Trojan Horse (Traverse Theatre, Feb 11-12: 1h 15 mins)

“Realistic, respectful and approached with careful integrity. “

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

LUNG theatre has gained popularity recently for their creative championing of minority demographics and events neglected by the media. They have done well to establish their own verbatim style that values justice, professionalism and integrity; attributes that shine very brightly throughout Trojan Horse. Written by Matt Woodhead and Helen Monks, Trojan Horse premiered in Edinburgh in 2018 when it won both the Fringe First award and the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. Trojan Horse is adapted from over 200 hours of interviews, containing public documents and speeches taken directly from public interviews. The performance follows the famous 2014 scandal that surrounded the ‘alleged’ conspiracy within Park View Academy, Nansen Primary and several other Birmingham schools by Islamist extremists, who were supposedly planning to infiltrate the curriculum by enforcing their religious ethos. 

It is in this sense of verisimilitude that LUNG really excel in honoring the story of the teachers, parents and students who were directly affected by the inquiries. The acting style was realistic, respectful and approached with careful integrity. 

The fast-paced dynamicity, and slick transitioning between narratives in the show meant that occasionally I had to remind myself that what I was hearing verbatim stories, and not born-fictional narrative. The cast (Komal Amin, Mustafa Chaudhry, Gurkiran Kaur, Qasim Mahmood, Keshini Misha) work excellently as an ensemble, representing the people at the heart of the enquiry with pride and respect. Mahmood is especially memorable for portraying an honorable image of the selfless Tahir Alam; former chairman of governors at Park View, who was banned from his role for undermining ‘fundamental British values’. 

In perhaps its most artful navigation of difficult topics, the piece covers some understandably heavy political content, which is offered in a way that provides context to new audiences without demeaning them. These moments are paralleled masterfully with moments of relief, even comedy. It feels almost wrong to think of laughing together given the subject matter, but in a way, it reflects LUNG’s message on human connectedness beautifully.

As in most of LUNG’s work, Trojan Horse really emphasised the extent that the media can influence public opinion by omitting fact, corrupting the truth and in this case, propagating islamophobia for the purpose of views and retweets. These messages are supported by the constant presence of mobile phones and snippets of radio broadcasts as a key source of communication in the piece. It is here that the piece begs us to confront how we make judgements. Why are we, the British public, so quick to believe the headlines rather than hunt for the full story? When do we begin to accept accountability for how our complacency feeds into the plague of mass-media falsity in Britain? The continuing popularity of LUNG’s Trojan Horse only goes to emphasize its relevance today, and that we still have a lot to learn from our past mistakes.

Trojan Horse is a brilliant example of how theatre can create space to reflect upon socio-political and economic matters that is both cathartic and politicizing. It is clear that the LUNG team are practicing the proactivity that they preach throughout their creative and production processes. The show’s engagement continues beyond the parameters of the stage space, with fundraising, community engagement consultants and an academic advisor. In writing Trojan Horse, Monks and Woodhead had recognised an injustice in the world and gave voice to the voiceless. As a Theatre graduate, seeing Trojan Horse highlighted the absolute necessity for my generation to utilise our privilege, and start writing and creating with/for our communities. In the words of Razwan Faraz: “Young people: do it, tell the story. Because the people at the top aren’t”.


“What are you doing for society?”

At the end of the tour leg, LUNG informed us that they will be taking Trojan Horse to the Houses of Parliament to fight for the Government to commit to a definition of Islamophobia. This success only demonstrates the power of this piece of documentary theatre in implementing real change, and I look forward to seeing what they have in store for us next. Please check out and sign their petition calling on the UK Government to adopt a definition of Islamophobia at: https://bit.ly/2NMe673

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Paige Stillwell (Seen February 11)

I Can Go Anywhere (Traverse Theatre: Dec 10 – 21 : 20:00: 1hr 20 mins)

Photo: Lara Cappelli

Photo: Lara Cappelli

“A nail-biting reflection on identity politics”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Award-winning Scottish playwright Douglas Maxwell’s new play I Can Go Anywhere sees Jimmy, a caricature of youthful optimism and mod-culture, arrive on the doorstep of Professor Stevie Thomas. Jimmy is seeking help in a last-ditch effort to be granted asylum in the UK. Dressed in his pinstripe suit and green parka combo, Jimmy is a larger-than-life comic book embodiment of all things MOD and all he wants is to prove he belongs. But Stevie, a disheartened academic, is suffering his own identity crisis, fresh from a break-up and meandering in the lows of a “transitional phase” in life.

