X, rated

The culture: ‘X’ by Alistair McDowall, Royal Court

The cheap seats: a last minute freebee from a friend

At the post-show that followed the performance of ‘X’ I saw, Alistair McDowall (geeky, anxious, hilarious) said that he aimed for the back of the brain, writing for the subconscious, with his new play ‘X’.

And that’s exactly where it hit me. Or rather, where it crept up on me from. McDowall scatters linguistic tics and rhythms and repetition into his script like seeds which sprout up when you least expect them, take root and then return like Triffids in the second half.

The sci-fi genre put me off booking, originally, but I’m so glad I got to see this exciting piece of theatre. It might be set on a lonely research station on Pluto but ‘X’ is as much about time as it is about space. The team lose contact with Earth before the shuttle that was to take them back can reach. When the rescue ship still hasn’t arrived days/weeks/months later, they begin to feel nervous. As they lose hope and start to lose their minds, Cole (Rudi Dharmalingam) realises there’s something wrong with the clock.

Linear time and linear narratives are shattered and the scenes between black-outs get weirder and weirder. The team start to see things outside, in space, and Gilda (Jessica Raine) is hallucinating – or is she?

There’s a line in ‘Hamlet’ – “the time is out of joint” – that sprang to mind as I watched the unravelling of life and logic in ‘X’. With its clever, crooked set, snappy direction, and excellent cast ‘X’ is provocative and challenging – it had me gripped (and a bit terrified), even when the dialogue broke down into xs










Ode to Joy

The culture: ‘Wonder.land’, National Theatre Olivier; ‘The Woman Hater’ by Edward’s Boys, King’s College London Chapel

The cheap seats: £5 Entry Pass stalls seats (upgraded to centre, row D); £10 general tickets

Over the last few weeks I’ve seen some brilliant and brutal theatre, starting with Sarah Kane’s torturous masterpiece ‘Cleansed’ and then Jean Genet’s tricky drama ‘The Maids’ at Trafalgar Studios. Both had brilliant casts and powerful women galore. They were hard hitting, tackling issues of race, gender, class. They were sweary and violent but also beautiful in a twisted and disturbing way.

They were also difficult. Both plays are firmly lodged in my brain but I didn’t really ‘get’ them. I left the theatres feeling a bit floored, but not feeling like I understood the plays, and certainly not like I had been entertained. I also think I’ve gained a brow-wrinkle from thinking about them.

There’s something to be said for something that’s pure joyful fun. Last weekend I finally saw ‘Wonder.land’ at the National Theatre, the new musical based on Alice in Wonderland by Moira Buffini and Blur’s Damon Albarn. I booked before it got savaged on press night and, having seen the reviews, almost returned my tickets. But I’m so, so glad I didn’t. ‘Wonder.land’ is high-camp fun of the highest order, the kind that is usually reserved for pantomime season. Aly is a troubled teen from a broken home who enters ‘Wonder.land’, a virtual reality game where you can be whoever you like, to escape the bullies at her new school and the fall-out from her parents’ break-up at home. Yes, it was a bit patronising in places. But the theme of self-acceptance was so uplifting, there were so many inspired moments, so much glitter, and a very sexy white rabbit, that I left grinning like the Cheshire cat himself.

Sunday’s treat was a little more high-brow. As part of King’s College London’s Beaumont400 conference (an antidote to all the bardolating that’s going on at the moment), Edward’s Boys, a boys’ company from Stratford-upon-Avon, staged Francis Beaumont’s forgotten gem of a comedy ‘The Woman Hater’. The entire show was brilliantly stolen by its madcap subplot in which a glutton will do anything, including marrying a prostitute, to sample the rare delicacy of his dreams – a fish head. There was even a Dean Martin song thrown in. I’ve never laughed so hard in a chapel.

While I love a serious piece of drama as much as the next frequenter of the NT, there’s a lot to be said for fun theatre, and for revelling in childish jokes, belly laughs, glitter cannons, pimps dressed as priests, and fish heads.

