Saturday, 19 May 2018

Love, light and peace… A Sockful of Custard, Pleasance Theatre

Spike Milligan single-mindedly liberated our funny bones for a half century or more, he was the missing link between the Crazy Gang and Beyond the Fringe, a soldier blown up so high in the Second World War that he said he never really came down. 

Spike defined a comic sensibility that was as rock ‘n roll as Elvis or as be-bop as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.Why did The Beatles work with George Martin? Well, part of it was down to his having produced records for The Goons and for the lads as so many others from post-War to baby boom. His was a comedy that liberated itself from formula as surely as be-bop and rock shook free from big bands and manufactured pop. It was a very democratic mind-set, anyone could do it, well, anyone if they were funny enough and, in the case of this Lewisham lad, capable of genius-level silly.

Take Spike Milligan out of British comedy and you end up with less Peter Sellers, an unbearably smug Pete and Dud, Monty Python with no dead parrot and Ricky Gervais either still working selling paper or, at best, flogging minor New Romantic hits on the heritage circuit, bottom of the bill below Haircut 100. Spike’s was a major discontinuity in comic style and, together with other equally talented but perhaps not quite so inventive, he helped change the way we laughed for ever.

In the year of his hundredth birthday, Chris Larner and Jeremy Stockwell put their heads very close together, but not so close as to entangle their beards, and devised a cunning play of some 4.5 metres in length to answer the question of the custard, the sock and much-many more.

A Sockful of Custard manages to convey the essence of Spike without the restrictions of a straightforward narrative; it’s controlled playfulness masking the joyously hard graft of its component players.

Jeremy Stockwell
Jeremy Stockwell plays Spike Milligan and, as with his stint as Ken Campbell, shows what an excellent mimic he is… Spike is so specific that you just have to get him right and, opening the show shrouded in a sheet, Stockwell bravely takes on two of Spike’s iconic voices from The Goons. He nails it and the laughter starts to flow down from the cheap seats in the Pleasance’s Stage Space only to be reflected back Spike-style – by the two performers whose improvisations are so adept and sincere.

Interrupting our dreamy beginning Chris Larner, playing himself or someone slightly taller, strides on stage to direct proceedings by laying out cards which will form the basis of the narrative. There are 4.5 metres of instructions and Jeremy wonders if that’s just too long… It’s the two working out their structure and making a feature of the sheer difficulty in conveying Milligan.

They move from themselves to their characters with masterful ease and always direct to audience. That fourth wall is well and truly trampled especially as a glamorous redhead, let’s call her Catherine, is pulled on stage to help fold Spike’s sheet: it’s all part of the warm-hearted chaos Spike revelled in. 

And my better half’s smile as she tried to grab that sheet was so joyously in the moment, exactly what the veteran of 1940-45 would have wanted.

Spike and his Mum!
There was no containing Spike and after what he had seen, he was clearly convinced that laughter was the only way forward. I hadn’t been aware that he’d performed in Oblomov, at the Lyric Theatre and that his improvisations had created a record-breaking phenomenon.

As Spike plays the title character resolved to spend his days in bed, Chris Larner switches to the hapless thesp designated to play alongside him. He’s an insecure pro and looks out to his imaginary director repeating “is he…, is he…, is he…?” over an over with subtle intonations as he tries to second guess what the man in charge is trying to get him to ask and act. We’ve all done it but not perhaps Mr Milligan who grew bored of the script pretty quickly and proceeded to improvise the play to over four year’s of sell-out success, only stopping it when he’d just had enough.

The magnificent Joan Greenwood starred in the play and was initially very concerned but the mood shifted with her husband Andre Morrell declaring 'the man is a genius. He must be a genius—it's the only word for him. He's impossible—but he's a genius!'

That last sentence may appear to sum Spike up and Stockwell and Larner’s play is so disciplined in its in-discipline  - or vice-versa – that it conveys the unpredictability and raw unevenness of the man’s comedy and it is genuinely thrilling to watch.

Stockwell and Larner
Both recount their meetings with Spike and the mark he left; he respected his audience and was committed to kindness. He wished for “love, light and peace …” an echo of his early years in India and the post-war hopes for a continually-improved World. Now, as much as ever, we need to believe  in the prospect of happiness.

So don’t be daft, go and see these two marvellous men and their tribute to Mr Milligan; if you don’t you’ll never find out about the custard and the socks. And you’ll never get to feel that spirit in the moment.

A Sockful of Custard plays on at the Pleasance Theatre until May 26th and then transfers up to Edinburgh Fringe 2018 from 1st to 17th August at the Pleasance Dome.

