Ladykiller at the Vault Festival review ****

Ladykiller, The Thelmas

Vault Festival, 3rd March 2019

Blimey. The Thelmas, director and founder Madelaine Moore and writer Guleraana Mir, together with the writer here, Madeline Gould, aren’t pulling any punches here. The company is “dedicated to the development and promotion of early career female writers and theatre makers”. They “crave authentic and bittersweet stories outside of the traditional female stereotype and socially impactful narratives that reflect society but don’t look to solve prevalent issues”. They have certainly met the brief here.

Lights (from Jennifer Rose) up. Her, played by Hannah McClean, is a hotel chambermaid. Drenched in blood with a body (artfully made by Baska Wesolowska) at her feet. She appears to have killed a guest. In fact she has killed a guest. But, as she says, “it’s not what it looks like”. Over the next hour she takes us through her motives, means and opportunity. Initially because she is pissed off at having to clean up after someone who has shat the bed leaving no explanation or apology. She hold backs though and waits to plan the perfect murder. Because she can and because she enjoys it. And because she is overlooked and looked down on. That’s the premise. A woman with no reason to kill. She walks us through the history and typology of serial killing, invites us to consider our own reactions to her psychopathic tendencies and shows us how the sexist expectations of others have allowed her, maybe, to literally get away with murder.

The monologue constantly defies audience expectations often with a knowing wink or line. It is very funny in places and, which really surprised me, actually a little disturbing, inviting us to consider our own darkest impulses. (The Tourist may yet one day exact an ultimate retribution against those who put their feet on seats in trains).

That this should be the case is done to the brilliant performance of Hannah McClean. If acting is all about making a courageous leap to eliminate all traces of self-consciousness, to show no fear, so that an audience can suspend its own disbelief then Ms McClean succeeds in spades. Of course she hasn’t killed anyone and is not a killer for her own pleasure but she certainly makes you feel like she could be. Whilst simultaneously debunking and deconstructing the very idea. She is charming and unnerving by turns. Just occasionally the feminist message is a little too calculating, a little too strident, but it is still a powerful and effective conceit.

Unreliable narrators, especially the darkly comic, can often be relied on to tell a good story. To do this, and make telling points about gender expectations, in just 50 minutes or so, is a real coup. Pretty much every review of Ladykiller I have seen raves about it. With good reason. Definitely worth seeing should you get the opportunity. And I hope to see Hannah McClean again.

I see The Thelmas are working on a new show, Bootcamp, which involves women and boxing. I look forward to seeking that out too. (BTW The last play I saw which entered similar territory, The Sweet Science of Bruising by Joy Wilkinson, is getting a run at Wiltons in June. Well worth a visit in a venue which should suit it).

Unmythable at the Vault Festival review ****

Unmythable, Out of Chaos

Vault Festival, 3rd March 2019

There was all sorts of cutting edge theatre, comedy and performance on at the Vault Festival this year, but being the old fart that he is the Tourist largely plumped for the safe options of comic takes on Greek myths. Satisfying his pretensions and ensuring he doesn’t get too close to all the intimidating, fashionable London twenty-somethings who all seem to be permanently switched on whilst the Tourist languishes in his catatonic bubble. So having really, really enjoyed Pants on Fire’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses it was off to an hour or so in the company of Unmythable from Brighton based Out of Chaos.

Devised by the company and directed by Paul O’Mahony and Mike Tweddle, with sound from Rob Castell and Phil Ward and designed by Claire Browne (just a couple of boxes if truth be told), Unmythable offers a comic take on all the Greek myths (well maybe not all of them but a remarkably wide spread in just an hour) courtesy of three actors, I think Alice Haig, Hannah Barrie and one other whose name, to my eternal shame, I can’t find, having failed to secure a flyer. It takes the story of Jason and his 50 odd Argonaut mates and their city break to Colchis on the hunt for that Golden Fleece (above is a quattrocento Florentine take on the story) . The big name Argonauts get their own turns, as do I think, some non Argonaut gods and heroes, in the form of songs and skits. However Jason’s key wing-persons are the slightly less courageous bessies, Beta and Gamma. Nice touch.