Lagers and Trombones and Bears, Oh My!

The culture: ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, National Theatre Lyttelton; ‘Iphigenia in Splott’, National Theatre Temporary Theatre

The cheap seats: £10 standing tickets at the Sam Wanamaker; £5 Entry Pass in the Circle for ‘Ma Rainey’ (which gave me a great view of the set); £20 full price side view for ‘Iphigenia’ (Entry Pass ones had sold out but I’m so glad I splurged).

I’ve seen a lot of beige theatre lately, stuff that’s not got me excited enough to write about, stuff I’ve neither loved nor hated. To be honest I was worrying that, after a dodgy tail-end of 2015 (I’m looking at you, Young Vic Macbeth), 2016 was going to be a duff one. But in the first grey and miserable week of February I scored a hat-trick. Here’s my week in review, and it’s full of strong women, powerful words, and brilliant theatre.

Tuesday: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The ‘Late Shakespeare’ winter season at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has been an interesting project so far. After a strong start with Dominic Dromgoole’s Pericles, I was a little disappointed by a Cymbeline (dir. Sam Yates) that although clear and beautiful lacked the magic and wow-factor of its predecessor. Michael Longhurst’s Winter’s Tale, the third production in this repertory, is gripping, dark, and powerful from its opening moments. The first half ends with the auditorium plunged into a chilling darkness, populated by bears and lonely candles, before the second half lifts the spirits from the depths of despair, gathering everyone round the fire for a good old-fashioned knees-up and a hey-nonny-nonny sing-song led by James Garnon’s cheeky Autolycus and a whole flock of ruddy-faced country folk. There’s some weird, primal sheep dancing that is really best buried somewhere deep in your subconscious where you’ll never have to encounter it again, but overall this Winter’s Tale is a joyous production of my new favourite Shakespeare play and worth seeing for Rachael Stirling’s Hermione and Niamh Cusack’s passionate Paulina alone.

Thursday: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson, National Theatre – Lyttelton 

Another one for those who like their theatre with a strong kick of feisty femininity, Dominic Cooke’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Sharon D. Clarke as the titular Mother of the Blues, has a woman calling the shots in a music world dominated by white men. The story follows a diva’s battle to get control of her music in 1920s Chicago, and her band’s own struggles as black men in America. It’s an incredible story inspired by real-life and told with a whole lot of soul in this adaptation. The cast is faultless and it is so refreshing to see such diversity on a National Theatre stage. The two young black guys sitting next to me were, tellingly, not discussing the current whiter-than-white repertoire (As You Like It, Waste) but remembering their last trip to the National (Amen Corner, the last time I saw so many non-white faces on this patch of the South Bank) and getting excited for their next theatre trip – Red Velvet at the Garrick. This just goes to show that all the NT need to do to improve access and participation is to finally put more brilliant, diverse work in their programme!

Friday: Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen, National Theatre – Temporary Theatre

This was absolutely the jewel in the crown of my week of great theatre. Gary Owen’s one-woman play – furiously, movingly, beautifully brought to life by Sophie Melville’s phenomenal performance – is a battle cry for the NHS, screaming in the face of the Tory government and laying bare the bruises and bodies caused by Conservative cuts under stark neon lights. Effie is the kind of girl that seems more likely to be doing heroin down a dark alley of her rundown hometown than acting like a national heroine. She gets so wasted that she’s wiped out for the rest of the week just to pass the time. She staggers about with a two-day hangover, barely surviving on 25p instant noodles, smoking weed with her good for nothing boyfriend Kev. She’s a horrible symptom of a sick nation riddled with unemployment and weakened by a toxic drinking culture. We are repelled. She owns it. Effie aggressively confronts our prejudice against her before telling her story in her own words. It’s bitterly tragic and harrowingly told. By the end our horror isn’t focused on the ballsy, bad-mouthed, bleach-blonde Effie but on ourselves, our privilege, our ignorance of a country in tatters and a whole section of our society forced to be heroic because there’s no other way to keep going. I cried big ugly tears, gulping down sobs, like so many others were, so we wouldn’t ruin the stunned silence smothering the Temporary Theatre. What Iphigenia in Splott does in 75 minutes is more than most plays can do in three hours. This is what theatre is supposed to be like. I’m getting a bit emotional just thinking about it.