Tickets available at the box office or online. The Pleasance is an excellent venue too – three stages and lots of bars!

IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***** Funny, warm and thoroughly engaging. These two work their socks off and Spike is back in the room and he hasn't left me yet...

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Waiting for the woman… Grotty, The Bunker

“You’re only free of this if you meet someone special… but that’s unlikely.”

If the purpose of theatre is to enlighten and broaden the mind, then Grotty does just that. It doesn’t quite tighten the ball-gag in your mouth and slap a dog collar round your neck, but it shows you a lonely sub-culture of torment and terror that is heartbreakingly close to home even for a middle-aged male reviewer.

The publicity sells it like it is: “Welcome to the desert. The London lesbian scene. A couple of little sad old basements that drip with sweat and piss…  The women in black… They are not nice girls. But this is not a nice story.” It’s a world of diminishing returns, a sado-masochistic scene that eats itself as the women gradually work their way around, overlapping and gradually “crossing each other out”.

I’ve no idea if this is the case as I’ve known many people who find their equal and engage in more hugging than thrashing and the more extreme forms of penetration. There is a thriving BDSM sub-culture – or so my hairdresser tells me (seriously!) - but I’ve not seen it. She makes it sound like an adventure but for the women in the play it’s a mask for deep physical and emotional hurt.

The darn talented Izzy Tennyson (Courtesy of The Other Richard)
It’s not all punishment and deliberated perversion though, some of the girls are in it for the love but it seems that our main character Rigby (played by the remarkable Izzy Tennyson who also wrote the play) hasn’t found that path and instead is being passed from woman to woman, a 22-year old lost in grief and unable to function emotionally. Tennyson is a quirky, very physical performer, often bent over, face contorted as she forces out her lines… reaching out desperate hands as her character longs to just touch someone with words that just can’t carry enough meaning.

At the start of the play she is seeing Marian Toad (Rebekah Hinds) who is nice up to a point but keeps the cruellest of company in the form of Natty (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) who through jealousy or sheer spite, constantly rides Rigby; “banter, the evolution of playground bullying…”

Toad dumps her by text, the latest blow to Rigby’s almost non-existent self-esteem but at least she has a genuine pal, Josie (Anita-Joy too) to build her up so that she can be demolished all over again.

Next in line is a severe tattoo artiste, Fern charmingly called The Witch (Grace Chilton) a dominatrix in “shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather…” (thanks Lou) who wants Rigby to be her dog (thanks Iggy) offering her more and more outlandish sex toys under the guise of a joke but all the while looking to take her pleasure in more extreme ways.

Rebekah Hinds, Izzy Tennyson and Anita-Joy UwaJeh
The Witch once dated The Toad and Rigby feels almost like a conduit between the two, caught in between their sexual pride… there's a battle going on and she's on the front lines.

By now we’re wondering just why this girl is putting herself through so much misery… she only wants these women to show her affection and to hold her tight and yet must endure Fern’s almost poetic description of the luxury of punishment. Then, as Rigby says; “it’s actually a lot easier being an experience rather than a person…”

There’s some light relief as Rigby takes way too much cocaine - waaay, too much - and heads off to a party. She strikes out with one cropped-haired girl and shouts after her: “let me know when your sexuality catches up with your haircut!” … that’s one to cut and keep for later!

She also meets a quietly-spoken straight girl called Elliot (Grace Chilton again) who is not perhaps as straight as she thought… Yet somehow, Rigby contrives to let her slip through her fingers… for the moment. She needs validation “… everything would be so much better if I only had more followers on Twitter...” and things would clearly be better if she went for the girl in the bush rather than the one with whip in hand. But there’s another woman, one who has left a deeper impression on Rigby than anyone else…
Grace Chilton and Izzy Tennyson (Courtesy of The Other Richard)
Skilfully directed by Hannah Hauer-King, who uses the four sides of The Bunker’s stage space to move her performers around, Grotty is indeed grubby but not without hope and lighter moments. This is a completely alien world and yet the feelings and experiences within it are ones we all understand.

Izzy Tennyson (who also wrote Brute, Runts, Career Boy) has crafted a memorable character and one we really root for. Rigby is indeed the "relatable" lesbian that director and playwright have noted is usually absent on stage and screen. That she exists in such ostensibly extreme cultural circumstances is a triumph of the production and by the end we just want her to be happy.

There’s super support especially from Grace Chilton who’s “Witch” has her own demons whilst she is transformed as Elliot.  Anita-Joy Uwajeh takes the biscuits with three roles and Rebekah Hinds’ Scouse accent is 9/10 as the brassy Kate, Rigby’s straight-mate.

