Saturday, 10 August 2013

Centaur Loses Backside in Thunderstorm

Edinburgh Review: Confused in Syracuse (C venue C until 26th August)

4 stars

How could you not love a play in which a giant white centaur becomes separated from its backside after its umbrella is struck by lightning? Ridiculous and absurd from beginning to end, “Confused in Syracuse” is a physical theatre piece by St Petersburg-based OPS Theatre. The performance is structured around two loose narratives; a love triangle between a blue-skinned god and his two competing lovers who stumble on a Pandora’s Box, and the unfortunate afore-mentioned centaur. Blending mime, slapstick, frolics in a tin bathtub, and occasional outbursts into arias (in Greek), the company does an impressive job of wordlessly communicating the plot basics and creating interesting characters.

The five-strong cast all pull their weight in keeping us fixed on the action (even the back end of the centaur gets his chance) with their ironic contorted facial expressions and funny little gestures. There is so much energy on stage your mind rarely has the opportunity to wonder what exactly is going on here. This is probably a good thing. To be honest, there’s little (if any) intellectual substance to this play, but that is one of the things which makes it great. “Confused in Syracuse” deliberately doesn’t explore weighty issues or make clever points, but it is an hour of hysterically funny entertainment and pure escapism. What a welcome relief after nearly two weeks of mentally-exhausting classic play revivals and student drama cleverness.

You could describe “Confused in Syracuse” as a Marmite show. If you like pantomime and are comfortable with things not always making sense, you’ll probably love it. If you like your theatre a bit more clear-cut, this probably isn’t the show for you. Either way, there are some absolutely hilarious moments, and some which are just plain bonkers. 

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Have you ever been to the state of Georgia? I certainly hadn’t before I met J. Fergus Evans, but during his intimate performance at the PULSE Festival I could swear I was there, being taken around by a resident, shown all the sights, and given privileged access to the local gossip. We are made to feel welcome in Evans’ homeland, given peaches and a taste of Southern Comfort while Evans instructs us on how to escape from dangerous wildlife (apparently alligators struggle to zigzag thanks to their short legs) and spins compelling yarns which may or may not be true. 

my heart is hitchhiking down peachtree streetWe learn about high school mean girls with names like ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ and ‘Homecoming Queen’, the seedy bars of the South, and the nail bombs set off in the 1990s in Georgia’s gay clubs. The effect is heady, intoxicating and disorientatingly convincing; Evans is a charismatic storyteller, drawing us into his Georgia, a place which is both real and imagined, with his vivid imagination and eager, soft voice. He eats pecans from a rustic patchwork tablecloth, savouring the memories associated with the taste of home, and entrusts us with boxes which encapsulate his stories. We’re no longer an audience watching a performer: we’re friends visiting Evans’ American home for the first time, handling his possessions and listening to him share his anecdotes and insights. 

This home, set up in a small dark room in the New Wolsey Theatre, is inviting and cosy; there are flickering electric candles on the floor, little paper birds decorating the wall, and an illuminated globe which shows the state of Georgia with its principal towns picked out. A screen beside Evans shows animated scenes of trees and trains which nicely complement and illustrate his stories. Several stacks of old leather suitcases remind us of what it is like to come back to the place you call home, and what it’s like to leave that comfort zone. 

Home is at the heart of Evans’ show. Creating a slice of Georgia in a theatre in another country is Evans’ way of asking what home means when we are far away from it — what things we remember and what things we miss. The result is a bittersweet nostalgia in which homesickness and a longing for the familiar is moderated by facts about homophobia in Georgia (homosexuality was illegal in the state until 1998). Evans doesn’t try to romanticise his homeland, but his performance is so strong you feel like you’re actually there, walking down Peachtree Street and wiping sticky fruit juice from your chin in the company of new friends. Almost like a holiday complete with personal tour guide, all for the price of a theatre ticket.

My Heart is Hitchhiking Down Peachtree Street was at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich on June 4 as part of the PULSE Festival. For more information about the festival, please visit the New Wolsey Theatre website. The show continues its tour over the summer in Harrogate, Leeds and Reading.