Physical comedy, funny accents, costume changes, contemporary pop culture references, audience interaction, narrative, dialogue, monologue, are all employed with the emphasis on pointing up the brutality and often weirdness (and misogyny) of the myths. They don’t hang about so occasionally the switches are a little too swift, and the humour isn’t too subtle, but when to works it is genuinely hilarious. Jason dragging his feet, understandably, when out comes to marrying Medea, The Labours of Hercules, shushing in the Trojan horse, Midas at the salon, Aeetes as Brando as Don Corleone, Persephone as an adventurous pony club member and, simultaneously, peeved mum Demeter, trying to avoid the clutches of Hades.

Unmythable has already toured the globe over the past few years and I suspect if has many more years to go, though I think this years outing may be over. If you haven’t see it, and get a chance to, don’t hesitate. Ideally with mates and beer. No need to bone up on the Greeks. Didn’t bother me.

Stones in His Pockets at the Rose Kingston review ***

Stones in His Pockets

Rose Theatre Kingston, 1st March 2019

Like Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, and written at the same time, Marie Jones’s Stones in His Pockets is a comedy which examines the impact when a Hollywood film crew descends on a small Irish community. But where one is sharp, dark and intriguing, this, for all of the sorrow at the heart of the play, is a much slighter affair, and can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is satirises or celebrating the outsider view of Ireland it examines. Maybe it was just the production, but the two hander structure, with both actors jumping incessantly between characters, seems to animate the broader, physical humour at the expense of the message about tired stereotyping which, I think, Marie Jones is trying to get across.

Not that it wasn’t funny in places. Though not as funny for me as it seemed to be for others. Some of the audience at the Rose were doubled up in mirth, others sat near stony-faced. Still there was pretty enthusiastic applause at the end for the efforts of Owen Sharpe (Jake) and Kevin Trainor (Charlie), which was very well deserved. Yet I had expected something more given the reception the play was afforded in its early years as it snowballed from its Belfast Lyric premiere, through a community tour, Edinburgh Fringe, the Tricycle and then into the West End for an award winning run of three years. Though perhaps this reflected the combined talents of actors Sean Campion and Conleth Hill (last seen by me steadfastly refusing to be out-acted by no less than Imelda Staunton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). It has been revived on numerous occasions in Ireland, the UK and around the world. I even note that Kare Conradi, the AD of the Norwegian Ibsen Theatre (who was over here for The Lady From the Sea a couple of weeks ago), did a stint in a production over there. If it works in the land of Ibsen then who am I to argue.

Charlie Conlon and Jake Quinn are two friends in a rural town in County Kerry who sign up as extras for the Hollywood film. Charlie, on the run from his failed business, has written a script he dreams will be made into a film. Jake has recently returned from NYC, knows everyone in the village, and is besotted by the star of the movie, Caroline. The producers, directors and crew only care about getting the film done on time with plausibility, plot and accents taking a back seat. The “colourful” locals are initially excited at the arrival of Hollywood but soon tire of the glamour, and things take a turn for the worse when one of the villagers, druggie Sean, commits suicide after being humiliated by Caroline in the local pub. The flashpoint is Sean’s funeral. Jake and Charlie get the chance to pitch the script but it is rejected by the film’s for being insufficiently romantic and commercial.

Easy enough to see the tension between the Hollywood view of Ireland and reality. Martin McDonagh takes more direct aim at the liberties taken by Robert J Flaherty in his “documentary” Man of Aran in 1934, but the intent is similar. This touring co-production (with Bath Theatre Royal), is directed by Lindsay Posner, who has delivered it in NYC recently, and is as safe a pair of hands as it is possible to get, whether in classic or lighter theatrical fare (Mamet, Miller, Ben Johnson and Noises Off being particular highlights in my book). Peter McKintosh’s set is your standard Irish outdoorsy caper (see Rae Smith’s bigger budget version for the NT’s Translations last year), with the two actors manipulating a large chest to simulate the indoor scenes.