Tip of the hat also to Clare Gallop but I can’t tell you why… you’ll just have to see for yourself.

Grotty is on at The Bunker until 26th May and tickets are available from the BoxOffice and online. It's not easy but it is very much worth your attention and time.

IThankYou Theatre Rating **** You won't forget these characters in a hurry. Be kind out there.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Drowning but waving... Not Talking, Arcola Theatre

“If I don’t want to tell anyone, it’s up to me, right?”

This is a play where dialogue and narrative runs cross-cross between four characters through time and space. It’s a four-player exercise in setting up divergent paths to the same conclusion and, as such, engages audience hearts and mind and before we know if reconfigures our expectations in a dashing last flourish.

Of course, Olivier award-winning writer Mike Bartlett has written for Doctor Who (as well Doctor Foster, King Charles III, Albion and more) but there’s no time-travel in this his unperformed first play, just very smart structure and scripting. As Bartlett says in his programme notes, having two narrators for the same story makes the audience complicit: who do we believe and what is the truth? We try to pull the strands together and having four very different characters we’re stuck between establish-able fact and our favoured narrator/narrative until the options narrow and all is resolved.

It’s mathematical and it’s musical and the kind of play we all wish we could have written in our early twenties. There’s a particular piece from Chopin which links the narrative and, becomes a critical means of expression when words fail…

The play opens with two older people, Lucy (Kika Markham) and James (David Horovitch) reminiscing as the former plays Chopin. They are talking but not at or about the same time - they remember things differently and to them they still are even though they have no real means of transacting in the truth. James has always found talking easy and as a boy found it difficult to understand the idea of being reticent of “tongue-tied”… James sees himself as settled and yet there’s a – literally – unspoken gulf between him and wife Lucy.

Kika Markham
Lucy has never recovered from her daughter Mary being still born and it has broken down the core of their marriage: not for the first time, she plays her way out through Chopin.

Meanwhile… young squaddie Mark (Lawrence Walker) is pumped full of the adrenal gratification of being part of the army; guns to fire and orders to follow… a purposeful existence in which decisions are made for you. He sees Amanda (Gemma Lawrence), another young recruit at an army social and tries to engage with her on the dance floor… The His and Hers versions of this process are very funny – if only we had access to such intel eh lads?

But things will take a sinister turn and in Mark’s innocent confusion, the unravelling realisation will shake his relationship to the core.

Bartlett’s Grandfather had been a conscientious objector in the Second World War and, at the same age at the time of writing, he was inspired by this as well as reports of institutional bullying in the Army. James is a committed Christian and takes the highly-principled and painful stance of being a “conschie” at the start of the War but Lucy even knowing he needs her to stay proud of him, just couldn’t…

Gemma Lawrence, Kika Markham, Lawrence Walker and David Horovitch 
60 years later, Mark is under orders not to speak about the sexual assault he has witnessed and takes refuge behind these commands even though the subject of the assault is Amanda. With comrades and officers all against her, all complicit and some directly involved, she has no escape and, with something to say but no one to say it too, she simply shuts down and plays Chopin on the piano.

Back in the War Lucy discovers that James is having an affair with a woman called Susan… she starts playing piano every day when James comes home… unable to verbalise her response she lets him know through music and routine. He stops the affair but this will not be the end of it.

Secrets held for decades and a sexual assault covered up by the military what could possibly tie them together? I strongly suggest you get a ticket for yourself and find out.

Not Talking is intimate and casts a spell over its audience by pulling them in to its intricate mystery.

It’s superbly performed by an exceptional cast not least Kika Markham who is so powerfully febrile as Lucy, a woman for whom hanging on in quiet desperation has become almost a comfort. In turn you hang on her every word for meaning and yet the words are even then undermined by deft contrapuntal expression. The same goes for David Horovitch; entirely subsumed in the character of the worthy and ultimately very worthwhile James; these people are genuine and good they just need to find their answers.

David Horovitch
The Two Lawrences are full of fire – Mr Walker’s Mark prowls in confusion in search of real meaning in his life whilst Gemma’s Amanda has her trust thrown back in her face yet still won't deny herself the chance to connect...

The four interact in variable couplings and James Hillier directs with purposeful precision – this must have taken a set square, ruler and a lot of note paper. It must have taken negotiation and a lot of talking...

Not Talking plays at the Arcola until 2nd June – tickets available from the Box Office or online. It's another quality production from Dalston and, along with Moormaid, the Arcola has two of the best Spring indie productions in London! Book with confidence!

Ithankyou Theatre Rating: **** Thoroughly engaging and intelligent theatre that sneaks up and grabs you!

Photo Credit: Lidia Crisafulli