Bread Review – 10th November 2017, AJ’s Coffee House (City Road, Cardiff)

Simultaneously bleak and hilarious, this simple two-person production is a touching show about love, trust and the end of the world.

★★★★☆

The apocalypse is coming, and the end is at hand. Stuck together in a cramped basement/bunker, two women huddle together and reminisce. They talk about everything, from the mundane (remember they used to have tubes of yogurt, how excessive!) to the profound (what does the end of the world smell or sound like) to the intimate (a stolen kiss in the rain). Their recollections are impressively performed by Faebian Averies and Seren Vickers, whose chemistry and performances are totally believable. They perform their roles as a couple who are at once totally in love with each other, and totally bored of each other’s company. Stuck together for an unspecified amount of time with no other human interaction, they are still able to make light of eating the same tinned foods over and over, or discussing the same things.

As the play progresses we learn that there are things the couple have kept from one another – partly as a way of having enough to talk about until the very end, and partly as a way of hiding painful experiences to protect each other. One such story involving Faebian Averies character forms the dramatic crux of the piece, and retells her trip to the surface (now dangerously polluted by some mysterious event) and chance encounter with another human being. The imagery and dialogue is absolutely gripping, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats until its dramatic conclusion. It is a stunning piece of writing and acting combining to be incredibly effective and heartbreaking.

The staging and directing of the piece was simple and effective too. Performed in traverse with audience members on either side of the stage, we get a real sense of closeness with the action. AJ’s Coffee House is a small venue, with seats for only approx 30-40 audience members, and so this configuration lends itself to a small venue for intimate performances. The set consisted of a wall of empty plastic water tanks, a table and chairs, and a collection of cardboard boxes filled with tins and jars of supplies. This simple set evoked exactly the atmosphere needed. Miriam Dorfner’s directing was well staged, with her decision to have the actors in profile for the majority of the performance meaning that there were very few points where we couldn’t see both the actors faces.

Well acted and well directed, the true star of this production is the excellent script. Written by James Sarson in his writing debut, the writing manages to combine the emotive with the trivial to excellent effect. The world of the play has enough detail in it to feel real, but with enough mystery to not feel over-explained. We know the world is about to end, and are given details and descriptions about animals dying, about polluted air and rust coloured skies but are never given a detailed explanation of how or why the world is about to end. This lack of detail draws the attention to the stories being told, rather than focusing on the apocalyptic setting. While occasionally being over-laden with expletives (to the extent that the F-word begins to lose meaning), the script is powerful and evocative. The production is short, running at approx 40-45 minutes, and as the lights went down, there was a sense from the audience that they wanted more. With a little extra work, the production could easily be extended to a full hour without loosing any of its impact. An excellent writing debut from Sarson, powerfully produced by Clock Tower Theatre Co.

 

Bread is running until 11th November, and there are still limited tickets left for the final performance. For more information and to book, click here

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Ninagawa’s Macbeth Review – 14th October 2017, The Lyric @ Theatre Royal Plymouth

Revived 30 years after its original creation, this stunning production of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play feels like a series of intricate paintings come to life. 

★★★★☆

Transposed to 16th century Japan – a country of Samurai and Ninja, of honor and valor, the swansong of this critically acclaimed 1985 production of Macbeth by the late Yukio Ninagawa still packs the emotional and dramatic punch needed to leave a lasting impression on the audience. The production feels like a series of moving tableux, paintings created by its director to tell the story of Mabeth’s epic rise and fall at the hands of fate. This show is scored to a mix of buddhist chanting and western classical music, and uses evocative and atmospheric lighting to great effect. All of this in underscored by the slowly falling petals of the Japanese cherry blossom – a key Japanese emblem representing the fragile and fleeting nature of life and a perfect metaphor for Macbeth’s journey.

Seen through the lens of two old crones, perhaps representing the chorus or perhaps embodiment’s of fate, Shakespeare’s tragic tale of power and overarching ambition takes place on a stage hidden behind giant Shoji paper screens. These screens are used to great effect in order to help hide and reveal action at key moments. At times we view the action through the back lit transparent screen – we see the weird sisters re-imagined as male Kabuki style performers, or their visions springing to life as apparitions of fate hidden behind a screen. At other times the paper screens are made opaque, shrinking the huge stage for intimate moments between Macbeth (Masachika Ichimura) and Lady Macbeth (Yuko Tanaka) to plot and scheme. And at times the paper screens pull open to reveal the vast openness of a the Japanese court, or a battlefield strewn with cherry blossoms and a blood red moon.