Moderately entertaining. For sure. Thought provoking. Nope, Fraid not.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses at the Vaults Festival review *****

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Pants on Fire, Vaults Festival, 23rd February

Seven years in to the Vaults Festival and finally the Tourist takes the plunge. If there is a cutting edge to avoid you can be sure the Tourist finds it. It is not even as if the Waterloo location is inconvenient. It could hardly be more accessible. Still better late than never.

Last year the Festival, which I read somewhere is now the biggest outside Edinburgh, attracted some 70,000 punters over 8 weeks. This year there are over 400 shows from around 2000 artists and performers. You pay £15 or so for an hour or so’s entertainment. The organisers get 30% of the take to cover costs, the artists 70%. That, I am assured, is way more attractive for the creative that the usual economic model. So everyone’s a winner.

Especially when the hour, or in this case, 80 minutes or so is of the quality of Pants on Fire’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Now I could bullshit you and pretend I have read Ovid’s magnum opus, basically a history of the world from the creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, part mythic, part factual, in the form of a narrative poem made up of 12,000 lines over 15 books and incorporating over 250 myths. I haven’t. But, such is the pervasive nature of these myths in Western culture, I am, like any reasonably aware culture vulture, au fait with most of the stories.

And that is all you need to enjoy this show. The selected stories are, adroitly, set in Britain during WWII. Think period uniforms. Each of the chosen myths, (I would have been happy to watch the cast of seven take on the entire 15 books, but I guess they, and we, had homes to go to), takes the form of a sketch if you will, with narration, performance, on stage music, various props and enterprising video, lighting and sound design. There is even some puppetry and animation. Whilst the Crescent may be the biggest of the various venues across the Festival this is still a tiny stage so the creative team, led by director Peter Bramley, had to be pretty ingenious to fit it all together. The four panels centre stage which served as backdrop and screens seemed to be in constant motion. Favourite setting? The Underground as the Underworld. Genius. Favourite transformation? Io complete with tin can hooves and gas mask. Double genius. Favourite scene? Narcissus as Hollywood idle with Echo as usherette. Triple genius.

Now I can’t pretend I clocked all of the stories on show but the following were all name-checked. The Creation, Sirens, Gorgons, Apollo, Daphne, Io, Mercury, Cadmus, Diana, Semele, Bacchus, Tiresias, Narcissus, Echo, Cupid, Icarus, Salmacis, Hermaphroditus, Perseus, Arachne, Marsyas, Medusa, Jason, the Minotaur, Hercules, Orpheus, Eurydice, Midas, Achilles, Ajax and Ulysses. At least I think they were. I might have got confused with Unmythable from Out of Chaos that I saw a week or so later, equally as entertaining. Anyway the point is that Metamorphoses is innovative, imaginative and above all very, very funny. I gather that Ovid’s poem ticks the form box marked epic but also takes in the elegiac, tragic and pastoral along the way. It is certainly keen to mock and subvert its own pretension; it is properly “meta” in the modern argot. This is wryly captured in Pants on Fire’s routines. As is the theme of metamorphosis or transformation from one form to another, and the power of love, Amor, to upset various narrative apple carts.

Pants on Fire was founded by AD Peter Bramley, who trained with Jacques Lecoq, in 2004, alongside Heather Winstanley who devised the visuals and produced Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lucy Eggers composed the original music for OM, the Andrews Sisters style chorus numbers being one of the highlights. Whilst POF have created a number of shows it is this that has garnered awards and toured extensively following its debut in 2010 (at the dear old Greenwich Theatre and then Edinburgh). It is easy to see why. (I do like the sound of their Splice mind you, an hour long theatrical tour through the history of cinema). They are currently working on creating a festival of one person, performance “shorts”. Sounds good.

The cast here included Beth Lockhart who is the other principal of Pants on Fire along with Adam Boakes, Max Gallagher, Sindre Kaurang, Chloe Levis, Bridget Mylecharane and Rosie Ward. A splendid ensemble largely drawn from Rose Buford College where Peter Bramley teaches movement. There were moments when the timing went awry and accents wobbled but frankly that is all part of the improvisational charm.

