World’s End, King’s Head Review: ‘A beautiful love story World’s End. Set to a backdrop of Legend of Zelda and the war in Kosovo’

World's End: an LGBT love story Photo: Bettina Adela
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Closing the popular queer season at the King’s Head theatre in Islington is LGBT love story set to a backdrop of Legend of Zelda and the war in Kosovo, this debut play from actor James Corley skillfully balances world politics alongside domestic drama as the lives of four people living on a council estate become increasingly enmeshed.

Set in 1998-99, at the height of the Kosovan conflict, a well-to-do mother, Viv and her highly-strung 19-year-old son Ben move into the World’s End estate in Chelsea. Next door, they meet Besnik and his father Ylli, who fled Kosovo when Besnik was very young.

Harry Mackrill, who is currently Associate on David Hare’s adaptation of Peer Gynt at the National Theatre, directs the gay love story at the heart of the play with tenderness but the scenes exploring cultural tensions between the two parents feel underpowered.

What is lovely about this story is that this is not the coming-of-age, coming out play you’ve seen a thousand times before; both the young men are certain in their sexuality, even if they are uncertain about everything else in their world.

Tom Milligan plays anxious teen Ben with hyperactive nervousness, which made me wonder at first if he was meant to be an autistic character – new situations scared him, he stuttered and he was neurotic about the slightest change. This was revealed to be a strong reaction against an itinerant childhood where he wasn’t allowed to set down roots, but the actor’s overemphasis of this nervous trait from the start left him little wriggle room as tension mounted later on.

Conversely, Nikolaos Brahimllari’s performance of Ylli, feels underwhelming. His country is being destroyed and he feels compelled to go and fight for it, even though it means certain death, yet when he expresses this to Viv and his son, it lacks the passion and anguish one might expect.

All of the action is set on a tiny triangle of stage which economically represents both flats and the hallway between them. Joined with subtle lighting by Jai Morjaria, Rachel Stone’s set comprises two wooden doors with gold numbers 11 and 13 indicate how crammed together the two residences are and cardboard moving boxes serve to indicate the transience of Ben and Viv’s life.

Ylli and his son Besnik do not see eye-to-eye Photo: Bettina Adela

It is lovely to see a Kosovan actor playing a Kosovan role in Mirlind Bega, who grew up in Wakefield where he first discovered acting aged 9. His Besnik’s easy-going charm and resilience contrasts well with Ben’s unease.

The romance between the young men is a slow burner, built around a friendship and mutual love of video games, specifically Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Their love is at the burning heart of the play and are wonderful to watch but in other moments the staging feels a little stilted and awkward. Particularly between Ylli and Besnik, where Ylli is often stood rigidly, not reacting as his father berates him for being gay.

Current political tensions over immigrants are played out in Ylli’s living room between Ylli and Ben’s mother Viv, played beautifully with upper-middle-class condescension by Patricia Potter and with some of the best lines in the play. Upon discovering how cheap the rent is on Ylli’s two-bed council flat, Viv whispers to Ben: ‘It’s not fair.’ ‘

Mum, they’ve lost everything’ says Ben,

‘Well so have we!’ says Viv.

It concisely hits to the heart of much of the nation’s fears around refugees and immigrants and it’s done with humour and a light touch – this isn’t a polemic – in fact it feels very firmly rooted in the period of 1998-99.

The two boys come out as the more sympathetic characters, righting the wrongs their parents have made and their romance is a constant in a world of chaos. It’s a beautiful conclusion to the King’s Head’s successful season.

Until 21 September kingsheadtheatre/website

EDINBURGH EDITION – Day five (24 August)

The Claim

The Claim, Summerhall – Roundabout

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

As part of the British Council Showcase 2019, Tim Cowbury has written a piece that is deliberately fraught with frustration for the audience as the claimant’s story is ignored, manipulated and suppressed by the other characters.

Serge (affable Ery Nzaramba) is here because… Why? He wants to tell his story because he doesn’t want to be deported – but will the interpreter and case worker listen? Will they heck. They are more concerned with chatting about their upcoming holiday than letting Serge tell his story – and when they do start listening, their own prejudices get in the way of the truth.

When Serge manages to get a word in, it is misinterpreted by the interpreter, and then the answer is warped even further by the case worker.

Ask him where he lives, asks the case worker.

‘where do you live?’ says the interpreter.


‘No, before?’

‘Were there elephants there?’

‘In Streatham?’

According to the UK government, there were 29,380 asylum applications in 2018. Sixty-seven per cent of which were refused asylum.

Asylum decisions in the UK take place behind closed doors, and over the last couple of decades, asserts the show, they have become increasingly kafkaesque. Through the journey of one claim, Cowbury shines a light on the bureaucratic, misleading, pressurised and unfair ways that claimants are asked to give testimony.

As Serge’s story is twisted beyond all recognition he is painted into a perpetrator and criminal when he is in fact a victim. Directed by Mark Maughan, it’s incredibly difficult and frustrating to watch as he is ignored, cajoled and accused, as he tries repeatedly to get the truth across.

This work has wider ramifications about what the UK is and how it wants to be seen in the modern world and this performance paints a picture of a land full of petty prejudices and xenophobia.

Not an easy viewing experience, but a necessary one.

Your sexts are shit, Summerhall

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It’s 11.30 in the morning and we are listening to performer Rachel Mars reading a letter sent from James Joyce to his lover Nora Barnacle in 1909:

“You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat  fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties, ending in a long gush from your hole.”

It’s surprisingly explicit and instantly banishes any preconceptions that talking dirty is a modern preoccupation. James Joyce, or ‘Jim’ as he signed off those letters, was very dirty indeed. He loved to do it ‘arseways’ and wrote eloquently and at length on the subject.

Mars feels we have lost the fine art of writing about our sexual desires, as demonstrated by the series of modern lacklustre sexts displayed on the screen behind her.

Texts like ‘I wanna get underneath the table and make it hard for you to talk’ are contrasted with letters like this from Frida Kahlo to her husband Diego Rivera:

“Everything was surrounded by the green miracle of the landscape of your body. Upon your form, the lashes of the flowers responded to my touch, the murmur of streams. There was all manner of fruits in the juice of your lips, the blood of the pomegranate, the horizon of the mammee and the purified pineapple.”

Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt to her lesbian lover, Charles Bukowski to his girlfriend Linda King, Proust to his grandfather begging for money to purchase a prostitute – these letters are lush and bitter and carnal and profane.

We are living in an age of instant, thoughtless charmless communication. We’ve swapped illicit love notes for dick pics. But have our emotions dulled as much as the missives we thoughtlessly shoot to our partners on tiny screens?

Mars’s presentation is simple and not particularly theatrical; letters are read out, sexts are displayed, repeat. But a more subtle message is being conveyed. As Mars shares mundane poetry from her ex-lovers as well as her own, far better descriptions of her sexuality and the sexual identity she wants to present, the show presents an image of how modern love has changed from that of just a century ago; the picture of sexuality in the modern age is one of instant gratification, but also of quiet, comfortable cohabitation. We don’t need to write letters to cross the oceans separating us when we have Skype. And maybe that text saying don’t forget to buy milk is just another coded, pleading message, asking someone to remember your needs.

Who Cares, Summerhall

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Nicole (Lizzie Mounter) started caring for her mum when she was only four. Jade (Jessica Temple) has always cared for her brother, who has learning difficulties and uses sign language but one day she becomes the carer for her dad too after he is consigned to a wheelchair. Connor (Luke Grant) cares for his mum, she struggles to get out of bed sometimes after her family died all within a few months of each other and then Connor’s dad left him to help her on his own.

Theatre makers LUNG are Associate Artists at The Lowry, making work for communities in and around Manchester. Director and writer Matt Woodhead took two years of interviews with young carers living in Salford to form this profound work highlighting the hidden young carers aged 18 and under who are propping up the NHS by working for free to care for a parent or sibling.

One in 12 young people care for someone. They save the country £132 billion a year in the unpaid caring they do. As this work highlights, they get little or no support and no relief from this work.

The authenticity of the real-life interviews is preserved by the three actors who bear out the optimism and resilience of their real-life counterparts.

As the stories of the three carers interweave and unfold, the characters remind us that this could happen to any of us – all it takes is a parent to turn left instead of right crossing the street.

The effect of benefits cuts is particularly hard to listen to and verbatim interviews with child support services show how their funding has been stripped down to virtually nothing at all. the most shocking aspect of the show is that many of these kids are hidden – they are not known by the authorities and so no help can be put in place to assist them.

While the stories are grim – and the prospects for these young people’s futures are poorer than their non-carer counterparts (they will attain poorer grades at GCSE and their households will earn less) their is great hope and courage that bouys them up – moments of happiness and joy are snatched and cherished, whether it be a parent learning to speak again after a stroke, or a great song they love played out a full volume on their headphones, these children have been forced to have almost more responsibility than they can bear, but they’ve also leant to grasp at joy, and remain unbeaten by their circumstances.

EDINBURGH EDITION – Day four (23 August)

Love (Watching Madness), Pleasance Courtyard

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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 out of 5 stars (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.

EDINBURGH EDITION – Day Two (22 August)

Birth – Pleasance Courtyard

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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 out of 5 stars (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 out of 5 stars (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.

EDINBURGH EDITION – Day one (21 August)

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 out of 5 stars (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 out of 5 stars (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 out of 5 stars (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 out of 5 stars (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, Trafalgar Studios – ‘Marina Sirtis is beautifully nuanced in portrayal of a fading soap star’

Marina Sirtis and Kwaku Mills on a voyage through space and time (Photo: Scott Rylander)
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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).

Kwaku Mills as a Dark Sublime mega-fan (Photo: Scott Rylander)

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.

Marina Sirtis – beautifully nuanced (Photo: Scott Rylander)

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.

Funny: Simon Thorp (Photo: Scott Rylander)

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.

Custody, Ovalhouse – review: ‘This play is as much about the repercussions of grief as it is about racial injustice.’

Custody: Defiant Sister, played by Ewa Dina
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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.

Urban Wolf: important message
Urban Wolf plays Brian’s Brother, the not-so-favourite son

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.

Mother, played by Muna Otaru, is tormented by bad dreams
Mother, played by Muna Otaru, is tormented by bad dreams

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.

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Sarah Kosar’s Armadillo at The Yard Theatre: ‘Compelling story of abuse, trauma – and guns’

Armadillo: Michelle Fox as Sam, the Armadillo
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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.

Rejoicing at Her Wondrous Vulva The Young Woman Applauded Herself, Ovalhouse – review: ‘A brave and beautiful show’

Wondrous Vulva: Body positivity at The Bunker
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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.

Bella Heesom and Sara Alexander as Vulva and Brain Photo: David Monteith Hodge

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 shining.

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.

Fuck You Pay Me: ‘ A showcase celebration of strippers in all their glory’

Joana Nastari -mesmerising moves. Photo: Maurizio Martorana
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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.

Fuck You Pay Me, The Bunker (Credit: David Monteith Hodge) Joana Nastari (5)
Fuck You Pay Me, The Bunker (Credit: David Monteith Hodge) Joana Nastari (5)

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.