This neat hour of Weimar-inspired ‘Kabarett’ offers a spectrum of sublime and silly acts composed by helmswoman Bernie Dieter to celebrate and showcase difference and weirdness.
Accompanied by a live band, the show opens with Bernie herself climbing into the audience, singing and coaxing by turns, she encourages a group of men to stroke each other and then carry her on to the stage. She’s both sexy and preposterous as she threatens to sit on the face of anyone who takes her fancy, but her humour never gets threatening – we are always laughing alongside her, invited to be part of her family of freaks for one night only.
The Spiegeltent is a fairly intimate setting; we’re all close to the central round thrust stage and the intimacy is increased by the performers coming out into the audience. The aerial work isn’t suspended high above our heads either, it only happens about a foot in the air, so we can see every judder and flex of the performers’ (often naked) bodies.
The world needs more people like Bernie. Unfortunately she’s one of a kind.
The show changes depending on where Bernie is performing, but the acts are always a mix of circus and cabaret with a modern twist. On this occasion, we are treated to gender-bending contortionism from aerialist gymnast Beau Sargent, whose act is beautiful in its precision and disturbing in its twistiness.
There’s a mime, ‘Le Mime Tipi’, played by comedian Josh Glanc, who no longer wants to mime and discovers fresh childish joy from climbing inside an actual cardboard box, as opposed to an invisible one. Fancy Chance practices the rare and painful art of hair hanging, whereby she is suspended from a giant bun of hair, which she combines with majestic angel wings, as though she’s flying, then sheds them in favour of wearing nothing but her tattoos. Kitty Bang Bang, who I first saw over a decade ago, is now one of the darlings of the burlesque scene. Her act involves fire eating and fire… nipples.
It’s all held together beautifully by Bernie Dieter’s quick wit and fabulous songs, which include ‘Lick My Pussy’ about a sexually impatient encounter and ‘Dick Pic’ in which she receives an unwelcome picture from a man and messages back the owner/ sender with an image of a naked mole rat. She then shows us the picture, blown up to 12 inches by six inches, and the two do look uncannily similar.
It’s exhilarating, exhuberant, silly and captivating and an absolute joy to behold.
“In a time when we are told that difference is something to be feared, ” says Bernie in her final speech, “We F**king celebrate it”.
The world needs more people like Bernie. Unfortunately she’s one of a kind.
Moving the action of Shakespeare’s most popular comedy from an island to a 1920s cruise liner, where those on board perform modern jazz renditions of modern pop songs like Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” might seem like an unworkable staging, but everything about the setting completely works to the point where you start to think the Bard would have always intended the play to look this way.
The Rose Playhouse, a stone’s throw from the Globe, was rediscovered 30 years ago and excavated in 2014. Local rumour has it that this is where the origins of Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, ‘exeunt, pursued by a bear’ came from, because the venue was used for bear-baiting.
It revealed hitherto unrecognised lyrical finesse in Sisqo’s underrated hit ‘Thong Song’.
Renovations are still underway, restricting the stage to a small room with a metal fence overlooking the cavernous, inaccessible works below. When I first visited in 2015, I thought the flat wooden stage with high rails looked rather like the edge of a boat – obviously, I’m not the only one to have considered it.
The SS Illeria sets sail and we are all on board, being treated to 1920s cabaret from the hedonistic crew, who fuse bawdy modern pop with a sultry elegance that the original hits never possessed, like Katy Perry’s ‘Last Friday Night’ retold as a drunken, woozy number and ‘Oops I Did It Again’ as a sultry ballad of regret. Plus, it revealed hitherto unrecognised lyrical finesse in Sisqo’s underrated hit ‘Thong Song’.
It’s funny – and works alongside the casts’ physical comedy to highlight messages in Shakespeare’s script that improve the audience’s understanding – this would be perfect for a school outing because even if you don’t understand every nuance of Shakespearean language, the actors make the plot points as clear and transparent as possible. When Olivia, the famous actress says she won’t marry and have children but will leave the world “divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried, and every particle and utensil labelled to my will”, she points to magazines with her face on the cover to hammer home the message.