Theatre is about transformation and can be transformative. Ovid was ploughing the same furrow. Certainly one of the best hour’s entertainments I have seen in this or any other year. It will be back. Don’t miss it.

Stan and Ollie film review ****

Stan and Ollie, 22nd January 2019

For the avoidance of doubt the two fellas above are not Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, the stars of film Stan and Ollie, nor indeed are they yer actual Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. No this, obviously is a statue of the comedy duo, courtesy of artist Graham Ibbesson, propped up against a lamp post outside the Coronation Hall in Ulverston near the seaside in South Lakeland, Cumbria. Where Stan Laurel was born. Pretty good likenesses you’ll warrant. Art initiating life imitating art imitating life …. you get the picture.

For imitation is what the film does best as the two lead actors turn in a couple of memorable, painstakingly detailed, turns as the beloved S&O. The story charts the return of S&O, down on their uppers, to Britain in 1953 to undertake a tour, organised by impresario Bernard Delfont (a well cast Rufus Jones). Only the boys are not offered much in the way of quality venues, (Delfont preferring the questionable comedy talents of one Norman Wisdom), so start off playing to tiny, nostalgic crowds Oop North, with Stan reassuring Ollie that, once in London, he can secure the backing for a new film script, a Robin Hood spoof, that will rehabilitate both reputation and bank balance. Word of mouth, and immortal talent, turns the tour into a massive success, and the lads are joined by wives, the devoted and fiercely protective Lucille H (the ever brilliant Shirley Henderson) and the terse Russian Ida (a pitch perfect Nina Arianda), comically hamming up their own rivalry (“two double acts for the price of one”). Cue a falling out and reconciliation when Ollie’s health takes a turn for the worse.

So cliched you could barely make it up. Except that it is true. And these are about the most lovable pair, as portrayed and in reality, that you could want to watch. There are obviously generations, my age or older, who are familiar with Laurel and Hardy from repeats on the telly. There will be other youngun’s as well, I am sure, who will have discovered them through their own volition or Mum and Dad’s reminiscing. Whatever, there was clearly going to be enough of an audience to make this film a success.

Which may also be why it is played so straight. Not straight as in lacking humour. Like I say Messrs Coogan and Reilly have the routines of S&O down to a tee. As they do when it comes to the more complex off-stage/screen personalities. Vocally and physically the resemblances are uncanny. No, it is just that the way the story is told contains next to no surprises. It isn’t mushily sentimental, but it doesn’t take any risks at all. It is cheesy, sweet and melancholic in all the right places. The two leads, director Jon S Baird and writer Jeff Pope (co-writer on Steve Coogan’s other major big screen success Philomena), all plainly, and rightly adore their subjects but a slightly less decorous tone might have paid dividends.

Still the best bits, the dolly shot opening in the Hollywood back-lot, Stan sticking it to Hal Roach (a cameo from Danny Houston), Newcastle in the rain, the “hospital sketch” repetitions (especially the exchange on Ollie’s actual sickbed), the double door routine, the ladies bitching at the reception, the venue interiors, Stan looking wistfully up at the Abbott and Costello film poster, are undoubtedly effective, laden with pathos, humour and affection. Cinematographer Laurie Rose takes much of the credit and the make-up and prosthetics of Jeremy Woodhead and Mark Coulier, turning John C Reilly into Oliver Hardy, especially in the later scenes, is remarkable.

All in all a very nice, touching and amusing film. Make of that what you will.

Keep: Daniel Kitson at Battersea Arts Centre review *****

Keep, Daniel Kitson

Battersea Arts Centre, 20th January 2019

Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, Kitson. I know, I know. He is only a stand-up comedian. So comparing him to these master explorers of the absurdity of the human condition is, to say the least, stretching it a bit. However, as those of us who have become addicted to his “story shows”, (I don’t think DK would like to think he has “fans”), as well as his “stand up”, in recent years. he is a very clever fellow, as are the chaps above, he is very funny and he delivers startling insights. Yes the conceits that underpin the structures of these stories can be as pretentious as they are inventive, and once set-up it is usually pretty easy to see where they will end up, (though the pay-off here is still worth the wait), and yes the man himself, or rather his persona, and his repeated tropes can be annoying, but when he hits it no-one comes close. And that includes many great dramatists who search for tragic-comic perfection.