Originally published on

PULSE Festival 2013 at New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

It may be small in scale and a little obscure, but the ten-day PULSE Festival at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre has a rich, eclectic range of shows which bring its loyal, almost cult-like audiences back every year. This year the focus is on works in progress and scratches from unfinished shows, with the second day of the festival featuring the awarding of the inaugural Suitcase Prize for the best performance which could be carried by public transport. PULSE producer Laura Norman explained, “We were looking for inspiring, bold and adventurous ideas – just ones that you can take with you on the bus.”

This focus on creating work which is both environmentally and economically sustainable produces some innovative and strikingly diverse responses. Out of Chaos borrows a table and chair from the venue for The Flying Roast Goose, and relies on physical theatre and puppetry to tell the story of a Cantonese chef and her goose trying to survive the 1941 Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. The hilarious Figs in Wigs’ Leftovers attempts to break the world record for eating peas with a cocktail stick in three minutes against a backdrop of an unfinished dance routine. The company initially envisioned using a fridge-freezer on stage, but downsized to a more portable blue cool box to transport their vegetable props. Keeping things simple, Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation with My Father uses the contents of the rucksack she takes on protests to explore modern policing and standing up for what you believe in. 

The greatest strength of PULSE is that the old cliché “there’s something for everyone” rings absolutely true. Saturday 1 June featured a series of scratch sessions and works in progress, with audience members strongly encouraged to give feedback on new work: for example, Toot’s interactive Be Here Now which reminisces about Oasis and “music you can hold”, and an extract from Snuff Box Theatre’s compelling The Altitude Brothers, which gives the Russian perspective of the Space Race through vodka, comradeship and courage in the face of the unknown. Angry buzzing hoovers and a bicycle illustrate the struggle between domestic life and feminism in Iran and Europe in the surreal Domestic Labour: A Study in Love, while Francesca Millican-Slater’s warm, engaging personality shone through in her solo show about a beloved 70s flat, The Forensics Of A Flat And Other Stories. Next up was Family Day, packed with imaginative children’s shows such as the dark fairytale of a girl in love with a bear, The Girl With The Iron Claws, Daniel Bye’s The Six O’Clock News which responds to the big news issues of the day, and Talking Birds’s intimate three minute performances experienced inside a giant metal whale. 

The line-up for the rest of the festival includes a performance of Victoria Melody’s Major Tom which considers our obsession with fame and looks through beauty pageants and dog shows, and The Forest and the Field, an immersive, intriguing invitation to reflect on the nature of theatre and how it might respond to the social and cultural challenges of the future. The festival closes with Ursula Martinez’s My Stories, Your Emails which promises to combine stand-up comedy, live art and character comedy to explore what happens when your striptease act ends up online and strangers start sending you extraordinary emails. If these don’t appeal there’s still plenty more PULSE performances left to see, with shows running until June 8, and with so much variety I guarantee you’ll find something you like. 

The PULSE Festival runs from Thursday 30 May until Saturday 8 June at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich. For more information and to book tickets, visit the New Wolsey Theatre website.

Originially published on 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Fallen in Love, in the Tower

Review: Fallen in Love (Tower of London/Red Rose Chain)

Fallen in Love
The moody overcast sky and the anniversary of the execution of George Boleyn in 1536 seemed fittingly portentous for the opening night of Fallen in Love in the Tower of London. The Suffolk-based Red Rose Chain are probably best known for their child-friendly summertime Shakespearean romps in the forest, which explode with energy, enthusiasm, and humour. In contrast, this controversial play about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, the feisty queen executed by Henry VIII at the age of just 35, is turbulent and dark, almost a gothic prelude to the summer we’re still waiting for.

Written by Joanna Carrick, the play is a series of snapshots of crucial moments in Anne’s life, charting her early adulthood, the fateful attentions of the king, and her constant struggle to bear a male heir and to make Henry love her, which ultimately leads to death. There’s a real sense of growing tension as the scenes become shorter and faster, with the contrast of delightful and poignant moments where Anne and her brother George seek escape in regression to childhood, fooling around with silly voices and singing ballads.