There are some other choice directorial decisions here that work with, not against, Shakespeare’s intentions and help modernise the work. For example Malvolio becomes Malvolia, lady-in-waiting (played with prim staunchness, and later, heart-rending pathos by Faith Turner), a matronly sourpuss who sneers at Viola and her fellow Vaudeville performers and whose pride is her downfall. Similarly, Sir Toby Belch becomes Lady Toby (Anna Franklin), a lewd lover of booze and song – and Feste, the fool, is a delightfully boisterous Hannah Francis, who plays piano and trumpet and sings a bit like Shirley Bassey.
Malvolia is a particularly interesting gender switch because it makes her adoration of Olivia a lesbian infatuation, and ‘Captain’ Orsino’s interest in Viola when she pretends to be a man is ramped up so he is attracted to her both equally when she is a ‘man’ and when she is revealed as a woman suggesting his sexuality is not gender-specific.
The best thing about it though is the pure joy of the performances; it’s impossible not to be swept up in the bawdy jokes and the cross-dressing mishaps. Send all your A-level students! it’s a wonderfully raucous way to learn about the Bard.
Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley was a hit at Edinburgh last year when it premiered at the Traverse Theatre. It’s now relocated to the Soho Theatre, but it is still very much an Edinburgh play. The text refers to the Traverse and the two actors have Scottish accents, the action is set in Edinburgh. So it feels a little incongruous being performed in the middle of Soho. But there is something effective and faintly disconcerting about a firmly middle class, theatre-going audience coming to see a play about class differences and effectively being made to face the fact they are mere voyeurs to a tale of working-class poverty.
The story: Libby is a middle-class playwright in her forties who hasn’t written a play in ten years, she’s at the end of her tether and has had to move back in with her mum in Edinburgh. One night, on the precipice of suicide, she encounters Declan, a young lad from a poor family living on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Libby sees a hidden talent in Declan’s drawings and tries to encourage him to work on his art, but after spending some time with Declan and learning about the difficulties of his life, she begins to feel inspired to write; or more specifically to record Declan and use his words, his accent, his hopes, his family life, as the basis for her next play. The action plays out in a black set in a white box, with stage directs displayed in direct text above the actors’ heads.
Libby also steps outside the action to explain the technical processes of playwriting in the middle of the action, reminding us all that we are watching a play created by her character, in the play. This device really works to draw attention to the central question: who owns your story? and how much should a playwright borrow from real-life before they end up copying it wholesale?
The sleek design, by Kai Fischer, makes reference to how ‘meta’ the play is: the stage is a big square box, framed like a TV screen, which the actors step in and out of, overtly breaking the fourth wall, there’s a play within a play that draws attention to the story of Declan, a young, artistically talented boy from the estates around Edinburgh, who has a lack of opportunities and is hampered by a dysfunctional family who prevent him from flourishing and how his story and stories like his continue long after the curtain comes down (In fact, the curtain doesn’t come down, the actors step outside the box for the curtain call).
On the one hand, it’s a theatre show for theatre people, with plenty of in-jokes about the lofty aims and transformative power of the theatre, which will almost always guarantee your play some degree of critical attention, but, more interestingly the performance has generally been celebrated for brilliantly drawing attention to below the breadline poverty in urban populations, and exploitation of stories that belong to other people. If a playwright tells your story, using verbatim transcripts as their foundation, does it stop being your story once they tweak it and put it on stage?
Of course this debate rubs up against the argument that actors shouldn’t be limited by their background, gender or colour. Calls for colour-blind and gender-blind casting are generally applauded by industry leaders – the message being that the craft of acting by its nature involves understanding and portraying multiple lives.
But where do the writers fit in this? The slogan ‘Slay in Your Lane’ pops to mind. Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené’s ‘Black Girl Bible’ that popularised the phrase talks of the struggles of black women in business. Their book was a revelation because it found there some were struggles common to black women in business that other women in business did not experience. The essence of that slogan has come to mean: do your thing, do it well, but don’t step on other people’s toes, don’t try to do something someone else is trying to do, just do your thing, brilliantly.