In Keep he hits it. No question. The preamble, where he gives the audience a chance to excuse itself, as he describes what is coming, the threat, to read out a list of everything he owns, the diversions and repetitions which follow, the self reference, self reverence and self revelation, (now’s who’s being pretentious), the gentle provocations, the playful aphorisms, all are present and correct and all beautifully delivered. Maybe by the end the various layers become a bit too meta, and maybe, as DK himself admits the metaphor of stuff in filing cabinet for mind and self is a bit too creaky, and could be applied by anyone to anyone, but frankly I don’t care as no-one else comes close to being able to create this kind of work.

Don’t worry, there are plenty of laughs. And for those who appear to think it is too long I suggest they need to work on their attention spans. I would have taken another couple of hours no problem. Of course it meanders and digresses, it’s Kitson FFS, but, certainly not in the performances I saw, without considered effect. Love, loneliness, hope, regret, memory, agency, language, he has covered this territory before, but these are the staples of many of the modern dramatic greats including those mentioned above.

And all this for £12. It’s gone now. Don’t miss the next one.

The Double Dealer at the Orange Tree review ****

The Double Dealer

Orange Tree Theatre, 7th January 2019

Now everyone know’s that Restoration comedy is a tricky customer. What with the humour built on misogyny, that’s if it is funny at all. The satire of a social class few of us recognise. Texts are so thick, built on repartee, wordplay, punning and double entendre. Plots and sub-plots are labyrinthine. Intrigues, trysts, disguise, mistaken identity, off stage shenanigans, eavesdropping, knob gags, duplicity, comeuppances. Characters are stock: rakes, roues, ingenues, cuckolds, randy older women, buffoons. The debt to French and Spanish contemporaries, Jacobean classics, commedia dell’arte and the Roman foundations of Plautus and chums, is obvious even if it is firmly of its time.

I’ve swerved a few in my time, including recently the Donmar Way of the World, which sounded a bit too full-on. There was a Simon Godwin Beaux Stratagem at the NT a few years ago which had its moments and the “Bright Young Things” Country Wife last year from Morphic Graffiti was diverting in parts but I am still waiting to be shown the “real thing”. Director Selina Cadell, who is a veteran of the Restoration, (you know what I mean), as both actor and, increasingly, director, (Love for Love at the RSC, Way of the World at Theatre Royal, Northampton, The Rivals at the Arcola, in addition to a Stravinsky Rake’s Progress at Wilton’s), offers valuable insight in the programme. To make the comedy work actors need to trust the text and stop their natural, modern tendency to interpret and emote.

I can see the sense of that and also the idea that we the audience shouldn’t worry too much about trying to unravel the plot. To that end, in this Double Dealer, William Congreve’s 1694 less successful follow up to his hit debut The Old Bachelor, Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson have offered up a short prologue telling us to do exactly that. So, with that in mind, I settled in, though, given the string of less than enthusiastic reviews, expectations were low.

So I was more than a little surprised when I found myself starting to enjoy the proceedings. Not to the point of being converted to the Restoration cause but certainly enough to justify 4*, admittedly on the Tourist’s extremely flawed, subjective and overly generous ranking system. (I reason that all involved have gone to the effort so it is only reasonable for me to be generous in my appreciation. And the hard laws of cognitive dissonance mean I am hardly likely to admit I ballsed up by booking to see something in the first place).

