Killymuck and Box Clever double bill at The Bunker – an incisive takedown of the myth of a classless society

Killymuck, written by Kat Woods, starring Aoife Lennon (Photo:Craig Sugden)

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.

Redd Lily Roche plays Marnie, the balloon represents her daughter (Photo: Craig Sugden)

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, written by Kat Woods, starring Aoife Lennon (Photo:Javier Ortega Saez)
Killymuck, written by Kat Woods, starring Aoife Lennon (Photo:Javier Ortega Saez)

Killymuck and Box Clever are at The Bunker, 53A Southwark Street London SE1 1RU
Tuesday 26th March – Saturday 13th April 2019.

The Crucible at The Yard, Hackney Wick – ‘heart-rending scenes and a trippy trip to Salem’

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller ; Directed by Jay Miller ; Set Design by Cécile Trémolières ; Costume Designer Oliver Cronk ; Lighting Designer Jess Bernberg ; Sound Design by Josh Anio Grigg ; Video Design by Sarah Readman ; Magic Consultant Tim Bromage ; Composer: Jonah Brody ; Assistant Director: Charlotte Fraser ; Voice Coach: Rachel Coffey ; Dramaturg: Laura Collier ; The Yard ; London, UK ; 27 March 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray
THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller ; Directed by Jay Miller ; Set Design by Cécile Trémolières ; Costume Designer Oliver Cronk ; Lighting Designer Jess Bernberg ; Sound Design by Josh Anio Grigg ; Video Design by Sarah Readman ; Magic Consultant Tim Bromage ; Composer: Jonah Brody ; Assistant Director: Charlotte Fraser ; Voice Coach: Rachel Coffey ; Dramaturg: Laura Collier ; The Yard ; London, UK ; 27 March 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

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.

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller ; Directed by Jay Miller ; Set Design by Cécile Trémolières ; Costume Designer Oliver Cronk ; Lighting Designer Jess Bernberg ; Sound Design by Josh Anio Grigg ; Video Design by Sarah Readman ; Magic Consultant Tim Bromage ; Composer: Jonah Brody ; Assistant Director: Charlotte Fraser ; Voice Coach: Rachel Coffey ; Dramaturg: Laura Collier ; The Yard ; London, UK ; 27 March 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

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.

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller ; Directed by Jay Miller ; Set Design by Cécile Trémolières ; Costume Designer Oliver Cronk ; Lighting Designer Jess Bernberg ; Sound Design by Josh Anio Grigg ; Video Design by Sarah Readman ; Magic Consultant Tim Bromage ; Composer: Jonah Brody ; Assistant Director: Charlotte Fraser ; Voice Coach: Rachel Coffey ; Dramaturg: Laura Collier ; The Yard ; London, UK ; 27 March 2019 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

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.

Definitely worth seeing. Buy tickets from £5 at

The Crucible runs 27 March – 11 May | 7:30pm Monday – Friday, 1pm & 7pm Saturdays.

Ninth Life: The Viewing – review – no spoilers!

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.

Book your tickets at now.

Lights! Planets! People! Vault Festival: How often do you see a 60-year-old bipolar lesbian scientist on stage?

Lights! Planets! People! starring Karen Hill at the Vault Festival (Photo: Dave Guttridge)

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.’

This is Vault Festival’s raison d’etre; itshould be celebrated for giving a platform to diverse and thought-provoking stories that would never appear in the West End but are still worthy of an audience.

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.

Until 17 March at Vault Festival

The New Romantic – Vault Festival: The dawn of the thruple

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.

27 FEB — 03 MAR, Cavern, The Vaults, Waterloo

It’s Not A Sprint – Vault: An existential race to the finish line of life

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?

And then you start doing the maths. Like Rachel in Friends on her 30th birthday:

“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.

Turning 30 and the balloon of doom

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.

Counting Sheep by Belarus Free Theatre – review

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.

Bodies – Royal Court

Bruntwood prize-winner Vivienne Franzmann updates the ‘barren woman’ trope for the 21st century with this new work exploring the hidden costs of surrogacy

Justine Mitchell (Clem)
Justine Mitchell (Clem)© Bronwen Sharp

It can appear lazy for a writer to pin the madness of any female character, in film or on stage, on the character’s inability to conceive, so it’s testament to the skill of playwright Vivienne Franzmann (Clean Break, Royal Court), that this age-old trope of the barren woman is successfully given a gripping twist in bodies.

The play opens with Clem (Justine Mitchelle) chatting about kale chips with her articulate pre-teen daughter (played by a precocious Hannah Rae) in Gabriella Slade’s simple Scandinavian style living room set (IKEA, methinks), with sliding glass doors that act as both scene dividers and a physical representation of the compartmentalisation of Clem’s mind.

But as banter between mother and daughter transcends into metaphor, we soon discover the daughter is in fact a projection of Clem’s hopes and fears for her unborn child, who is growing in the womb of a woman in India, and made possible by the eggs of a woman from Russia, both thousands of miles away.

Clem’s husband Josh was played on the night by Jonathan McGuinness, who had heroically stepped in to replace Brian Ferguson only the day before. Despite performing with script in hand, he conveyed an endearing chemistry with Mitchell that brought a much-needed lightness to the action.

While their relationship is rock solid, Clem’s relationship with her dad, David, who has motor neurone disease, is falling apart. She can barely understand his effortful speech and he seems to prefer the company of his new carer Oni (played with great comic timing by Lorna Brown) to that of his own daughter.

The scenes between the father and Clem are intricately woven and Jude Christian‘s direction builds tension with subtle layers, until you suddenly realise you’ve been chewing your nails off all along. These moments speak to the sometimes complicated need for love between parent and child, and the chasms that can come when neither understands the other’s choices.

As the layers of lies Clem has told herself to morally justify this transaction are peeled back, we see increasingly more of the surrogate, Lakshmi (played with fragility and fierceness in turns by Salma Hoque) a young woman whose story is not as rosy as the surrogate agency might have led Clem and Josh to believe.

An engrossing allegory for the modern age, where we consume things at the click of a button, this new work forces a consideration of what happens when we want something so badly that we try to pretend there are no consequences.

bodies runs at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, until 12 August.

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