So, my point is, for writers, the rule is different from actors: Theatres want authentic stories and authentic voices, but for writers appropriation isn’t cool.
Mouthpiece comes down clearly on this side of the debate. Libby, a suicidal playwright played with nervous tension and a sense of fraught low confidence by Neve McIntosh and takes advantage of Declan (played with on-point Edinburgh slang and fractious teenage mannerisms by Lorn Macdonald) on multiple levels in order to use him for her own gain; to make a successful play out of his story.
While Mouthpiece brings up issues of class and exploitation with compelling finesse, it might have been interesting to see a story that wasn’t so black and white – where Libby didn’t exploit Declan’s story so completely, or where Declan had something to gain so that the exploitation was mutual – it might have prompted more questions at the bar afterward about where the line is between being inspired by someone else’s story and stealing it and how much credit to give them for it.
This brilliant double-bill focusing on lack of social mobility and lack of care for Britain’s working class women sees both one-woman plays sharing a stark white set with a box of white vertical strobes lights – caging them in. We learn the two protagonists are literally and metaphorically trapped by circumstances they were born into and, surrounded by prejudice, escape is nearly impossible.
First up is Box Clever, which has just been nominated for two Offies for both Red Lily Roche’s performance and Monsay Witney’s wonderful script.
Box Clever tells the story of Marnie, a working-class mum and the many difficult and destructive characters in her orbit who are preventing her from escaping her toxic relationships, the rat-infested women’s refuge she’s stuck in and most importantly, they want to keep her away from the daughter she’s trying to protect.
Playwright Monsay Whitney’s witty, intense monologue ranks among some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever come across and Red Lily Roche’s thrilling performance portrays 21 different characters with a deftness and ease that is a marvel to watch.
The tightly-written script draws Marnie as a difficult, angry, yet ultimately sympathetic character, struggling to keep afloat in a system that threatens to push her under. In a beautiful example of showing-not-telling, we learn how different procedural outcomes from the police, social services, social care and the benefits system conspire with personal prejudice to punish Marnie when all she is trying to do is be a good mum.
It’s a play that starts off funny before landing a suckerpunch that makes you sit up and realise that while Marnie is fictional her story is not.
This is then cleverly followed by KillyMuck, which doubles down on the theme that being working class, or ‘underclass’ as Killymuck writer Kat Woods frames it, means you are not offered a fair chance in society.
Longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and shortlisted for the Filipa Bragança Award, Killymuck offers a more instructional take on the issue of class life in Britain. The main character, Niamh, recounts semi-autobiographical events from Woods’ upbringing on a council estate in Ireland, re-enacting remembered slights, including an abusive father and teachers who dismissed her as ignorant because of her class. This is regularly peppered with lessons and statistics as Niamh (played with childlike joy and pedagogical assertiveness in turns by Aoife Lennon) leaps out of character and into the here and now to lecture us on studies and statistics that back up her experiences – she even draws a diagram on a whiteboard style backdrop.
This serves to both reassert that the problems in both these shows are real; working-class women are being let down by systematic failures in our social care and benefits systems right now. But the distancing jolt of coming out of character to offer a lecture made me care less about them. While Box Clever harnesses the power of theatre to show us the story of one woman’s life, thereby highlighting the plight of many in her same situation, Killymuck feels a little too preachy to be fully convinced or immersed in the story. However, Chris Sonnex’s choice to program them together was a great one. Together they are more than the sum of their parts, as Niamh’s dogmatic approach hammers home the unavoidable truth of Marnie’s life – she is stuck, from birth, she has been stuck, and her children and their children will continue to be stuck at a disadvantage until real systematic change occurs.
Finally, and perhaps not least of all – and I’m saying this because it clearly informed my judgement of the show – I felt quite a lot of Niamh’s upbringing was quite similar to my own – unlike her, I had great parents – but the White Lightning binges she describes, the bullying, the unfounded judgement from teachers – they were all features of my childhood and adolescence growing up in south-east London / Kent suburbia, and I guess that, weirdly, made me less sympathetic to Niamh’s story, because it just seemed quite normal to me. Maybe more needed to be made of her father’s violence – it seemed skimmed over in places, and maybe that’s because there’s some autobiographical detail Kat Woods didn’t want to share. There is also the fact that, as Kat / Niamh says in the show, she escaped, she got a good education, she found a way out. She’s now making theatre. The key to understanding the piece is, I think, to bear in mind that she is the exception, not the rule.