This is not to say that the plot isn’t convoluted. Earnest young Mellefont (Lloyd Everitt), heir and nephew to Lord Touchwood (Jonathan Coy) can’t wait to marry Cynthia (Zoe Waiter) who is the daughter by a former wife of Sir Paul Plyant (Simon Chandler). Sir Paul is also the brother of Lady Touchwood (also Zoe Waites) who just happens to have the hots for young Mellefont. Lady T, rejected by said Mellefont, gets the hump and resolves to ruin his reputation. She recruits the rakish Maskwell (Edward MacLiam), the Double Dealer of the title, and Lady T’s former lover, into her plot. As it happens the villain Maskwell is actually in love with the virtuous Cynthia. So Maskwell attempts to persuade Sir Paul P that his missus, the randy Lady P (Jenny Rainsford), is getting it on with Mellefont, and Lord T that Mellefont also has designs on his wife. Into this fray are plunged Mellefont’s mate Careless (Dharmesh Patel), Lord Froth (Paul Reid) and his pretentious wife Lady Froth (Hannah Stokely) who responds to the advances of coxcomb Brisk (Jonathan Broadbent), who also plays a chaplain as the trysts pile up and the plots unravel.

Easy really. Seriously though, a quick scan of Wiki, as you might prior to a Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson play, a shifty glance at your programme as the various punters run on and off in the first few minutes, and it becomes pretty easy to follow. So I am not sure that constitutes a fair criticism. The constant entrances and exits do get a little repetitive but so it can in Shakespeare history plays and there ain’t a lot of options space-wise at the OT, that is normally one of its joys. The reasons for the doubling of Lady Touchwood and Cynthia remain a mystery but Zoe Waites offers more than sufficient distinction between the two, in some ways rather to the detriment of her colourless Cynthia. And, when we get to the scene where Cynthia eavesdrops on Lady T’s intrigues, we witness the rather daft sight of her rolling on her side to signify who is speaking. Still at least she didn’t have one of those split down the middle costumes on.

Lloyd Everett gives more definition to Mellefont but the the star turn by a country mile is Jenny Rainsford’s Lady Plyant, who is hilarious, both in the delivery of her lines and her movement. Hannah Stokely also gets real laughs out of Lady Froth and Edward MacLiam gradually, though not entirely, fleshes Maskwell out beyond the pantomime. The rest of the cast is solid if not always spectacular. As an aside I think this might have been my first full house in terms of the ten strong cast. All seen in the last couple of years in other productions. Madeleine Girling’s set did the job as did Rosalind Ebbutt’s costume’s and Vince Herbert’s lighting though I couldn’t escape the feeling, (very rare at the OT where less is normally defiantly more), that more space and more money would have helped.

BUT what I can say is that this was a production which persuaded me that Restoration Comedy can be not just something I, (and I suspect most audiences), should enjoy, but something that I could enjoy, and in fact something that I would enjoy. If there were an entire cast operating at the same level as, say, Jenny Rainsford here, so that every line, every exchange, every character trait, every situation, registered then it could be very bright and very witty. If this were overlaid with more expansive visual cues, the entertainment could be further enhanced. Not to the exclusion of the text but in support thereof. And if the differences between the characters are fully defined by movement, costume and through variations in the rhythm of dialogue and action then the plot should be less of a hurdle.

Even the most perfect production might have its work cut out to bring relevancy to the social satire or to contemporise the sexual politics. Congreve’s play dates from the period of the second wave of Restoration comedy from 1690 through the turn of the C18 which broadened out the interaction between social classes beyond the purely aristocratic subjects of the original craze from 1660 to 1680. Even so it is still essentially a bunch of toffs running around stunting innuendos the Carry On script writers might have rejected. Easy to see why the stuffy Victorians took umbrage and the plays fell out of fashion.

This is the first production of the Double Dealer in London for a few decades. It’s not perfect. The tension between the pantomimic and the dramatic is never really resolved. There is precious little weight to the characters. The space constrains, even though the play is nominally set in the “gallery” of Lord T’s house over the three hours of the (unabridged) play. Yet, despite this, the Tourist sniggered a fair bit and emerged in quite a perky mood. Which is not always the case post theatricals. And, armed with a greater understanding of the genre, hoping, one day, to chalk up a 5* Restoration comedy.

https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/04/27/the-country-wife-at-southwark-playhouse-review/