Two Sides of the Curtain (theSpace on the Mile: 14-19th Aug: 19.05: 50 mins)

“Emotive and gripping”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars:

Two Sides of the Curtain follows the struggle of Ada and Erich – lovers on either side of the “curtain”, who long to be together, but, for whatever reason, can’t. At least that’s what I think it’s about. I’ll admit I’m no expert on the history and politics surrounding the Cold War and the specific reasons why people were and weren’t permitted access to certain places, but even by the end of the performance I didn’t feel much the wiser.

Erich seems to have a job that gives him quite a lot of political and practical clout, including the freedom to travel around the country (presumably Germany) as he chooses, while much of Ada’s reluctance to run away with him seems to come from lack of will rather than fear of being caught in the process, though it’s never particularly clear why she makes the decisions she does. Indeed, it’s quite frustrating how little we get to learn about both characters throughout the piece, making it hard to empathise with them at any given moment.

Shifts in time and place are also difficult to comprehend – I spent much of the show trying to work out when and where the action was taking place, with very few clues – in either the script, direction or design – to assist. Token pieces of props or set – had there been any – may have helped to some extent, but it’s the lack of detail in the script which is the main problem. If writer Jack Kelly aims to create a thick fog of mystery surrounding the piece he certainly succeeds, but more detail up front would definitely help laymen like me wade through it with him, rather than being left languishing in an ignorant abyss.

In saying that, the play does have commendable ideas: the struggle of two lovers on either side of a dangerous line is emotive and gripping, as are the twists that develop in the closing couple of scenes – it’s a shame this all comes so late on. The performances are solid: Rachael Naylor as Ada is very natural and easy to watch, while Andrew Crouch as Erich shows great emotional range and charisma. There is potential here to make a really gripping show.

Overall this is a good effort from Sussex University Drama Society, but the flaws and holes in the script just make it too difficult to fully engage with. If you like a show where you have to do a lot of guessing and detective work to piece together what’s going on, or perhaps are a lot more clued up on what it’s like to live in Cold War Berlin than me on any given Saturday evening, this show might be for you. But I’m still trying to work out who, where and when I am.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 19 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light (Gilded Balloon Teviot: 2-19 Aug: 14.30: 60mins)

“Commendably earnest.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club’s A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light is structured and effectively performed like a cosmic nightmare. Two contestants on a bizarre game show, Jude (Maya Achan) and Leon (Malcolm Ebose), are tormented and ridiculed by bubbly but sadistic show hosts and forced to explore their own shame and pain through reenactments and flashbacks of previous traumas. The stuff of nightmares. The question the show and its artistic choices raise most consistently is: whose nightmare?

The game show format can be entertaining for a live play, but the script of A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light, written by Ben Maier, does not use the format very well, as frequent flashbacks, monologues, and freeze-frame asides not only jar the audience but muddy the point of the play as a whole. Is this a comedy? A tragicomedy? A through-and-through parody/satire of the flippancy and crass positivity we employ when discussing mental illness? I’m not sure we ever find out.

The contestants, at least, are effectively characterised. The melancholy Ebose conceals within the role of Leon and the mousiness Achan hardwires into Jude are well developed and rehearsed.  The show hosts, Terry (Ed Paget) and Fizz (Charlotte Cromie), lean more towards slapstick insanity, but as unpredictable sadists, they certainly remain in character the whole way through. However, its hard to shake the sense that the whole tone of the piece is off somehow, from the half-hearted and half-delivered punchlines to the rushed backstories given to what could have been interesting characters.

Aesthetically, the show is colourful, but inconsistent and dizzying. Though the costumes are appropriately tailored to the wearer’s characteristics, and the lighting, designed by Avi Pluskoska, flashes and twirls well (most of the time), this play seems to have skipped any consideration of stage geography and audience comprehension. Following where and when the actions and flashbacks are taking place is near impossible, and the production team could have benefited from designing more specific regions of the stage and uses of lighting to differentiate between the game show environment and the myriad other settings where scenes take place.

There is something to be said for layering truly tragic revelations with comedic flippancy. At times, the striking cruelty that marmalade-suited host Terry (played at breakneck speed by Paget) hurls at timid Jude and humble Leon begins to recall the uncaring approach we can all sometimes take to mental illness and other people’s serious issues in general. The whirlwind incomprehensibility of the game show begins to mirror what a world may look like to someone with debilitating trauma like the contestants. To their credit, the actors do a fine job of selling this nightmarish tone. Paget’s manic voice and Cromie’s devilish mannerisms as Fizz convince the spectator that what they are seeing is crass and cruel indeed, and these performances are commendably earnest.