Maxwell’s latest play follows a night of both confrontation and camaraderie between two men as they share vulnerabilities, anxieties and bond over 70’s vinyl. Both Nebli Basani (Jimmy) and Paul McCole (Stevie) hold the stage well as a partnership and their conflict offers a considerate perspective on identity politics. Eve Nicol’s direction also does well to present the character’s complex power and pride driven battle in 75 minutes, without seeming rushed or abridged. Basani’s performance as Jimmy is, no doubt, one of the best I have seen at the Traverse this year and by far the most captivating part of I Can Go Anywhere. From the moment that Stevie (Paul McCole) opens the front door, Jimmy explodes to life with an energy that is both nervous and endearing, embodying a personification of rogue mod that we recognise too well from contemporary British drama.

Ultimately, I Can Go Anywhere is urging us to face the way in which ignorance governs cultural identity, specifically in the process of seeking asylum in the UK. As we reel in the hostile aftershock of the General Election, there could not be a more appropriate time for a play to confront cultural identity. At times, Stevie and Jimmy’s to-and-fro of insecurities feels symbolic of the UK’s own divided identity. Here, there is a shared sense of feeling lost and a human desire to belong. For those living in Scotland in 2019 it seems ever more necessary for us to reflect on these notions and ask ourselves: What does it mean to be British today? Are our identities defined by the cultural groups to which we belong? What does it mean to belong

I Can Go Anywhere is both humorous and thought provoking, exploring notions of belonging, solidarity and authenticity in contemporary Britain. It concludes (if not a little clichéd) with a Billy Bragg style call to arms that urges the audience to look beyond appearances and judgments. Like Bragg’s political songs, Maxwell’s play uses mod culture to emphasise the collective power of music in creating solidarity amongst people. Let’s appreciate our cultural movements whether art, music or fashion, for how they help us understand how we identify with each other in this fleeting world. Maxwell states that I Can Go Anywhere evolved from desire to show that “art is far more important and powerful than politics”. Whilst the performance’s content certainly addresses this, my only qualm would be that the play’s dependence on naturalism is somewhat limiting and two-dimensional. Perhaps there was a missed opportunity here to engage with a more progressive and interdisciplinary style of performance that might explicitly confront the relationship between art and politics. 

 Despite this, I Can Go Anywhere delivers a nail-biting reflection on identity politics in the UK’s current climate of uncertainty and stands as a valuable experience for all audiences; regardless of class, culture or political views. The Traverse 2’s intimate and open space adheres to the nature of the play, allowing the audience to see and recognise solidarity with one another on the fringes of the stage space. After all, is it not the purpose of theatre to offer a moment of unity in an otherwise hostile world? 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Paige Stillwell (Seen 12 December)

“The Monstrous Heart” (Traverse Theatre, 22 Oct – 2 Nov : 19:30 : 1hr 15mins)

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Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” Elegant and attentive direction”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

An obvious symbol lies on a table at the centre of the stage.

A dead beast as the first actor of an analogy game that unfolds itself like a Russian nesting doll – the monstrous, the wild, the Other, the Mother, the Daughter. A metaphor and, ultimately, a show that rushed like hot blood within a febrile body: hastily.

During a storm in the Canadian mountains, the prodigal daughter visits her mother after a long time to seek answers and amend past decisions.

The attempted analysis of the human passions and post-freudian determinism (which of course condemns women first) with clear romantic allegories (Frankestein, connection between nature and sentiments through sound and light design) fails along the way. A good idea, but unfortunately without resolution.

Director Gareth Nicoll’s taste for Shakespearean, abrupt violence and the delicate language of gestures are as easily seen in this production as his others. But even elegant and attentive direction and fairly competent acting cannot save a flat plot and circumspect script.

A neatly conducted rhythm at the first part of the dialogue becomes a self-explanatory, polarised monologue. Rather than raise drama or empathy, the self indulgent storytelling leaves one wondering if one character is listening to the story or the actress is simply waiting to say her speech.

There’s a lack of tension all the way through the script: the position of power remains always the same, embodied by the daughter, whose acting is quite hectic and leaves no room for audience expectancy at the beginning. Nevertheless, her physical characterisation is superb. The restraint of the mother was sometimes staggered by little details (dramatic hand tics in particular), but the character blossoms once she downs a dram and the actress allows herself to relax.

In short, this is a strong initial concept that craves revision. I hope that it’s returned to, for the simple reason that the idea, the discourse, the creative team’s work and the cast have so much to offer – but, unfortunately, cannot be cured from the restraints of the substandard playwriting.

Maybe the magnificence of a living bear cannot be portrayed if the insides are not beating guts, but soft stuffing.

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Helena Salguiero (Seen 23 October)

The Panopticon (The Traverse: Oct 11 – 19 : 19:30: 2hrs 45 mins)

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Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” A masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Shows are a lot like types of friendship. Some primarily uplift you; they wrap you up in a distancing blanket from what’s actually out there, or distract you from what can’t be escapes. Others are more of an intellectual affair, where the value comes from what you can glean. A working partnership, maybe, as much as acquaintanceship. Some are good, some are fine, and some you cannot wait to forget.

The Panopticon is a singular type of play: it’s like having a witty, irreverent friend who also spontaneously beats the shit out of you. It’s cool, you agreed to it, and honestly there’s a lot of heart and soul in the neverending chest-stamping and throat-chopping, but nonetheless beaten ye shall be. The Panopticon is a masterfully produced piece of white hot tragedy, an important artwork – but if the content warnings plastered around the Traverse Lobby don’t tip you off, it’s not welcome territory for a frail disposition.

The premise of the story is easy to ramp into: a young girl named Anais is put into a home built in the shell of a disused panopticon: a prison wherein all prisoners may be seen from a central tower, and never know if they’re being watched. It becomes a damned succinct example of ‘setting-as-overall-metaphor’, and sets up a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and disorientating lows centred around the lives of the troubled and shunned, and the tragedy of a loveless childhood.

The star of the show, both literally and performatively, is Anna Russell-Martin as Anais: an acerbic, highly troubled young woman for whom the lines between reality and psychosis are not so much blurred as violently shaken together. Russel-Martin offers a masterclass performance in the title role: running the gamut from charming and rambunctious to devastated to utterly destroyed, whilst still maintaining rock-solid continuity of character. Anyone who’s been to a few theatre productions has likely seen grief, rage and joy played out – when watching Russel-Martin, it’s like seeing them for the first time.

Beyond the easy classification of “who is the main character”, the ensemble cast is both a blessing and a curse: a group of performers so uniformly talented that it makes picking a starting point incredibly difficult. Do you start with Laura Lovemore, whose attention to consistent physicality not only makes every one of her characters distinct, but wholly individual? Kay McAllister, who portrays beauty of spirit and acidic tragedy like an angel in a crack den? The wonderfully afflicted bravado and uncertainty of Louise McMenemy’s Shortie, the edge-of-unsettling vibrancy and humanity of Lawrence-Hodgson Mulling’s John, the kaleidoscope-esque multiplicity of Martin Donaghy. There’s simply too much good to unpick here without it turning into a bullet-pointed gush list, but suffice to say, they’re an ensemble cast dream team. Wholly professional, wholly consistent and an absolute joy to watch.

I would be remiss, however, not to highlight my two favourite performers: Gail Watson and Paul Tinto. Tinto, rugged yet approachable, almost singlehandedly carries the light of optimism for the majority of the show with a charisma and earthy crunch that turns what could easily have been a trying, one-note archetype into what may be one of the show’s more understatedly complex roles. And Gail Watson. Gail Watson! Chameleons would weep and don monochrome jackets out of shame. No matter the demands of the myriad parts she plays, each is done with nuance. Personality. Although Eddie Murphy’s Norbit may have traumatised me away from films where one actor plays every part, if Gail Watson were headlining? I might be persuaded to invest in the necessary therapy to enjoy it.