Shakespeare: Our Contemporary?

The culture: ‘Measure for Measure’, Young Vic; ‘As You Like It’, National Theatre; ‘Henry V’, Barbican

The cheap seats: restricted side view at the Young Vic (a nice, safe distance from all those sex dolls), £5 central front row seats at the National so I could enjoy a particularly beautiful Orlando, £5 RSC Key tickets at the Barbican – my sweet spot seat (M22, Stalls).

The thing with playing with the canon is that it can explode – either with a damp squib or brilliant pyrotechnics. Watching three recent London productions of Shakespeare, I’ve had very different experiences. If my trips to productions of  Young Vic, the National Theatre and the Barbican were a game of Snog, Marry, Avoid, I would steer clear of Measure for Measure, kiss As You Like It while grinning in a brightly coloured, frilly underskirt surrounded by origami flowers, and I’d marry dear, dependable Henry V because the RSC’s production would be the kind of amiable husband who would never cheat or forget to put the bins out, but would tell a dirty joke every now and then just so you didn’t entirely regret plumping for predictable, comfortable, suburban matrimony.

Sticking to what they do best, the good ship RSC and captain Greg Doran create a clear Henry V. Alex Hassell, who was the perfect Hal, doesn’t quite seem to have settled or grown into the role, even after a full run in Stratford, but the ensemble, as ever, is brilliant. A particular highlight is Robert Gilbert as pouting court poser the Dauphin of France. Henry V is the RSC at its finest doing what it does best – dressing up in lots of leather, doing a bit of sword fighting and speaking verse exceptionally well. It was very entertaining but not a single patch of ground was broken.

But then super modern doesn’t always work either, as the Young Vic’s Measure for Measure (dir. Joe Hill-Gibbins) can testify. Maybe they sent a hapless production assistant to Ann Summers as a joke. The mountain  of blow up sex dolls is certainly funny to start with, but soon the laughter wears thin. The actors are literally wading through pink plastic, pushing genitals aside to do their monologues and it suddenly seems a bit grotesque.

Then there’s the filming. The prison scenes are like a weird sex dungeon episode of a dodgy MTV series filmed on shaky handheld cameras and projected onto the wooden board at the back of the set. Romola Garai’s Isabella is strong – all angry shouting, eloquence and stubborn righteousness where poor Mariah Gale was restricted to wide, wet eyes and disbelief over at the Globe this summer. The ending’s good too and making the Duke a bit mad is a really clever way of dealing with the play’s greatest problem.  As a heavily cut text running for two hours with no interval it’s underdeveloped and rushed but at least clear and concise in its vision. There is, however, no escaping the gimmicks, especially since at least a hundred of them are slap bang in the centre of the stage with gaping mouths. It’s not sexy or shocking, just a little bit awkward, and it adds little to nothing to the play.

Perhaps, then, the best answer to the question To Modernise or Not To Modernise? is just to sidestep it and make a production timeless. Polly Findlay’s As You Like It at the National’s Olivier Theatre begins in a modern setting. The Duke’s court is an office with whirring technology smartly dressed workers. Neatly clipped bonsai trees under lamps and forest desktop screensavers seem to replace the forest of Arden and it looks like a clever metaphor for how we’ve forgotten nature in a sea of capitalism. Someone from the house of Dubois comes in to trim the bonsai, sticking out like a sore thumb in the chic black office with his rustic chest of tools. It turns out to be wholesome Orlando (Joe Bannister), come to rescue fair Rosalind (Rosalie Craig) from the corporate court.