The show comes into its own more successfully around the second half, as the hosts themselves show signs of trauma and characterisation, the pain is spread around, and we get to sees signs of weakness in the tormentors. The implications that Terry and Fizz’s cruelty stems from their own self-hatred is momentarily interesting, yet these moments are too quickly presented and discarded to be of any note. And then there’s the highly questionable entrance of a ludicrously costumed crooner named Frankie Valium, (ha), played by Harry Burke, who does a somewhat charming ditty, then fails to project enough for any of his lines to be understood, returning for one late monologue about a bear attack that just halts any trajectory the play had going for it. This scene in particular is frustratingly unnecessary, ill-advised, and poorly written, that any hope of coherence is blown away completely.

All that said, commendable moments shined through. Malcolm Ebose, playing Leon, is a highlight; he manages to portray his inner anguish with a striking tone of beauty. Whenever he does, however, A Sudden Burst of Blinding Light shows its hand by quickly cutting back to crass, cold, cheap laughs that end up turning the tasteless nightmare on the paying audience more than anyone. Whatever director Carine Valarché had in mind, this reviewer cannot recommend it. Game over.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer:  Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Penetrator (C Cubed: 3-12 Aug: 18.25: 75mins)

“Flickers of brilliant storytelling”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Anthony Neilson’s Penetrator covers the topics of masculinity, friendship, and how far a man will go for his mate. Max and Alan are friends and flatmates (with differing viewpoints on tidiness and laziness), when old friend of Max, Tadge, arrives unexpectedly, having been discharged from the army. Bringing a vast set of issues none in the group can comprehend we find out how much each of them is able to put up with.

Bizarrely, for a play that’s been produced at the Traverse, the Finborough and Royal Court (upstairs), it’s Neilson’s script which is really the weak link in this production, giving away frustratingly little about the backgrounds and motivations of each character. Conversation between Max and Alan frequently just dies and restarts again on a different topic for no reason, while any sort of tension and narrative drive appear only quite late on. Perhaps it’s all one over-burdened point by Neilson about men’s ability to communicate about emotion or anything of any depth, but even that wears thin as the chatter ploughs on about girls, haircuts, cards and cups of tea without feeling genuine.

The final fifteen minutes of drama are certainly attention-grabbing and tense, even if the motivation behind it feels rather flimsy with very little to establish it. Tadge’s accounts of the penetrators and his father never quite ring true, as the non-plussed reactions of the others smack of disbelief without enough intelligent dissection of the issues to draw the audience in. I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.

In saying all that, the cast do a fairly good job with the material – Chris Duffy is very relaxed and natural as Max, Matt Roberts suitably frustrated as Alan, and Tom White is the most convincing and compelling of the group as the war-affected Tadge. While the tense moments towards the end the production do get a little bit too shouty, the more emotional and thoughtful interchanges – particularly when recalling teenage incidents – are very well-delivered and stand head and shoulders above the rest in terms of emotional honesty as flickers of brilliant storytelling.

Given the amount of talent on display at moments during this performance, it’s clear that Fear No Colours as a company have the potential to produce great theatre, but unfortunately this production falls short in too many areas to show them in their best light.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 6 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Criminology 303 (Venue 13: 6-27 August: 21.30: 35 mins)

“An intriguing drama”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Criminology 303 is an interesting concept – flipping between alternate scenes 40 years apart. Initially we meet retired detective Norma Bates (Jilly Bond) in 2016 reflecting on an unsuccessful investigation from her past, before the action reverts to 1976 where she is in the thick of it. We learn early on how this (the only unsolved case of her career) clearly still haunts her, so an intriguing drama is set up as to whether she might finally solve it on our presence.

Bond does a great job in switching between the two ages of her character – the crabby older version is a distinct progression from her greener and more confident younger self. And although prone to some overacting (I think her initial terror at the power point presentation misbehaving is a bit extreme), she shows great skill and stamina to drive the action in both scenarios.

This production’s main downfall, however, is its length. At barely half an hour, it feels like it only just gets going before very abruptly ending. There is no satisfactory resolution, no real sense of progression in either story beyond some scene-setting, and consequently the whole thing feels a bit pointless.

I would have liked to see the 2016 scenario develop into a discursive and positive look back at the case with a view to at long last solving it, rather than being a very rushed ghost story that scares Bates away from her own lecture. The pace of Bates’ descent into terror in this part feels very disingenuous, subverting the strength her character should have had (after 40 years in the force), so to me a more subtle and drawn-out approach here would have been more powerful.

In the flashback scenes Julian Gartside is commandingly creepy as Mr McLeod, yet Tommo Fowler’s direction has him physically touch and overpower Bates as detective on more than one occasion, which again feels forced and comes across as a cheap way to demonstrate status quickly, when other techniques would have had greater impact. The scene-setting and background to the background of the case in this scene is very well developed and delivered by Gartside, if seemingly a little irrelevant from the main story, but again I can’t help but feel this all would have been so much more effective if we got to see more about how the action panned out in the end – it is a frustrating beginning to a chapter that ends mid-sentence.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 24 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

+3 Review: Nuclear Family (Assembly Roxy: 3 – 29 Aug. 1715. 1h)

Image. Sunday's Child & Fever Dream Theatre.