“There is a forgotten segment of society that we never talk about when it comes to the arts” she said in a statement about the work, “the lower classes. The underclass. The benefit class. These stories need to be told and need to find representation on stage. We are in danger of theatre becoming an elitist domain. Let’s create theatre for all not just the few.”
For anyone complaining this week that Fleabag is too upper-middle class, if you want to see more working class narratives being performed, go watch and support these shows. You won’t regret it.
Killymuck and Box Clever are at The Bunker, 53A Southwark Street London SE1 1RU Tuesday 26th March – Saturday 13th April 2019.
The Yard’s AD Jay Miller directs this atmospheric multiverse in which women are men are women are witches and some of them are dressed as Asda security guards and some of them carry giant foam microphones and some of them are demons and who can you even trust? and what can you believe? and, and, and… my head hurts.
Watching this three-hour trippy-trip to Salem, in which a word can get you killed, is a bit like being on Twitter. Alternative facts abound and one badly structured sentence or poorly formed argument and suddenly you are the enemy of all that is good and holy – and you must be hung by the neck at dawn.
The production starts simply and clearly, with rows of chairs labelled with the characters’ names (handy if you aren’t familiar with the play). The walls are wrapped with rows of elastic or thread, like a giant weaving loom, or a cat’s cradle. Arthur Miller’s stage directions and character descriptions being flatly read out. Lighting has a red-tint. The smell of melting wax fills the air. It works – character summaries give on-the-nose insights into the characters and although the rows of chairs are static, the cast’s faces are animated enough that it doesn’t get boring.
Caoilfhionn Dunne plays John Proctor and, in the lead-up to the show, much was made of the fact that the role was being held by a woman for the first time. She was magnificent. Her defensiveness of his/her wife Elizabeth took on new depths of meaning when you saw it as a woman standing up for womenkind being wronged. At other points, she played the role with a constrained masculinity that made you forget she was a woman playing a man’s role and her gender disappeared.
Emma D’arcy (Naomi from BBC’s Wanderlust) was also wonderful. First the woman whose ‘cold house’ kept her from forgiving her husband, then a warmer, tender wife, despairing for her husband’s soul. The final scenes between her and Dunne were beautiful and heart-rending.
Now we must talk about all the stuff – the mixing of costumes from different periods, even within the same scene, the flatscreen TV turned inexplicably on its side in a 17th-century courtroom, the large colourful microphones. The weird, plastic face-masks of the hovering figures that were present but took no action. The drama was enough, the lighting was excellent in its moodiness, the gender-switching was intriguing, the set was fab, there was no need for all the extra, confusing, mind-boggling stuff. Luckily none of that detracted from what was a brilliantly gripping staging of Miller’s classic text, but it didn’t add much either.
Lewisham borough’s oldest pub has undergone a major refurb and reopened in February as Ninth Life – a three-floor, high-ceilinged beautiful piece of real estate in Catford’s Rushey Green.
The pub itself is well thought out, attracting a mix of traditional beer drinkers and the young hipster crowd who have moved in more recent years. The large outdoor space is home to food trucks and local microbreweries like Brockley Brewery share tap space with Brighton-based Laine – a nod to the founder company’s origins.
Conceived by Dan Hills (Laines) Dr Claire MacNeill (Mash Up productions) and Ben Tucker (Buck Buck games); with Natasha Coverdale (studio Coverdale) leading on the Art Direction, The Viewing plays neatly on the idea that Catford is being gentrified by an influx of young professionals (my mum lived there in the 70s when Catford was poor as a penny, and when I showed her the price of her old house she nearly fainted).
The audience are cast as hungry flat-hunters and a dodgy local estate agent firm has arrived to show us around the flat above the pub. However, Billy, a builder working on the refurb, has recently disappeared and so the audience/gamers must try to find him..