These players would be delight enough on their own, but when cast into sets as well designed and dramatic as those created by the incredibly talented stage team, it only serves to elevate. Not only are they clever to the point of enviousness, they are (much like everything from the lighting to the sound ops) integrated to the point of seamlessness. It’s very much like watching a morbid dollhouse play itself to pieces: a rare treat to watch though perhaps, given the subject matters, not a constant delight. The team behind The Panopticon commit entirely to the concept of theatre as illusion-making, and the results are wonderfully encapsulating.

Of course, perfection is theoretical, and this production proves that fact. Though the viscerality of the acting cannot be denied, the fight choreography felt too floaty and impactless for most of the violent scenes to carry home the needed drama. And although the digitally projected visuals were inspired, oftentimes they felt more like a palate-cleanser to cut the drama rather than an off-angle surprise to elevate it. This is less of an issue with, say, the visualization of the mental sensation of an orgasm, but is fairly noticeable on the subject of psychotic dreams.

It feels prescient to state here that, if you haven’t already guessed, this isn’t a show that flinches when it comes to deeply upsetting events. The plot features things that would certainly warrant thorough show research and consideration for anyone with prior trauma, and even if you don’t, make sure not to go on a bad day. It’s a white hot furnace of dismay, but it forges something deeply important and meticulously well performed.

It might be the darkest show I’ve reviewed for Edinburgh49 yet, but it’s a shining star on the theatrical horizon.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 11 October)

Interview: Shine (Traverse 16 – 18 May ’19)

“The show has been like therapy to me…”

WHAT: “Kema’s 3 years old when his family move from Zambia to Newcastle.

It’s a story of new surroundings, about making a new life and then watching that life fall apart. A story about self-belief, trusting your head, your heart and always chasing your dreams.

Actor, rapper, singer, rising star and Live Theatre Associate Artist Kema Sikazwe (I, Daniel Blake), also known as Kema Kay, makes his powerful stage debut mixing a bittersweet coming-of-age story with an electrifying live soundtrack and heartfelt words.”

WHO: Kema Sikazwe, writer & performer

MORE? Here!


Why ‘Shine’?

The title of the show, Shine, is named after my name which means ‘one who shines’ in one of the Zambian languages. I hope people join me on this journey of finding out who we are, accepting who we are, and come away inspired to go find their shine! It’s never too late.

This is your life story. How have the people in your life and audiences reacted to its telling?

There are definitely find some parts in the show they can relate but you can never really judge how an audience will respond. There are a lot of questions that are left unanswered and I know people will want to know. The show has been like therapy to me and I just want the audience to keep fighting the good fight of life and find their shine!

What’s the one thing about Zambia that everyone should know?

It’s a beautiful country!

The Newcastle and Gateshead skylines are famous for their bridges. Which is your favourite?

The Millennium Bridge. I love when it lights up!

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

I underestimated how emotional it would be. It’s been a real mixture of emotions. In rehearsals, I broke down a few times as I realised how much bottled emotion I’ve had in over the years. Also, I wrongly judged theatre in the beginning, but once I got a taste of it, I was hooked from then onwards. I’ve been a sponge since starting but I’ve learnt so much in a short space of time.

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Good Dog (Traverse: 14-16 Feb.’19)

Image: tiata fahodzi compnay

“Noble intentions.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

Stories of life, growth and perseverance in dour and desperate neighbourhoods are undoubtedly worth telling. The nooks and crannies of experiences otherwise overlooked by mainstream culture are often rich with opportunities for pathos, expression, and diversity, and as citizens we all ought to champion stories of the oppressed and disregarded. Arinzé Kene’s Good Dog (2017) is certainly one of these stories. It is not, unfortunately, a compelling or engaging piece of theatre, and for all its noble intentions, the flaws in design and execution are too great to overlook. 

The play is a one-hander, with a runtime of two and a half hours. In the Traverse Theatre’s staging, directed by Natalie Ibu, actor Kwaku Mills portrays Boy, the sole character onstage, who narrates this sprawling, multi-year tale as he grows from a young, bullied child to an older, disillusioned and distraught teen. The story focuses on a dreary street in Tottenham, north London, on which despondent drunks and anxious shop owners face off against violent youths and, from time to time, the long arm of the law. Boy observes these disparate characters with intrigued attention and with the help of various voiceovers his narration layers the street with detail. The twists and turns of Kene’s script cover myriad subjects of life in this place and in his time, from South Asian immigrants trying to live up to their forebears’ expectations, to local infidelity, to racially problematic beauty standards, to concepts of nonviolence and protest, to undiagnosed dyslexia in impoverished youths, to 90s-centric toys and technology. The visuals are mostly dark, harsh shadows, enveloping Amelia Jane Hankin’s stark set: a blunt, grey cube in the center of the stage that resembles nothing so much as a kid’s (tower) block , but evokes the air of unpleasant, grungy decay that seems to envelop the whole place, at least in Boy’s eyes.

As Kene writes him, and Mills plays him, Boy is the center of all the world’s woes. He is mercilessly bullied in school. His mother both cannot afford to and seems uninterested in buying him the amenities he desperately craves. He seems to have no friends, no confidence, and in everyone’s eyes but his own, not much of a future. When the audience first meets Boy, he is an outspokenly optimistic kid, who believes that if he does good, ‘good’ will circle back to him later in life, and so he willingly undergoes derision and torment at the hands of local bullies, and others, because the more he forgives them, the better his life must eventually become. It does not take long, however, for the cruelties of life in this area to drag him so far into crippling misery and senseless pain that the fable of ‘good things coming to those who wait’ starts to ring completely hollow for Boy, and he realizes that letting the onslaught of life beat him down is never going to liberate him. It was only going to make things worse.

Midway through Good Dog, the audience may feel the same. Not only because the central metaphor of Kene’s script (a pair of dogs Boy observes clashing with each other over many years) is so obvious that its eventual payoff could have come 90 minutes earlier without any meaning lost, but mainly since this production is long, exhausting, and clunky. The sound design, by Helen Skiera, is cacophonous, grating, and more inane than affecting. The choreography of Boy’s solo performance, whose movement was directed by Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster, is disorienting (see Boy inexplicably leaping on and off the grey block while he walks around, which happens a lot). Mills’ accent, assisted by dialect coach Joel Trill, was noticeably strained and inconsistent, so that Boy sounded like he was warming-up in rehearsal, well way from the street and . Technical elements smack of artifice and there’s that uncanny smugness that much of contemporary British theatre seems to be slipping into.

It is remarkable that Mills was able to learn two and a half hours worth of lines and movement and perform them onstage on tour. One wishes, however, that the lines and movements were not as derivative and staid as these. The character seemed a strange fit for Mills’ talents and overall his performance was wasted. 

This is understandable, however, given Kene’s script, as that is the weakest element of the production. The tone and content of Good Dog are suffocatingly bleak, and lack both a sense of humour and an ounce of self-awareness. The phraseology Kene employs is labyrinthine and more irritating than anything else. A few thin jokes about naughties nostalgia got a snicker here and there, but the one genuinely hilarious and surprising moment came when a supporting character dies in such an improbable and horrifying manner that the show’s claims to authority or seriousness were dashed in full there and then. The death in itself is, of course, not intentionally funny, but brutally tragic, and yet as this piece is written, each scene seems hellbent on topping the last one with even more misery and suffering, and the showy depravity of this character’s final moments can do nothing but amuse.

Good Dog is coated in emotional squalor – a poor and baffling choice. Most of Kene’s narrative seems more interested in simply shocking an audience into stupefied submission with ‘Look how sad this can get’ antics than telling a story in a creative or engaging manner. It is telling, and rather depressing, that this script has been picked up and praised by critics. From my point of view – and, ok, I don’t know London’s meaner streets – it sounded very contrived and ends up with the most incompetent portrayal of a marginalized voice that I have seen. 

Which is a shame, because again, stories such as these frequently offer important perspectives, which others should listen to. But Good Dog ends up taking all the worst elements of ‘important’ dramas and shamelessly repeating their most self-serious moral mantras so that they come off as painfully obvious by the time Boy utters them. Of course, much of the subject matter the show deals with is hugely important but nearly all of it has been handled more intelligently and dynamically in narratives like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), Strictly Arts Theatre’s outstanding Freeman (2018), and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). This last connection is especially relevant, as Kene chooses to include a riot sequence at the end of Good Dog so reminiscent of Lee’s Do the Right Thing climax that it seriously threatens to overstep the bounds of homage. 

Good Dog ends with an affirmation of accepting conflict and learning how best to fight back against the ‘bigger dogs’ of this world, even if it means being ‘put down’ in the process. The metaphor is overly wordy, unclear, and could do with some further consideration of just what it is trying to say. In that manner, it suits the larger production perfectly.

 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller 

Go to tiata fahodzi

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Mouthpiece (Traverse: 5 – 22 Dec.’18)

“Knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

As Edinburgh plays go, this one is outspoken. Its audience is there to be stuffed and startled. Do you ‘live’ or do you ‘stay’ in Edinburgh? Whatever, wherever, you are unlikely to say – as you look out over the city – “See they flats?”. For a start the grammar’s wrong: amusing, sure, but plain wrong unless you’re local and out of school. Second, those flats are way over there “in the bit nobody looks at”. Not Muirhouse, as it happens, but more likely on the Southside, in Gracemount or Craigmillar. That’s where Declan (17) lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and his little sister, Sian. Declan’s father killed himself when Declan was seven. He was an alcoholic and everyone says Declan will end up just like him.

Libby (46) is not from Morningside, but possibly close to; the Grange maybe, or even Fairmilehead which always sounds nice. For Libby is nice and her mother listens to BBC Radio 4. Mouthpiece tells the story of Declan and Libby; posh woman who used-to-be-a-writer meets radge schemie. In the end it is perfectly possible to consider it a love story but it’s Declan’s love for Sian that really touches you.

This play’s energy pours out of Declan. It’s pure, vehement fun one minute – a verbal battering of Libby’s proper speech (and attitudes mebbe?) – but then it’s full of despair and longing the next. Lorn Macdonald delivers a knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge: “I ken what precarious means, I’m no daft”.

Neve McIntosh as Libby can fall back on herself and land safely, even comfortably, by the end. She has the background and the education that is not available to Declan. She uses ‘Professional’ status as a defensive excuse that will make you queasy. McIntosh’s performance is finely judged; never provocative or clever but – if anything – rather shy and vulnerable. But she has two parts to play: one, with Declan, and the other with us, an audience of posh cunts. (Sorry, but that’s how it is and you’d better get used to the word if you’re going to see Mouthpiece). Libby talks to us about her story, ‘her’ play. Was it ever Declan’s?

Designer Kai Fischer and writer Kieran Hurley frame the work within a stark rectangular set that Libby steps easily in and out of. The shock quotient when Declan does the same goes off the scale. Projected text is used to identify place and time and to underwrite the action (as if penned by Libby). When that fractures and Declan disputes what is happening is both unsettling and dramatic. It also arrests a formal, ‘meta’ narrative before it gets too precious.

Mouthpiece is artistic director Orla O’Loughlin’s last show at the Traverse before she goes to London’s Guildhall. It displays the same drive and attack that distinguished her Devil Masters from 2014. There may be no expensive New Town interior to trash – Hurley’s script does that all by itself – but her hold on what matters is just as tight and uncompromising. The play will not bring much comfort and cheer for Advent but it does send you out with an important sense that the hurt and the dispossessed are never far way. Little Sian’s name might mean ‘God’s precious gift’ but no-one is giving Declan any presents this Christmas.

The applause came in fast and loud at the final blackout. Too fast. The performances are outstanding and deserve it but Mouthpiece is one of those plays that is yelling at yous to shut up and think.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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