Image. Sunday’s Child & Fever Dream Theatre.

” .. a drama of a hopeless, unstable, situation”

Editorial Rating:  2 Stars

Torness nuclear power station is 30kms from Edinburgh, strikingly visible from the A1 and from the main line. The MailOnline did a photo feature on it in January last year. A close-up on one of the panels in the Control Room shows the operating switches to Boilers A to D. Understandably, there’s ‘Start Up’, ‘Drain and Warm-Up’, and – critically – ‘Dump’; which is what Ellen, who’s a technician at a nuclear site, has just done to Phil. He takes it very, very badly.

This then is your chance to get up-close and personal with nuclear safety. You play your part in an examination of how Phil, the jilted boyfriend, and a couple of his drunk mates got into the Central Control Room of a nuclear power station and caused a disaster. It’s your job to review the evidence of how it was allowed to happen and to play ‘What Would You Do / What Should They Have Done?’ The results are to be included in the final ‘Prescott’ report. (There is no connection BTW with the former Deputy Prime Minister or indeed, I trust, with any incident at a nuclear installation). As a core idea, it has a lot going for it; but what of its processes?

The audience of eight to ten – it might stretch to 14 or so – sits in a semi-circle. In front of us two actors act out the CCTV footage of the Security desk from that terrible evening. Ellen (Eva O’Connor) is on duty with her brother Joe (Adam Devereux), who is on a verbal warning for telling site managers what they don’t want to hear. This sequence is interrupted on five occasions for  audience participants to look at further evidence: personnel records, transcripts, and the like. A facilitator officiates and calls Time when a decision has to be reached: for example, sound the alarm now or wait? There is a show of hands to determine what happens next.

The acting was by far and away the best part, creating tension even when the plot approached meltdown. However, for me, the ‘interactive’ theatre was a nightmare. I had my senior doubts from the start when the bumbling distribution of iPods did not convince me that this was an official inquiry and then the request for a rapporteur helper was immediately taken up by a man to my right festooned with venue participant lanyards. He started whispering broken instructions on how to open the nano which I tried to follow but I had to give up on the looped audio files. My neighbour to the left seemed to be ‘on task’ and having an engaged conversation but all this activity seemed completely superfluous. It didn’t help, of course, that I was outside the discussions that were taking place. I just wanted to hear more from Joe and Ellen, whose acting was reaching critical levels, rather than wait for the next predictable outcome. Even then it was pretty obvious that whatever decision was reached, at whichever improbable juncture, it would make no difference. When the votes were taken there was no time to really examine the decisions reached. As an immersive simulation it wasn’t working; as a drama of a hopeless, unstable, situation, I liked its fallout.

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 7 August)

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+3 Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (Assembly Roxy, 5 Aug – 29 Aug : 13.55 : 1hr 30mins)

https://files.list.co.uk/images/festivals/2016/fringe/2016STREETC-9D-300.jpg

“Consistently raw, emotional and human”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars Nae Bad

For many years, Tennessee Williams’ immortal “A Streetcar Named Desire” conjured up two shared memories: the off-yellow, stained tooth colour of chipboard desks; and the strange, (and in hindsight, quite sad) familiarity with which my divorced, middle-aged English teacher spoke about the dangers of hiding in fantasies.Now, thanks to the Tumanishvilli Film Actor’s Company and director Keti Dolidze, it’s far easier to think of quiet intricacy, and the heartfelt ebb of Georgian on a smoke-filled stage.

From the get-go, it clear this is a production which has been undertaken with care. The monotone stamp of poverty is imprinted surprisingly well on the set. Had it not been lit up on the Assembly Roxy stage, I would have had no trouble believing it had all just been sitting in the French Quarter. But what was most admirable about the set was its clever use of shadow. Translucent material and a little light transformed what in any other production would have simply been a rearward wall into a very entertaining transition tool: whilst set is moved around, the audience is treated to dancing shadows, or the silhouette of a saxophonist. And whilst occasionally these transitory segments went on a little too long, they were nevertheless welcome. Combined with excellent, well-timed soundscaping, it was clear the overall audiovisual design had received the care it deserved.

However, the background paled in comparison to the string of strong performances. It would be difficult to place the strongest actor in what is obviously a very seasoned cast. Even sans translation, this was a show which was consistently raw, emotional and human. Nineli Chankvetadze’s Blanche in particular showed almost uncanny emotional range, bringing depth to every smile and frightened sob even when the emotions in between were few. Kudos also to Imeda Arabuli as Stanley Kowalski, who lent an almost frightening hypermasculine, bestial quality to a character who is so easily made trite by a lesser actor.