The performances are grand and operatic in nature, combining elements of traditional Japanese Kabuki style theatricality and British traditions of melodrama. At times these feel almost comically over-done, however it could also be argued that this comes more from the Japanese tradition of performance, and simply appears that way to a western audience. The two leads performances, while also epic in scale, still contained enough moments of grounded introspection to be totally believable without tipping the scale into the realms of caricature. The fight scenes are choreographed excellently, a combination of stylized martial arts and masterful storytelling. Rather than just using the fight scenes to move the action on, Ninagawa uses these scenes to truly demonstrate the characters personalities. Macbeth’s arrogance and feeling of invulnerability in battle is completely shattered when he realizes the truth about Macduff’s birth and his fate.

At times the production does feel a little dated. This is mainly due to the music chosen. Barber’s Adagio for Strings features heavily, and having been used so frequently in popular culture for comic affect it has lost some of its ability to truly move the audience. Despite being Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, the production runs at nearly three hours long. This allows Ninagawa time and space to create truly breathtaking images on his stage, but does feel a little testing on the audience. Shakespeare is often not the easiest to follow and with the added language barrier meaning you are constantly switching from the action to the subtitles, it can feel like a slog.

Having said that, the production was so beautifully staged, with bold lighting effects, imaginative sets and evocative music it was often enough to ignore the subtitles for a while and simply enjoy the beauty of what was unfolding on stage. The story of Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s simpler narratives, meaning it was possible to follow the main thrust of the action without having to rely on reading every single word as they appeared on screen. This legendary production is stunning in it’s staging, and for and is a must see production for any Shakespeare fan keen on seeing a bold and imaginative international interpretation of one of the Bard’s classics.

 

Ninagawa’s Macbeth is at Theatre Royal Plymouth until 14th October, and is next on in the Esplanade Theatre Singapore. For more info click here

Constellation Street Review – 25th April 2016, The Other Room at Porters Cardiff

An unfortunate case of style and concept over substance and execution, this promenade performance promises much but sadly falls just short of the mark.

★★★☆☆

The first thing that hits you as you enter The Other Room space is that right in front of your face is a wall. Gone is the intimate black box theatre space with raked seating. Instead the space has been ingeniously partitioned into small and beautifully designed mini performance spaces – a taxi, a hotel room, a bar and a street corner (actually part of the beer garden of Porters). As you enter the performance you are given a card with a street name and told to follow the signs to guide you around the promenade performance in smaller individual groups.

Our group, Penylan Court, were ushered into a small space designed to look like the interior of a black cab. At the front with his back to us is the cabby – waiting for you with the meter blinking, glancing at you in the rear view mirror with rain lashing the outside of the cab in the darkness. The effect achieved by this is impressive; you feel transported to the intimate space and trapped there with this stranger. The cabby suddenly looks at you through the rear view and begins his monologue. We are treated to the story of Frank’s boxer son, a violent dog attack and a fare dodging passenger, all of which at this time seem disjointed. The writing is sufficient while sometimes falling into cliched phrases, and while actor Roger Evans does a fine job with the script given it was difficult to truly connect with the monologue or the character.

The reason for this disconnect was due to the lack of eye contact. It was a brave directorial decision to ask the actor to face away from the audience for almost the entirety of the performance, with just one brief turn to focus on us, and it could be argued that this disconnect is intentional however it did have the consequence of making it difficult to truly care about the character. With half a dozen audience members in the small space and one rear view mirror to see the actors face in, the majority of the audience were unable to see much at all. Perhaps it would be more effective to add additional side mirrors positioned so that the actor could play to more of the audience, or just add in a couple more turns to face the audience.

Once Frank was done with his monologue the door opened behind us and we were ushered out to the courtyard for a musical interlude by Gwenllian Higginson singing Kodaline’s All I Want. While this song of broken love fitted with the general theme of the piece and more specifically with her later monologue it added little to the performance at that time. We were then ushered back inside to the next performance space, a fantastically recreated hotel room where we meet Stephen (Neal McWilliams). His monologue focuses on his nervous breakdown due to sleep deprivation and marital/daughter issues. We as the audience became the unseen character he was speaking to, someone he had coaxed off the street partly as a good deed and partly due to a desire to talk and connect to anyone about his problems. The writing of this monologue is better than Frank’s, and keeps the audience in suspense about Stephen’s true intentions throughout. Mcwilliam’s intentionally jittery and frazzled performance lacked much depth and sadly stayed on a similar tone throughout, lacking a much needed emotional sucker-punch.

Finally out group were led back out into the courtyard where Higginson again regales us with a rendition of All I Want, before breaking into her own monologue. We are introduced to her character Alex/Lexi/Branwen, a down and out girl who tells us of her search to find her true father, as well as her experience of being invited back to a hotel room by a stranger. This is where the three monologues cleverly come together – Alex is the little girl attacked by the dog from Frank’s monologue, as well as the fare dodging passenger, Stephen’s daughter Branwen and the girl invited back to Stephen’s hotel room. As the monologues converge in ways both expected and unexpected the audience are treated to the clever dovetailing of these difference narratives. As a concept this is genious, however sadly the execution falls a little flat. Because each individual monologue slightly lacks the emotional punch needed to be truly memorable, when all of their link are revealed it too falls wide of the mark.

The other issue with the piece as a concept is the fourth monologue. Each group is given a specific route around the space which shows only three of four possible monologues. No audience will see the full performance in one sitting, and so we as a group miss out on Nichola Reynolds’ monologue as Ruth. Perhaps this fourth monologue provided the missing ingredient which truly brought the overall narrative together in a cohesive and memorable way? Sadly without watching the performance again our group will never know. It is not made clear why we only see three of four possible monologues, and if was a directorial choice it is difficult to fathom. As a concept and idea it seemed like such a brilliant one, and the transformation of The Other Room space into a series of lovingly re-created performance spaces is fantastic, but the execution seemed to be style over substance.

 

Constellation Street is running in The Other Room at Porters Cardiff until 7th May, tickets are available at https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/otherroomtheatre 

Morning, Afternoon and Evening Review – 16th April 2016, Tristan Bates Theatre London

This poetic and beautifully performed trio of interweaving monologues shows that the simplest of structures can be the most effective.

★★★★☆

Written and performed by veteran theatre director Andy Hinds, this trio of monologues based around three interconnected characters tells the heartbreaking story of love, loss, separation, re-unification and the effect this has on peoples lives. Performed one after the other, these separate narratives strands come together to paint a vibrant and lifelike portrait of three flawed characters and their search to belong. Each monologue builds on characters discussed or alluded to in the last, meaning that while we never see the characters on the same stage, we get a real sense of how these characters stories impact on each other.

Morning begins with Niall in a hospital waiting room, anxiously hoping for news of his baby daughter. We are then taken back into the characters past, where we discover the incredible sacrifice that Niall’s wife made to give him the child he had longed after for so many years. For Niall this seems like a therapeutic experience – recounting the tale of his wife’s tragic passing and also the hope and life that came out of it acting as a way of healing and understanding his wife’s decisions. In Afternoon we are introduced to Niall’s estranged older brother Danny, who leaves his family and life behind in Derry due to the troubles between Catholics and Protestants as well as the high unemployment to seek his fortune abroad. Sadly, the streets of Europe are not paved with gold and due to a combination of bad luck and mistakes Danny finds himself down and out and longing to go home. Alone and beaten in a gutter in Rotterdam he reflects on his life and his lack of anywhere to truly belong or call home.

The final monologue Evening diverges from someone directly connected to the brothers, and instead focuses on Danny’s old flame Gabby. They reconnect when Danny and Niall meet one another years after, brought together by Niall’s family tragedy. Together the three of them form a fragile and unconventional family unit, bonded as much by their individual feelings as outcasts as by their past histories of being rejected or losing their place in a conventional family unit. Structurally the final monologue of the series is unfortunately the weakest. While it does a good job of bringing together the separate story of the two brothers into a cohesive whole, there is a feeling that this would be more effective if the character was more directly involved in relationship between the two brothers – the fact that she is at best a side character from Afternoon makes the set up in this monologue feel a little forced at times.