One traditional escape the room game does feature, but the other rooms are much more immersive, with characters and clues hidden around the space.
The show has only been open for three weeks but the actors have already settled into their roles – the estate agent was teeth-on-edge smarmy and the characters in the various rooms managed to not to be too heavy-handed with hinting at the answers to the puzzles.
While the overall plot is a fairly loose one, the actors and sets make for a really fun evening. The actors have really thought about their characters and it’s really hard to catch them out – they were all really up for banter! It’s not as detailed or beautifully choreographed as a Punchdrunk show, but then it costs a ninth of the price of one, and you don’t have to enter a ballot to go to it.
The price for a ticket is £25 and for that you get an average of two shots of gin a drink at the bar and about an hour of entertainment across nine rooms, which in my view is an absolute bargain.
Before we get into the actual content, this one-woman show is diversity personified – Maggie Hill is a 60-year-old lesbian with bipolar working in STEM. When writing the piece, TV and radio scriptwriter Molly Naylor said: ‘I wanted to create a character and setting in which complex ideas could be shared and discussed through an accessible story. Space, mental health and relationships are topics that seem to fascinate us endlessly. Creating the character of Maggie has allowed me to explore them with new depth, insight and scope.’
Karen Hill plays Maggie, a space scientist tasked with giving a series of talks to inspire young women to get into STEM – and is worried about having a panic attack while giving a presentation. She visits a therapist for the first time ever in search of some coping strategies – but can’t seem to get the therapist to stop poking around in other areas of her life – notably her break-up with her girlfriend.
It’s a gently funny story that brings a focus on to issues that are rarely discussed or seen on stage and that’s refreshing in itself. As a show it feels slightly static – which admittedly is always a problem with a one-person shoe – Maggie goes from sitting stage right in her therapist’s chair to standing upstage centre to give her presentation, and back again. There is also a prolonged lull when she gives the talk to young girls, which feels exactly like sitting in a lecture hall at a TED Talk, rather than a piece of theatre.
However these are minor quibbles: the arc and expanse of the show are vast and impressive: relationships, mental health, women in science, oder women on stage – it’s all touched upon smartly and cleverly. It wasn’t the most dynamic of shows I’ve seen at the Vault this year, but it certainly didn’t fail to launch a few new ideas in the audience’s minds either.
After Louis Theroux gave us a rather perplexed look at polyamory in his Altered States series last year, it was surely only a matter of time before the theme came up in a fresher form on the stage.
But rather than a lovelorn, dysfunctional, geeky trio, where one member isn’t really into it, The New Romantic presents a rather beautiful version of what a thruple could look like in the modern world.
Opening with Bruno, a boy with tape on his face, naked and playing a double bass. It’s a clever conceit that allows the sex parts to take place in a sort of surreal mime around Bruno’s bowed string instrument and the tape highlights his absence from the love story in the opening scenes, which takes place between two young women – Antonia and Erin, one is a goth lesbian, one is a bi-curious arty type, they start a flirtation, and Antonia invites Erin for a threesome.
The work still very much feels like a work in progress, which the cast happily admit it is; some moments of tension are wrung out for a few seconds too long and other clashes disappear in an unarticulated a mess of high-pitched wails. There’s an extra motif about the need for myths in modern culture that felt a bit well-trodden but the central concept – that maybe this is the era when the thruple will thrive – is a brilliant one and the performances and tenderness they showed for each other were really charming.
It’s the most convincing argument for introducing a third party into your love story that I’ve ever seen, it’s a shame that the fiction doesn’t match up to the reality. Those scenes of a half-naked Louis Theroux being fed strawberries still haunt me.
I’m 35. It’s terrifying, obviously. It’s a bit like when you’re 21 and you’ve just graduated from university and you announce: ‘Here I am world! Employers! form an orderly queue to snap me up’ and no-one does and the infinite possibilities and choices flood in and you Just. Can’t. Decide what to do with the whole of the rest of your life.