The scene change is nothing short of spectacular and from this point the play is radical Shakespeare. When the tables and chair fly up and the office set wheels back I expected a lush green forest. Instead, we’re given a post-apocalyptic scene with a smashed tarmac floor. Everyone wears camo colours and chunky knitwear, shivering and huddling for warmth, occasionally bursting into folk song to boost morale. Polly Findlay’s “Forest” of Arden can be cruel or kind and the spooky gothic feathered spirits perched on suspended office furniture chirp like sparrows or squark like ravens.

The dangling desks, covered in Post-It love notes by Orlando, are a bit odd until you embrace them and appreciate them as a kind of dark cubist set. The lines are often anachronistic but the performances are strong, particularly Bannister’s Orlando and Patsy Ferran’s show-stealing Celia, not usually a character who gets to shine but played for all she’s worth and more by Ferran, with her gift for comedy, timing, and kooky facial expressions. The ending is very ‘Wizard of Oz’ but it’s so fun and beautiful that it’s impossible not to get totally swept up in it all – just as you should by a good Shakespeare comedy.

These three London productions have shown me just how picky I am about my Shakespeare productions.Essentially, it’s been like a theatre-based rewrite of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’.  The Young Vic’s Measure for Measure was too hot and left me cold. The RSC’s Henry V was good (and a great end to the King and Country Cycle I’ve enjoyed over the past few years) but too conventional for my taste. Polly Findlay’s dynamic As You Like It at the National Theatre, however, was just right, and just as I like it. More than this, these productions illustrate three approaches to staging canonical texts and prove that playing with Shakespeare can still create infinite variety.


Forced Entertainment’s ‘Measure for Measure’

The culture: ‘Measure for Measure’ by William Shakespeare, retold by Cathy Naden as part of Forced Entertainment’s complete works series

The cheap seats: Free – live streamed to my bedroom via the Guardian

Cathy Naden sets the scene
Cathy Naden sets the scene

Forced Entertainment’s latest theatrical venture is a much needed breath of fresh air amidst the starry casts and high-budget London productions that Shakespeare usually demands. The experimental company don’t need Benedict Cumberbatch or sky high ticket prices to tell Will’s tales: re-enacting plays with household objects, they’re ambitiously and imaginatively live-streaming the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

The infamous ending
The infamous ending

In this Measure for Measure, Claudio enters guarded by two bottles of Tippex. Isabella is a dainty china teacup and the Duke is played by a bottle of deodorant, hidden inside an empty toilet roll when he disguises himself as a monk. It’s like puppetry with no strings attached. Very apt for a play about liberty, Forced Entertainment have freed Shakespeare from all that makes it daunting – the language, the ticket prices, the exclusivity of the physical theatre – by streaming it for free and opting for a summary approach over a line-by-line reading. Cathy Naden makes the play incredibly accessible, presenting her hour-long rendition with the knowing brevity of a GCSE English teacher prepping her class for a Shakespeare exam, flashes of wit, and that pinch of female scepticism which the play’s dubious moral code and infamous ending require.

It’s a tribute to the power of the story, and Naden’s calm and considered telling of it, that watching the contents of a kitchen cupboard and a stationery drawer be moved around a table top is so compelling. The inanimate objects seem to have strong opinions and deep emotions and somehow watching Angelo, a bottle of Copydex, become consumed by lust for the cup that represents novice nun Isabella doesn’t seem ridiculous at all.

I loved it so much that I’m off to reenact Timon of Athens with my toiletries.

