Monday, 17 July 2017

Rebel without a pause? Wet Bread, Kings Head Theatre

Where are we now as waves of seemingly unconnected political shocks rock long-held certainties of the democratic process? As Adam Curtis says in Hyper-normalisation, “We live with the constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge because they can’t counter it with a coherent narrative…”

There’s plenty of fight but who do we take it to and do placards and principles count for anything when a self-motivated electorate swings violently form one protest vote to the next.

Written by BBC Trans Comedy Award Winner, Tom Glover, Wet Bread was inspired by the aftermath of the 2015 General Election when victory was snatched by David Cameron from the jaws of a hung parliament. Now, after Teresa May has engineered the exact reverse, things may be a little different but… for how long?

Morag Sims plays every character in this affecting and very funny show but mostly she is Adele, a young-ish Labour supporter who, well… is a dedicated follower of the protest of the moment.  She’s earnest about everything even if she never seems to quite follow through with steadfast resolve once the placards have been packed away. Unsurprisingly, Adele was based on people Glover knows in Brighton and, naturally, the play travelled very well to Islington – as you’d expect – with a lot of us laughing along with the jokes at our expense.

Morag Sims a woman of many parts!
It’s good to laugh as, along with wet bread “funny” is one of things we can all agree on and Morgan is not alone in thinking that this is something we should be doing more of.

Adele is not meant to represent all left-wingers though, just a particularly funny take on the type of person who finds protesting cathartic even if, in the opinion of many in the play, it achieves little or nothing. At one point, it seems as if the political battle is being compared with the physical battle Adele’s mother is having against cancer. She refuses to fight the disease because that way she can’t lose but there’s no way she’ll ever give in to it: a subtle but important distinction.

We can fight specific political narratives – such as they are – but we shouldn’t overlook the need to live and love and we shouldn’t forget the need to respect our fellow electorate: to paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall you might not like what someone says but you must accept their right to say it, painful though that may be.

Staging a protest...
In the play Adele is constantly trying to live up to her left-wing principles only to be disappointed by the reality of friends who find her suffocatingly-distracted, working class neighbours in abusive relationships who don’t appreciate her platitudes and even the Scotsman, Richard, who she tries to help by offering him accommodation. Richard finds her condescending and compares her caffeine “addiction” with his own substance abuse…

But this relationship offers a chink of light at the end as he appreciates that she tried… so much so he gives her his sole possession, a broken foot spa!

One policemen reflects: “tofu types… they don’t actually change anything for all their noise….” But it’s hard to completely accept this after the last election and in the face of every successful revolutionary movement in history. 

The Beatles Revolution plays us out at the end but don’t forget there are two versions one with John saying, “count me out” and the other “count me out…in…” Some revolutionary moments are important not to miss.

As the country continues to batter itself to a social media standstill over “taking our country back” it’s important that protests are still made. The play’s message of Stop Fighting Just Love is that we should take politics more seriously. We need to follow through.

Morag Sims is quite amazing, playing literally dozens of characters and all of them convincingly well: so subtle in dialogue with herself and carefully demarcating each personality. Quite a feat and she gets the Alec Guiness award for theatrical flexibility!

The Sheer Drop company have produced a gem here and whilst Wet Bread played three dates at the Kings Head as part of Festival 47, I would urge you to catch this thought-provoking play when next it pops up. And watch out for Morag, for she is a sincerely impressive performer!

Ithankyou rating: ****

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Amused to death… The Quentin Dentin Show, Tristan Bates Theatre

When you wish upon a star… make sure you actually have dreams that can come true.

There’s a retro vibe about The Quentin Dentin Show with its rock stylings, gold-laced jumpsuit chic and post-Timewarp choreography and yet… it is so very now. Ultimately the play is so very uncompromising in terms of genre expectations and its relationship to the audience. It’s about the power of delusion and the preference for alternative reality over truth. So much so that it challenges the audience to look a little bit closer at what they are watching and why.

It was striking to hear one audience member saying she wished it wouldn’t end which, whilst it speaks volumes for the dramatic qualities on display also rather chillingly makes the QDS’ point: when times get even remotely hard we opt for fantasy.

There is an uplifting momentum to events and the wit is sharp and funny but this is a call to wake up and wake up again for the levels of self-deception are, like the plot itself, buried deep. As in a nightmare the leads seem to wake up repeatedly but can they really escape their everyday fate?

A song and dance about FISH!
All of which may sound a bit of a downer but any show featuring a song with in which the cast dance along with inflatable fishes can’t be bad nor can one in which an ever-present band plays throughout and in character even as we left… they’re probably still playing now.

The band features Archie Wolfman on drums and sunglasses, Mickey Howard on guitar – fascinating to watch him work up close; the guy has some chops! – plus Henry Carpenter on keyboards. Carpenter not only wrote the music and lyrics, he co-wrote the book, with Tom Crowley, and is musical director. He reminded me of a young Julian Cope… just cool and with talent to burn (I probably hate him actually).

As the audience entered the theatre the band were playing something like Can attempting loungecore whilst a voice told us not to spill our drinks, kick the seats in front and to turn off our mobile communications devices. Already the fourth wall’s lying in ruins and there’ll be a lot more of that to come…

Lottie-Daisy Francis, Max Panks and Freya Tilly
We also have three figures, a tall man, Number 3 (Luke Lane) and two energetic women dancers Freya Tilly and Lottie-Daisy Francis who occasionally break their bone-crunching robotic routines to smile wildly at the audience; their mile-wide grins disappearing as quickly as their empty arrivals…

Our voice-over MC (Freddie Fullerton) tells us that Number 3 has been selected to be Quentin Dentin and he wishes him every success whilst warning of the pitfalls that befell Number 292. New Quentin is very excited and sings a song about it; if he does well he will be rewarded with an upgrade…

Quentin’s role is obscure but soon we meet a couple, Keith (Max Panks) and Nat (Shauna Riley) who are giving “rut” a bad name. He’s a self-deluded world away from finishing his novel whilst she works all the hours in a pharmacy. They bicker exactly like a couple who’s ill-formed and unspecified dreams are fading, blown away by years of routine and fear of change.