This brings us to the controversy: Carrick’s play centres not on the relationship between Anne and Henry, but on that between Anne and George. We all know of the vivacious, daring woman who captured the heart of a king and had him turn the country upside down so they could marry. Fallen in Love takes us deeper, presenting Anne and George as physical and emotional personalities with desires and ambitions, and leaving the audience to decide the truth of the charge of incest brought against them. The production feels like a historical novel brought to life on the stage, and it is no coincidence that Tudor historian and author Alison Weir has lent her support.

Fallen in Love, like much historical fiction, presents the often ignored side of history: the female version of the story. Carrick makes clear Anne’s purpose as a political tool at a time when women were generally regarded as mere chattels, and the devastating birth of a second princess in a society ruled by men. Anne could only exercise her power through men, and this frustration is skilfully presented by Emma Connell as the leading lady. Connell is particularly convincing as the young favourite of the king, exasperated after six years of holding off Henry’s sexual advances until the legitimation of the affair by marriage. Scott Ellis’s portrayal of George is also thoroughly enjoyable, contrasting the boisterousness of youth and his deep affection for his sister Anne.

The play ends with a moving speech from each sibling before their executions. Unfortunately, this tragic atmosphere is spoiled by the final image of Anne and George reunited in heaven as white petals fall from above; it seems Carrick decided she had to add an imaginary happy ending to this sad tale, and it feels rather tacky. This is soon forgotten, though, when you walk out through the Tower and remember that Anne was imprisoned, executed and buried right here. What could be better than a powerful production staged where the action actually happened all those years ago?

Fallen in Love is at the Tower of London on selected dates in May and June until June 16. It is also being performed at Gippeswyk Hall in Ipswich. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the Fallen in Love website.

Originally published on A Younger Theatre:

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Review:The Sacred Flame

In the world of literature love often seems to lead to murder, but what happens when the victim is a bed-bound war veteran? In many ways Somerset Maugham’s “The Sacred Flame” is a classic murder mystery, leading us through a series of dramatic scenes as the evidence stacks against the main suspect before the shocking truth is revealed in the final, not-so surprising twist. It’s also a play that raises puzzling, deep ethical questions about the sacrifices that a permanently disabled person and their friends and family have to make. Maugham’s play premiered in New York in 1928 and then came to London in 1929, before returning in 1967 with Gladys Cooper playing the matriarchal Mrs Tabret. Since then the play has slipped into the background until Director Mathew Dunster’s decision to stage a revival with English Touring Theatre. Having recently worked with the Pet Shop Boys and choreographer Javier de Frutos at Sadler’s Wells, directed “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, based on Sillitoe’s novel, and staged his own play “Children’s Children” at the Almeida, Dunster’s versatility is striking, and a characteristic which perhaps makes his choice of Maugham’s 1920s murder mystery a little less surprising.

It’s easy to spot the challenges facing Dunster in updating “The Sacred Flame” to suit the palate of a modern audience. Dunster has kept occasional archaic-sounding lines to add humour, and although initially these sound strained it doesn’t take long for us to fully accept that this is the 1920s. What has been completely altered, though, is the set. We are presented with a modernist construction of crossing metal bars, large transparent plastic doors and large off-white walls which look like concrete. It is an interesting decision, but the clash of eras between language and set confuses and disconcerts more than it provides a clean, uncluttered background on which to present the play for today’s audience.

There can be little doubt, though, that Dunster’s bold decision to revive “The Sacred Flame” has paid off. Maugham’s play is packed with heady emotional impact and incisive empathy which leaves our loyalties and ethics torn. We want to sympathise with the young, beautiful wife, Stella, and her impossible situation, while at the same time understanding the awfulness of taking another human life and the need for justice. This tension is well delivered, with particularly moving performances from Sarah Churm, as the Nurse Wayland who obstinately seeks justice and the truth, and Beatriz Romilly as Stella, the young wife struggling to deal with the changes to her marriage brought by her husband’s accident. Mrs Tabret, the matriarch of the play, is played by Margot Leicester, who also gives a strong performance, although some lines sounded strained and unnatural.

