pleasure than discomfort, and perhaps this is a better way to achieve the euphoria he is aiming for.
Two weeks on from the experiment, I’m still talking about what happened to me on that dark evening in Welwyn Garden City, I’m really curious to see what Sean Rogg does next – and I still sometimes get a whiff of mouldy custard and coffee (I think maybe microscopic granules are still embedded in various orifices) so I guess you can say the experience stuck with me.