The End
Curtain call

Summer Shorts

The culture: Summer Shorts series, Borough Market. Part of IMMERGE, a series of events leading up to Southbank’s MERGE Festival

The cheap seats: £3 for 15 minutes perched on a bench in a chic cream caravan

I love me a pop-up so when I spotted a gorgeous pastel-painted vintage caravan being wheeled into the Market Hall at Borough Market earlier this week I was very excited. Now that the sun’s out and we’re enjoying a bit of a heatwave, all bets were on a new trendy spot for zeitgeist treats. Maybe cold brew coffee or some whacky gelato flavours. Instead, Robin Linde productions brings us CARAVAN THEATRE. Theatre. In a caravan.

As a culture vulture and a girl with fond memories of childhood holidays in a one-axle, four-bed wobble box, this news was genuinely just as thrilling as the thought of that chilled espresso. The Summer Shorts series runs for six weeks, with a different new 15 minute play each week, cramming two performances per hour into the miniature moveable theatre. First up is ‘Sea View’ written by Claire Wilson and performed by Maya Wasowicz and Robin Steegman. We climb into the ‘van to find our heroine, Angela, penning a suicide letter she’s drafted so many times that she knows it by heart. But instead of drowning herself Virginia Woolf-style she decides to run away to a caravan site with her life in a Tesco’s carrier bag.

Finally living in a ‘room’ with a view, away from the disturbances of the modern world, Angela has finished her novel and eagerly awaits news from her publisher. However her idyllic life is about to be shattered by campsite politics and the great tyranny of the new toilet block plans. Enter Angela’s neighbour, a fellow caravanner and general busy body. The pair bicker about the positioning of the loos, Angela fiercely guarding her view of the ocean and her opponent defending its proposed cliff-top spot in the name of the site’s goats. As a childless writer and a mum of four, the pair seem like polar opposites but, of course, they soon find they are strikingly similar.

There’s only so much you can do in fifteen minutes in a caravan. The back stories are inevitably brief and the glimmer of sisterhood it seems to be building up to is quickly extinguished by an abrupt ending. But ‘Sea View’ is a good story enthusiastically told and this cosy, gimmicky theatre is really quite fun.

Find more information and the full programme over at mergefestival.co.uk/summer-shorts

‘This Is How We Die’ – REVIEW ☆☆☆☆☆

The culture: This Is How We Die, Battersea Arts Centre

The cheap seats: £12 student tickets 

Mind-blowing is an overused adjective but Chris Brett Bailey’s sharp and hypnotic This Is How We Die really does blast the grey matter to smithereens. Bailey sits down at a desk under a spotlight and swings the microphone in front of his mouth. He shuffles his stack of papers like a newsreader but instead of a gentle ‘Good evening and welcome to the six o’clock news’ his voice erupts into a stream of words that’s actually more like white water rapids. It’s like Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ crossed with Beckett’s ‘Not I’ and supercharged for the 21st century.

The piece is part elegy for an idealism that never was and part rage against the machine that is the iphone-powered, pastel-coloured capitalist world we live in. Bailey shares his innermost thoughts, philosophies, day-to-day observations and darkest dreams. He spits out his fantasies, sex life and an anecdote about a girl he once dated who was, like, sooo literal that she kept a chain-smoking mouse and had a walking swastika and a body-builder for parents. On a road-trip together they murder a priest.

The piece gets stranger and stranger but the pace never lets up; Bailey speeds through words a mile a minute. “Tonight this tongue is a weapon, this tongue is a whip” becomes a refrain, but he doesn’t use the cat o’ nine tails of his words to inflict pain. He strokes the blade of the knife to feel its seductive power and the possibility of destruction. He looks down the barrel of the gun to admire the view. This Is How We Die is many things but primarily an exploration of the power and beauty of language and a cynical probing of  its meaninglessness and its ugly bits.

Bailey stops and disappears into the blackness behind the desk. A crescendo of bone-shaking basslines and electric violins builds. Bright lights dazzle the audience, becoming blinding as the noise reaches maximum decibels but somehow keeps going. It’s no exaggeration to call it a beatific moment. Sucked in by the light and sound, feeling everything but thinking nothing, it’s also probably a lot like dying.

(Written for The Upcoming)