Dunster’s staging of “The Sacred Flame” proves that old, almost forgotten works can be successfully revived and hold their strong emotional impact. Maugham is better known today for his novels, particularly “The Painted Veil”, recently transformed into a popular film, but the power of English Touring Theatre’s production proves that treasures can still be found in the back catalogue of English drama.

The Sacred Flame is at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until Saturday 22nd of September and then continues its national tour until the 24th of November, visiting the Northern Stage in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Oxford Playhouse, The New Wolsey in Ipswich, the Liverpool Playhouse, Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, The Theatre Royal in Brighton, The Nuffield in Southampton and the Cambridge Arts Theatre. For more information and to book tickets, visit the English Touring Theatre website.

Friday, 21 October 2011

WELCOME TO BA: The Ultimate Spanish Crash Course

LANGUAGE SCHOOL REVIEW: Expanish, Buenos Aires

Having spent a month travelling in Europe I arrived in Latin America with the foolish notion that I could get by anywhere with a big smile and slow, carefully pronounced English. Arriving at Buenos Aires airport it quickly became apparent that this approach stood no chance. It was like being a baby again, adrift in a world full of strange but familar-sounding words, with new places to explore and a whole new set of social and cultural rules to learn. There was but one solution; I was going back to school.

Realising the urgency of my situation, having landed in a country where I now had virtually no ability to communicate with people, I sought a course which would immediately equip me to survive here. One good option is the "The Ultimate Spanish Crash Course" offered by Expanish language school, located right in the heart of the city. The concept behind the week-long course is to arm travellers with the basic phrases they will need to get by in Latin America. The structure is extremely flexible; you may choose to take all five of the 2 hour daily sessions, or just select those which most appeal. Sessions are from 4 to 6 pm, giving you time to spend the morning exploring, and each day covers a different topic, beginning with Eat and Drink, then Shopping, Travelling in Latin America, Everyday Fundamentals, and finally Making Friends and Socialising.

I decided to go for two, starting with Travel, since my ability to get lost was improving daily, and this was only exacerbated by the fact I still had no idea how to ask for directions. Signing up is really simple and can be done right up until half an hour before the lesson; the incredibly enthusiastic admissions staff give you a full tour of the building and facilities, explaining in depth the structure of the course and teaching methods. This encounter was actually extremely enjoyable, given my limited contact with English speakers, so I was already pretty content by class time. My class was actually fairly large, with eight of us, which created good opportunities to meet like-minded people from Europe and America, and it soon became apparent as our tutor bounded in and introduced herself that this was going to be fun.

The sessions are short, but packed with information, exercises, and plenty of opportunities to test out what you have learnt. Particularly useful was being made to watch a video of a conversation on the street, featuring Expanish staff members, and repeat what was said in the conversation. For the most part, though, the focus is on learning a few key phrases to help you get around, the likes of "How do I get to ..." and "Go straight ahead". I must point out that the course is basic, and thus it is all about equiping yourself with the bare minimum you will need to survive out here. It´s particularly good for those who are new to the city and language; I felt the afternoon acted as a kind of orientation to the city, with good introductions to the tourist sights in the city and one of the clearest explanations I have heard of Buenos Aires´ bewildering grid pattern and avenue layout. I´d been here a few days by this point, and so had seen the most of the sights mentioned, but I did enjoy our tutor´s personal recommendations, with photos, of places to go to within Argentina.

The whole experience was enjoyable, learning a bit of lingo, meeting fellow travellers, and getting some decent tourist information, and it works out at fairly good value at 80 pesos, or around US$20, per two hour class. The teaching is good, although I did feel the class size made learning more difficult, and our tutor´s tendency to forget the English meaning of a word was ocassionally problematic. Overall, though, her bubbly porteño personality and enthusiasm made it almost worth paying up just to spend an afternoon with a local. And hopefully now I´ll be able to ask for directions to get me back to the school for my next session where I´ll be Making Friends and Socialising.

Chau amigos.

Expanish can be found at Tte. Gral Juan D Peron 700, C1038AAN, Buenos Aires. For more information and bookings call +54 11 5252 3040 or go to the website.