With the aforementioned strengths, then, you could be forgiven for wondering why I’ve given this show a surprisingly low rating. And whilst, clearly, many of its component parts merit celebration, it is unfortunate then that this production was completely and utterly failed by its translation. Whilst subtitling a foreign language work is a fine idea, its execution onstage was risible.

From half a line being completely cut off (which happened often), to the subtitles stalling or – even more frustratingly, skipping back and forth in an obvious effort to re-find the dialogue – and the surprisingly low quality of what should have been a simple transcription of Williams’ original transcript (Prize contenders include the immortal phrase: “I’ll never forget the colour of his yes!”), the translation of this show was consistently frustrating. Even worse, the form and punctuation of character dialogue was not so much confused as nonexistent, leaving much of the second half reading as if Blanche was having the most spectacular breakdown ever seen on stage.

But even worse was the fact that, as an audience member, I often found myself between Scylla and Charybdis: either losing myself in the wonderful performances on show and having no idea what was being said, or half-understanding the dialogue whilst being unable to see the show itself as I craned my vision to the extreme top left of the stage. Had the subtitling quality been better this may have been less of a problem, but given the internal problem-solving required to make the subtitles coherent, it was like I had simply stepped outside for half the play. I shudder at the prospect of having seen this work without first being familiar with the plot beyond cultural osmosis, as a surprising number of people are. Given that the importance that the language plays in Streetcar, I was legitimately shocked at the poor quality of its execution.

In terms of its actual materiality, Keti Dolidze has crafted a fine show indeed. And, if you’re fluent enough to understand Georgian on the stage, I’m sure it would make for an afternoon to remember. Had it been simply billed as a foreign language play, even an English speaker would be able to understand, at least, the raw emotional content from performance alone. But, as it stands, the almost fantastically poor quality of translation packaged with this show made engaging with it a chore by the final half hour. With some simple tweaks, A Streetcar Named Desire could have quite handily added two more stars. But, as it stands, perhaps the kindness of strangers is less important than the kindness of transcribers.

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 5 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Tipping the Velvet (The Lyceum, 28 Oct – 14 Nov ’15)

“An imaginative attempt at what could have been quite a bland adaptation”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

From the quills of established writer Sarah Waters and high-flying playwright Laura Wade, my expectations were certainly high on entering the auditorium for this new interpretation of the award winning novel. And with a very amusing opening skit and a dazzling number from Laura Rogers as Kitty, it certainly got off to a fine start.

However, while the amount of creativity on show – from daring aerial sequences, to lush period costumes and a Victorian Music Hall arrangement of a song famously featured on a Diet Coke advert – was impressive, unfortunately, this production’s lack of cohesion and staccato structure made it nigh-on infuriating for me to sit through.

In saying that, the show wasn’t without its laugh out loud moments – a landlady dressed in exactly the same design of fabric as the wallpaper in her house and lines such as “You exquisite little tart” certainly caused a few chuckles. However, the comedic aspects were pushed to their limits with a section involving animal carcasses being used as puppets in a song, and a certain “adult” section depicting Nancy’s experience as a prostitute. Definitely not recommended for the easily offended.

Sally Messiah is certainly charismatic as Nancy, Amanda Hadingue is very likeable as Annie (among other characters she plays), and Ru Hamilton delivers a delightful turn as gender-bending Alice. However, for me the most credit in this production should go to the stage hands, whose alarmingly efficient scene changes left me in a state of amazement on numerous occasions.

Much of Lizzie Clapham’s design was visually impressive, but use of space could definitely have been improved: at times the central characters would appear very lost towards the back of a somewhat empty stage, hindering the sense of intimacy they were trying to create. In a production with so many scenes, locations and jarring cuts between them all, a much more fluid approach to location and action would have been more engaging.

There were various musical numbers interspersed throughout the piece, almost all of which were interpretations of modern songs. In some instances, these worked well as a way to bring relevance to today’s audience, but in the second act when Nancy is desperate for a place to live, she belts out a line from one power ballad after another, with farcical impact. Rather than being able to relate to her struggle, she is instead alienated, and it becomes difficult to then reconnect with her in the following scene. This is part of what frustrated me the most about this production: at times we were allowed in to develop a bond with the characters, while in certain sections it was impossible to do so.

The constant bouncing between styles, coupled with the distinct over use of the compere/narrator/MC character, who incessantly dove on stage with needless interruptions between every scene, made this production feel like it was having some sort of pubescent identity crisis between Brechtian fable, cabaret variety show, and an episode of Jeremy Kyle. I could have handled any of those interpretations individually but all in one show was just too much.

In some ways I’m glad this production took some risks to create an imaginative attempt at what could have been quite a bland adaptation. It’s just a shame that so many different styles, techniques and devices were used in the process.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 29 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED