I’ve been meaning to lessen my gaps between watching plays and writing reviews, and this has been one of my longer gaps. Apologies – anyone who saw me tearing my hair out at Buxton will understand way.
Anyway, in June I saw a play and two comedy acts worth reviews, and I was quite pleased with all of them. Let’s dive in.
We Are The Best!
It is Sweden in the early 1980s. According to popular mythology, this was the period in history when enjoying any pop group other than ABBA gets up hung drawn and quartered (with punishment today commuted to death by lethal injection). In actual fact, however, Sweden’s music scene was pretty much like ours, with diverse tastes from Scandi-disco to punk. Another thing that isn’t that different to us is the depiction of teenage life in the graphic novel Never Goodnight, later made into a film. It is this relatable theme that Live Theatre’s new artistic director is banking on. Almost everybody who comes to Live remembers their secondary school days, but where Live Theatre was pushing hard was to a teenage audience, who are going through this now.
It is the dress rehearsal of the Year 8 school concert, and impossibly rebellious friends Klara and Bobo are doing their hard-hitting (and, admittedly, slightly cringy) presentation about the plight of the planet. When they get dropped by the somewhat disdainful teachers, they resolve to take matters into their own hands. With a punk scene emerging all over, they see this as the best way of changing the world, with the first song Sports are Shit chosen after a netball practice where they are busy chatting to each other on the netball court rather than playing. Before you set your sights too high, though, this isn’t the start of a meteoric rise to fame alongside the Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, and Talking Heads (and later: the inevitable dignity-crushing downfall when they appear in an insurance advert). Rather, they are one of the many punk bands of the time who could only sort-of play instruments – yes, the title was being sort-of ironic – but didn’t care what anyone thinks.
Klara and Bobo might be rebellious, but they’re not arseholes. The third member of the band is Hedwig, the squeaky clean Christian choirgirl who sings nice songs like Panis Angelicus – and bullied relentlessly as a result. Of course, if Hedwig going to be a punk – and Bobo and Klara and convinced she’ll be great – she’s going to need a different image/hairdo, much to the horror of Hedwig’s Christian mother. In fact, much of the story revolves around the trio’s fraught relationship with their parents. Hedwig’s mother is oblivious to the fact she’s painting a target on her daughter’s back; Klara’s parents are constantly arguing with each other. Three older actors play all of the adults, including both parents and various teachers and youth leaders, none of whom seem to have any idea of how to relate the teenagers.
However, the unexpected stand-out performance is Anna Bolton as Bobo’s mother. She give an outstanding tragi-comic performance – or should I say tragi-tragi-tragi-comic performance – as the eternal teenager. Often drinking more than she can handle, forever in on-off relationships with no good men, it is getting especially uncomfortable now her own daughter is almost the age she’s trying to be. She knows this, and desperately wants to be connected like a proper mother, but she can never stop being her own worst enemy. A big gamble was over Bobo saying that when her mother shouts – either to herself or to her divorced father who’s seemingly given up – she imagines a goat bleating. The sight of Bolton shouting “Baaa! Baaa! Baaa!” with the anger of her human counterpart is one of the most memorable parts of the play.
The play also features their first boyfriends, although this the thirteen-year-old definition of boyfriend. The prospective suitor are three awkward teenagers from the boy punk band, a relationship constitutes holding hands, and holding another girl’s hand is equivalent to cheating on your wife of twenty years. One small tweak I’d have made is to have the male actor playing the DJ at the end. He starts off looking like a normal talent contest host dressed as Santa, but he’s really a nasty piece of work: definitely a bully, probably a misogynist too*. However, it’s slow and initially subtle how he gives away. There is a lot of gender-swapping roles in this play that work fine, but it feels to me that the nastiness would have the most impact coming from a man’s voice.
*: Piss-poor defence: he acted like a twat to all of the female acts, but it’s possible he was just as much of a twat to the male acts too.
So things get really interesting – Bobo and Hedwig are becoming very close friends, things are coming to a head for all three pairs of mothers and daughters, and the they’re not going to stop just because they’ve been booed off. And then … it ends. I realise this is how the original ended, but it did feel a bit like the end of episode 2 of a six-part series. However, what matters is what happened until then. The golden rule for adaptations is “everything that matters is the same”; I have not seen the film or read the original graphic novel, but the film got a cult following for a reason and it does look like all of those themes – such as friendship, family, and the confusing world of early teens – have been captured successfully by writer and Bonnette Becky Glendenning.
Going back to Live’s original mission: has this opened up theatre to a new audience. I must say, the Saturday afternoon when I went felt like a normal Live Theatre audience, maybe there was a heavy young presence on other nights. I hope so, because there’s all sorts of groups who are convinced theatre is not for them and anything that can counteract this is welcome. None of these groups are easy, but whatever the outcome, this play I think did everything right to reach out. It takes the film for what it is and bring it to the stage well. So a good start from Jack MacNamara.
Charlotte Johnson: my dad and other lies
I apologise for opening this with a spoiler, but I have to advise you that, contrary to what her publicity says, Charlotte Johnson is not really the daughter of soon-to-be ex-PM Boris Johnson, illegitimate or otherwise. Instead this is a comedy character created by her. Charlotte Johnson is excitedly telling everybody about her new show which her famous dad is coming to see, and he definitely definitely promised he would come, and who are we to doubt the word of the elected entrusted leader of this great country? But he’s running a bit late, so whilst we’re waiting, let’s kill time with her next show, before the definite arrives. We’ll keep the door open.
Charlotte Johnson runs a podcast called “Daddy’s Girls” where all of his love-children get together and vie for his affections. Unfortunately, she seems to have inherited all of her father’s wrong characteristics. For one thing, she is so used to living off trust funds she can’t grasp how anybody else lives. Yes, your benefits may have been cut but surely you can live off the apples grown in the orchard of your estate, and if you’re too busy attending job interviews, get your butler to pick them. She also seems to have picked up a habit of lying for no reason (origin unknown), and enthusiastically supports all of the crazier Tory policies.
Luckily for real Charlotte Johnson, she has future-proofed her routine for her upcoming Edinburgh run. At the time of the performance, she was speculating that, in spite of her dad’s great achievements, there may be a leadership contest. Of course, there’s now one happening for real, and that’s an easy tweak. Parody Charlotte Johnson’s platform combines the two things great about Britain: fish and chips and draconian deportation policies. The highlight of the silly show is which contestant can eat a chip sandwich in the time it takes to play Land of Hope and Glory (the techno version, just because).
I do think, however, the routine could benefit from devolving this love child further as a character. One thing that doesn’t quite square up is how her dad makes sure that she’s well cared for with a trust fund but never comes to see her. I realise this is comedy and not theatre and nit-picking characterisation isn’t usually a priority, but the reason I’m highlighting this here is because that Boris never appearing is only funny if Charlotte is genuinely hell-bent on winning his approval. Discussions on motivation and self-deception might seem theatrical concepts, but they would serve well here too.
However, this meant to be a silly fun hour rather than a hard-hitting expose of a loverat, and it does the job for what it’s meant to be. It’s a good year to bring this one to Edinburgh Fringe for the obvious reason; after that, who knows? This time Charlotte Johnson is an ideal satire of the outgoing prime minister, but develop her as a character in her own right, and this could be more than a one-hit wonder.
And finally, I’ve kept meaning to see a Vault Transfer at The Laurels, but with sell-outs and cancellations thwarting previous attempts, I ended up with one of my occasional viewings of improv comedy,. One of the current challenges of forming an improv act is that there are a lot of them out there. Off-hand, I’ve seen an improvised West End musical, an improvised musical version of a film, and an improvised version of a certain shit crime TV series. What themes haven’t been bagged yet? Well, Pillowtalk Theatre have opted for the improvised true crime documentary.
I confess, I’m not the most impartial reviewer for this episode, because they chose my setting for the crime: an abandoned nuclear power plant. Nevertheless, I am pleased they came up with a suitably silly crime in the series of talking heads they start the documentary with. It turns out that the abandoned nuclear power plant on the outskirts of Ipswich is the perfect location for hedonistic party-goers, and the highlight of ever party is where they burst a big balloon full of nuclear waste – what more fun than seeing if you grow an extra limb? However, one night someone switches the contents for goat piss. What a horridable terribillicious dereliction of basic hygiene. Who would do such a thing and why?
I could expand on the plot, but as this is something no-one else will see I won’t go into details. What really matters is how sustainable this act is. Some improv acts iike to act on a suggestion fro the beginning and then improvise through to the end – this, however, has lots of intereactive elements, from taking questions to the audience, randomly-drawn items that are suddenly crucial to the case, and a lawyer signalling to suspected whether to answer a Police question yes or no or just avoid answering the question. It’s difficult to tell how well this works based on one performance, but the format for this new show seems to be working so far.
The most important thing, however, is how the actors handle things in the improv environment. I maintain anyone can do a decent performance if a script is rehearsed enough, but when you have to make decisions on the fly, not only do you personally need to know what you’re doing, you also need to know how to work with your fellow actors, and quickly. And based on what I saw, I’m happy to say that this new act is not far off the standard of the top-flight players such as Showstoppers and Notflix.
The reason they’re so good at it, I learned, is that Pillow Talk Theatre contains a lot of former members of The Improverts, the student group of Edinburgh University whom I’m sure most Edinburgh Fringe regulars have heard of. All in all, so far, so good. It’s a new act so there’s rom to refine this, but if they’re hoping to rise to ranks of the big players, this is a good start.