One thing that is certainly not forced is Andy Hinds’ acting. Each character feels natural and full of idiosyncrasies. The decision to include a female character in Evening is no challenge for Hinds, who performs Gabby with such truth and sincerity that it is easy to forget who is actually performing the role. The performances across the other two monologues are just as masterful. It is clear that from his years of directing other actors Hinds has a clear understanding of creating and becoming characters. The staging of the piece was incredibly simple – subtle changes in lighting were all that connoted change of location or mood. This suited the piece and kept the focus on the lyricism of the script and on Hind’s powerful performance. From time to time the staging of the action felt a little static, and perhaps a little more action or movement from Hinds would have helped during the lengthier sections within the monologues. What was most intriguing about the play as a whole was that it demonstrated such subtlety in its characters; none of them were good, or bad. They were all imperfect and flawed but trying to make the best of their own individual situations whether they were placed their by tragedy or choice. Poetic and poignant throughout, Hinds’ turn to acting certainly demonstrates his talent and versatility.

Morning, Afternoon and Evening ran at the Tristan Bates theatre between 12th-16th April. More information about the company can be found at cahootstheatrecompany.com/portfolio/morning-afternoon-and-evening/

Only the Brave Review – 2nd April 2016, Wales Millennium Centre

 This new musical produced by the Wales Millennium Centre based on the incredible true story of brave WWII fighters hits all the right notes.

★★★★☆

Following the incredible but true account of the Oxford and Bucks light infantry, who were tasked with capturing a strategically important bridge from the German’s in occupied Normandy ahead of Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings), this ambitious new musical captures the personal and emotional sacrifice made both by these brave men and of the brave women fighting back at home. It follows the story of Captain John Howard (David Thaxton) and his Lieutenant Denholm Brotheridge (Neil Mcdermott) as he trains his newly formed company for a secret mission to France. The narrative follows the training of this elite company and their bond as a band of brothers before they fly into France for their incredible mission.

Running in tandem to this is the story of the women behind these brave men; left behind while their husbands go to fight with the real possibility that they may never come back. Desperate to help in any way possible, Brotheridges’s pregnant wife Maggie (Emilie Fleming) and Howard’s wife Joy (Caroline Sheen) join up to help in the typing department to help communicate between the French Resistance and the Military chiefs. We also see a young French girl Isabelle (Nikki Mae) determined to help the resistance to Nazi occupation by sending sketches and information back to Allied Command. These stories help to create a more complete picture of this conflict than many other portrayals of war which tend to focus only on the men on the front line. We also see how this affects the families back at home in a hugely emotional and humanizing way.

The score, written by Cardiff born composer Matthew Brind is absolutely stunning, and with its complex harmonic arrangements and use of choral rounds and motifs evokes the best parts of Les Misérables. Particular highlights are the titular Only the Brave, the patriotic Band of Brothers, as well as the emotional Regret and Sympathy – a song which is about the painful process of writing letters to the parents and families of those who had died serving their country. Rachel Wagstaff’s lyrics are both poetic and emotionally evocative touching on themes of camaraderie, love, loss, hope, patriotism and bravery in a way which humanizes these often nebulous concepts.

Rather than using a complex set or over the top staging, Only the Brave uses a very simple set, very effectively. The use of a combination of metal stairs wheeled about the stage, as well as a projector and gauze clothes create a dynamic and ever shifting set which effortlessly changes between France and the UK, between hospitals and ballrooms, the training camp and typing pool. There were a few stylistic choices which could have been handled in a more effective way, and perhaps at times the set and stairs were used simply because it looked aesthetically pleasing rather than because it advanced the narrative or represented anything in particular. Often with big budget musicals the pace is slowed down by long and complex scene changes, however OtB circumvented most of these by slickly switching sets behind gauze curtains, or moving the set during a scene to be ready to shift into the next one.

Vocally and physically it was hard to fault the cast. While there was the very occasional off note, it was clear that the entire ensemble cast had worked incredibly hard and there were no weak links in the cast. The choreography was stylized with liberal use of slow motion to suit the tempo of the music. One memorable scene early on was a boxing scene among the new recruits, where the music choreography and performance equaled anything currently playing on the West End. The battle scenes were staged beautifully and the use of pyrotechnics, smoke and lighting combined to effectively create the atmosphere of battle on stage. The performances were emotionally engaging throughout, and brought home the human struggles at the very heart of conflict.