While life has a bit more of a regular, self-determined shape to it at 35, in some ways that confounding array of infinite possibilities opens up again. Get married? have a civil partnership? co-habit? explore the joy of being alone? Kids, No Kids? Adopt? What kind of person do I want to be in five years? or ten? will those life choices be compatible with my career goals? Will I be a bad parent? What if I can’t have children? What about the environmental impact of those choices?
“If I want to have a kid when I’m 35 that means I don’t have to get married until I’m 34, which gives Prada four years to start making maternity wear.”
Maddy, played with superhuman levels of energy by Grace Chapman is celebrating her 30th birthday by running a marathon – tied to a balloon.
It’s an interesting coincidence that the ominous thirtieth birthday balloon appears elsewhere – in the new reworking of Sondheim’s Company at the moment too, with a confused female Bobby (Rosalie Craig) looking at her smugly coupled friends and wondering what she’s missing.
Maddy, like Bobby, is feeling the pressure. The pressure of the ClearBlue adverts on her YouTube channel, of her best friend not seeing her any more now she has a family, of her boyfriend of five years proposing – and she doesn’t know whether to say yes or no.
Like most of the shows at the Vault Festival, It’s Not A Sprint, directed with tongue firmly in cheek by Ellie Simpson, doesn’t have a mega-budget to play with. Yet with a balloon and some glitter, and oodles of superb physicality and a really genuine warmth from Chapman, it conveys a similar message to Marianne Elliot’s Company – women have been told they can have it all, yet at 30, they’re discovering a glass wall is being thrown up in front of them, and running away from it won’t make it disappear.
Belarus Free Theatre have long established themselves as a company making engaging, innovative and educational work which never sacrifices its entertainment value while offering insights into political struggles and human rights movements.
Founded in 2005 by Nikolai Khalezin, a playwright and journalist, and Natalia Koliada, a theatre producer, the members of the company operate in exile, as art in Belarus is state-controlled and their chosen themes speak out against the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Their most recent work, Counting Sheep focuses on Belarus’s neighbour Ukraine and the Kiev uprising of 2014, in which official figures claimed 113 deaths and 1811 injuries and which set of a chain of events leading to the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the removal of the president, who fled to Russia.
While the details of what happened and why are impressionistically shown by grainy wordless camera footage, projected on the walls, the plot follows the real-life love story of musicians Mark Marczyks and his wife Marichka who perform on stage and who made the work written in collaboration with Khalezin and Koliada.
The audience are served with snacks to start – adding an initial lull before the action begins. Everyone wants to add food to a show now, but very few do it well enough to justify having it. In this case, it just added an unnecessary layer of complexity and a slow start to a well-formed show. While we nibble, we learn of Mark, a Canadian who visits Ukraine and gets pulled into the protests. I would have liked more character building here, if only to add more power to the story later as we follow him through the horror of the fallout from clashes with police.
However, we are quickly whipped up into a folk dance, and seamlessly, the space transforms from dining room to dance hall to Mariinsky Park, with tires and crates and sandbags passed from hand to hand between performers and audience and built into towers and pyres where the actors grandstand and we – the protestors – cheer and march along to their beat – quite literally – a huge drum beats the rhythm to the rioting and a violinist highlights moments of tension and pathos. as the lines between performers and audience blur, we sing, dance and yell protest slogans in Ukranian, and while it’s sometimes unclear sometimes exactly what we’re saying or even exactly what we’re protesting about – the energy and exuberance of the actors propels us through.
While factual details of the Kiev uprising are sketched rather than hammered home, the feeling of being part of a political uprising is captured with clever minimal sets and lighting. At one point we are handed blankets and sat on sandbags and told – you can sleep now, and a hush descends as smoke fills the air and the walls show images of the protestors in Ukraine laying down on top of each other on the tough ground of Instytutska Street.
Once the dust settles and the bodies have been mourned, Mark and Marichka’s tale is a touching reminder that even in the darkest, most frightening of times the human spirit is still capable of reaching out and finding love.
Until 17 March, from 7pm. Tickets: £28.50 – plus £1.50 Booking Fee, Launcelot Street, The Vaults, Waterloo, London.