The ensemble
Nat goes out on the lash with her mates leaving Keith alone with what thoughts he can muster. His radio is sounding strange and suddenly there’s a man… dressed in a white suit with gold trimmings and grinning like a game show host. Exactly like a game show host.

It’s Quentin! And he’s here to offer Nat the chance to be happy, just sign on the dotted line… and benefit from the sure-fire, can’t-lose process of The Programme! Quentin is persistent and he is manically charming. Nat returns early and is soon being as persuaded as her fella that this is a once in a lifetime, solid gold chance for second chances even with what appear to be minor contractual obligations involving reduction in brain function…

They sign and suddenly the lights go up and they realise there’s an audience in front of them – a wall of faces. This is now a game show and the prize is their lives but is that for winning or losing…?

Guitar wizard and the bloke who wrote the book, the lyrics and the music...
The Quentin Dentin Show is dazzling and like everything you’ll have read since its initial run. It’s also subtle and subversive and I love that way it wrongfoots the audience… It’s a call to wake up and put your good times in perspective. Me? I’ve still got that book to write too!

Adam Lenson’s direction uses the space so well as the show spills out into the audience (don’t worry, you’re… perfectly safe…) and Caldonia Walton’s choreography generates a kinetic energy that sucks the watching wall of faces in, using every inch of the stage.

Freya Tilly and Lottie-Daisy Francis
Luke Lane’s energy is going to burn him a bright future but all the cast are simply superb and in good voice too. Freya Tilly’s movement is especially impressive and her smile manages, if anything, to be even more disturbing than Quentin’s… Lottie-Daisy Francis moves with equal grace and poise and these two can sing!

Max Panks and Shauna Riley charm as the all-too believable 20-somethings waiting for their lives to begin: we hope they and we make the right choices…

The Quentin Dentin Show runs until Sat 29th July and you’d have to be mad not to get with The Programme…

Tickets available from the Box Office. The Tristan Bates Theatre is a lovely venue just off Cambridge Circus and blessed with very welcome air-conditioning!

Ithankyou rating: ****

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Best laid plans… I Know You of Old, Golem Theatre company, Hope Theatre

What is so striking about David Fair’s clever recasting of Much Ado… is that it’s more of a re-mix than an extrapolation along the lines of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Whilst those two characters had endless new words to say, Fairs has used only cuts from Shakespeare’s own text which, having not been aware before the production, is quite a feat.

Also, whilst Hamlet’s college buddies had no way of escaping their fate – the clue being in the title… the characters here are not guaranteed anything: a broader existential crisis than the doomed Danes faced. I Know You of Old is therefore, Much Ado About Something with hints of themes from other plays including King Lear… “thou, nature, are my goddess” but that could be just Bill?

Conor O'Kane
Fair’s idea follows the main line of the original play but there’s a twist that I can’t really reveal… The story starts after Hero has died and is lying in a coffin in the chapel and, not that far from the audience. The fact that Benedick and Beatrice’s verbal battles take place over Hero’s coffin immediately adds a new context especially as Claudio is, naturally, broken hearted and subsumed in the depths of his guilt.

Cleverly we have a flashback to the moment when Claudio denounces Hero at their wedding via Benedick’s iPhone which plays back the moments right up to her death but even if you haven’t seen the source play, the performances convey the meaning which again is to be praised, not just the acting but also Fair’s editing.

David Fairs
Fair plays the determined batchelor Benedick as a man with a high opinion of his own wit who has the words to back his confidence up. He’s cool in a leather jacket and shades although his taste in music leaves a lot to be desired. Against him is the ferocious Beatrice played by Sarah Lambie with an elegance that belies the potency of her temper and the ability to convey so much bile with so few words.

Almost cowering between these two is Claudio as played by Conor O'Kane who is never entirely distracted from his grief by the pull of his friends’ personalities and, in an effort to derive something positive from the tragedy, attempts to trick the two to fall in love…

Ah, we know where this is going… or do we?

Sarah Lambie
It’s a very smart script and the three performers are all outstanding: O’Kane as the broken man desperate to atone for the fatal error of his pride covers the emotional ground with exhausted ease while Fairs takes Benedick’s arrogance into tragic new directions, his confidence disolving before our eyes. Sarah Lambie is a class act who covers the comedy as convincingly as the drama and I’m still smiling at the kittenish drop of Beatrice’s hair as she starts the uncomfortable process of flirting with the man she loved to hate! 

Director Anna Marsland desrves high praise for pacing the narrative with such finesse - she uses the space and the players so well, there's a constant flow of motion and emotion leaving the watching audience immersed in the passion play. Guys, you could easily have taken a second bow!

One’s to watch and another superb production at this pearl of a venue!

I Know You of Old runs until the 1st of July and it’s definitely one to catch because nothing can be taken for granted in matters of love, war and text in spite of the adage… Tickets are available from the Hope Theatre box office and online, I'd urge you to book now to avoid disappointment!

There's also a facinating interview with David and Anna in which they discuss the play and Golem Theatre company's aims at Culture by Night.

Ithankyou rating: ****

David Fairs and Sarah Lambie on location promotion