For the first musical produced by the WMC, it is clear that the Centre has big ambitions as a producing theatre. The piece was clearly aimed at attracting a mainstream theatre audience, and the branding was felt similar to that of other War epics like Birdsong  and Warhorse. It would be very surprising if this new musical does not either tour the UK extensively, or find itself on a West End stage very soon. Impressive and emotional, this piece has big heart to match its big songs.

Only the Brave ran from 28 March – 2nd April at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff. 

Blasted Review – The Other Room, Porters, Cardiff, 6th March 2015

4/5

A brave, bold and captivating debut production from Cardiff’s first pub theatre.

blasted

When Blasted first debuted in 1995 in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London it sent shock waves through the theatrical community. It received fiercely critical reviews, most believing to be merely an attempt to shock, with little substance behind it. Since then many critics have re-assessed their opinion of it, and it is considered an important play in the “In-Yer-Face” theatre movement, along with playwrights such as Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson. Now, 20 years on from its first performance does this remarkable play still have the same power to shock us? And is it still relevant?

Sandwiched in the corner of the popular Cardiff drinking hole Porters, The Other Room is what hopes to be the Capital’s first permanent pub theatre. Recently converted from a multi-purpose cinema/performance space, The Other Room is now a fully equipped theatre space. The venue is intimate and well designed; with the entrance literally opening on to the stage and the first row of seats centimeters away from the action it gives the space and the performance a real sense of immediacy which is lost in larger venues. This intimacy is ideal for such a harrowing play, as it means you can’t escape from what unfolds in front of you in all its hideous beauty.

The play runs two ideas in parallel, and dramatically shifts at around the halfway point. It seemingly begins like kitchen sink relationship drama, but ends as a twisted metaphor for the brutality of war, and how tabloid journalism doesn’t report on foreign affairs which aren’t perceived to be of interest closer to home. Ian and Cate, two people estranged from each other meet in a hotel room in Leeds to seemingly re-kindle an affair. But not everything is as it seems as Ian, who is clearly dying of an undisclosed illness begins to abuse and berate the childlike Cate. While never explicitly stated, it is suggested that Cate has a form of learning difficulty, and this is played to fragile perfection by Louise Collins. Soon the relationship becomes even move abusive, as Ian forces Cate into sexual acts and ends up raping her after she passes out during a fit. This first half of the play is excellently paced, tense, and with a real sense of foreboding. Ian is one of Sarah Kane’s most compellingly disgusting characters. Homophobic, sexist, horrifically racist and all in all a horrendous human, you can’t help but wish the most horrible things on him. Which is then exactly what happens.

The “Blasted” of the title refers to a literal blast, as a bomb hits the hotel room, destroying it and with it any semblance of naturalism left in the structure of the play. From this point on the pay intentionally fragments into smaller and smaller scenes, until by the end it is merely a tableaux of images. A soldier appears from a war going on outside, and from this point Ian changes from perpetrator to victim as he in turn is violently raped by the soldier, who then proceeds to rip his eyes out and eat them.

The fragmentation of the play in the script is intentionally jarring, meant to destroy any semblance of naturalism or normality, and this in general is handled well by the company. The scenes of brutality are acted excellently, with just the right amount of prop work and make up to make it truly believable. The destruction of the set is handled well, with it transforming from seemingly normal hotel room to bomb wreck in one blackout. Sadly towards the end of the piece its fragmentation begins to be its downfall, as lengthy scene changes make the production drag and the pacing, so good in the first half, really slows.

This is not to distract from the rest of the production, which is handled very well. Christian Patterson as Ian and Simon Nehan as the Solider are both captivating and cruel in equal measures. The music and lighting used is atmospheric, changing from naturalistic and bright in the first half to dingy and flickering in the second. Nick Gill’s music is haunting and eerie, and really adds to the overall production. This production really captivates the brutality of the script effectively, and makes it feel as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. While twenty years ago it was a comment on the media blackout surrounding the Bosnian war, today it could be suggested that it is about any number of armed conflicts that get little to no media coverage and asks the question: would it still get as little coverage if the conflict was a little closer to home?

As a debut production it was bold of The Other Room to choose Blasted, but it also seems to send out a message about the space. While the theatre may be small in size, it seems they have grand ambitions for the future. I for one cannot wait to see what they come up with next.

Blasted runs at The Other Room at Porters until the 7th of March. Their next production is Howard Barker’s “The Dying of Today”, which runs from the 24th of March to the 11th of April. Tickets are available from http://www.otherroomtheatre.com