Noughts and Crosses: the other Jim Crow

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Sabrina Mahfouz’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s young adult novel is an intricate yet accessible depiction of a racially divided world that might have been.

I don’t normally start a review with a spoiler warning, but if you’ve already decided to see this play and you don’t know about the Noughts and Crosses series, I advise you to stop reading now. Pilot Theatre advertised this play as tale of forbidden love in a world of racial tension, but they deliberately omitted one important bit of information about what sort of world this is. The revelation comes in the opening scene – it won’t spoil the scene, let alone the rest of the play, if you know what it is, but it’s better if you don’t.

However, a review of Noughts and Crosses that doesn’t tell you what the Noughts and Crosses are is like a review of The Matrix that doesn’t tell you what the Matrix is. I would not be possible to talk about the many merits of both the story and the adaptation without telling you what Pilot Theatre isn’t telling you; so, in the style of the news just before match of the day, if you want to find out in the play, look away now. Continue reading

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Roundup: Vault Festival 2019

REVIEWS: Skip to: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, April, Ladybones, Celebrate, Tacenda, Counting Sheep

Before this gets too late, let’s wind up all things Vault from my week in London. This time I’ll go straight into the reviews – sometimes there’s some news about the festival as a whole that needs reporting, but this time the Vault festival has pretty much carried on as before. The most notable news, if you count this as news, is that the Vault Festival has stuck with its extension from six weeks to eight weeks, so any doubts over whether the longer festival is viable have pretty much been put to bed now.

Once more, I saw a total of eight plays, plus one music event that was basically a companion performance one of those productions. For anyone who’s counting – yes, two of the plays I saw were duds. I’m currently working to a principle that I don’t write reviews if I can neither say something nice nor say something helpful. In this case, I saw one play that was inexcusably pretentious and incomprehensible, and another play which was a decent idea but the characters sadly lacked any kind of believability – that’s the harder one to watch, because you know there probably was an idea behind this that failed to come across. As always, anyone who knows I saw their play is welcome to contact me for private feedback, whether or not I wrote a public review.

Artists’ personal connections to real story played a large part in what I saw this time. But before that, we shall begin with something that has happened at both Edinburgh and Brighton, but this is the first time it has happened beneath the arches of Waterloo:

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

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This play requires a bit of acclimatisation. It’s billed as a retelling of the famous collection of legends of the Roman gods and heroes, but the last thing you’d expect is to enter a stage set up as a music hall from the Second World War. Then three Andrews Sisters look-a-likes (and sing-a-likes) begin singing the story of creation. If you’re already on the ball, you might work out that in this play, they are playing the Chorus. If not, you should at some point work out the rules of this production: the stories that are narrated are the same as the original, but the story performed on stage may be transplanted to a 1940s equivalent. For example, Cupid is still described as a winged angel with his bow and arrow, but on stage Cupis is a Just William-type schoolboy up to mischief with his love-charged schoolboy catapult. If this sounds confusing, bear with me, I promise. Once you’re used to how the story is being told, it’s superb. Continue reading

Shy Manifesto and Bacon Knees

Skip to: The Shy Manifesto, Bacon Knees and Sausage Fingers, Bonnie and the Bonnettes

A lot of stories have been jumping the queue in this blog, but now it’s time to get back to the reviews. Two plays have been on recently about outsiders – one story about someone different through choice, and another about two people different through no choice of their own. Let’s get to it.

The Shy Manifesto

The Shy ManifestoMeet Callum. He’s going to tell you all about the virtues of being shy. When I decided to see this play, I assumed the message was going to be that not all men sing rugby songs, go body building and shout “wahey” at copies of Nuts magazine and that’s okay. Callum (Theo Ancient), however, goes further than that. If “it’s fine to be shy” is the message of the moderates, Callum belongs to the militant extremist wing. That’s not much of an exaggeration either – his only friends on social media are fellow radical shy activists from across the world, passionately reinforcing each other’s beliefs, and any lapses into extroversion are punished harshly by the group. Continue reading

Approaching Empty: the house built on sand

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A play from a company the brings Asian stories to mainstream theatre, but a play that is universal, Approaching Empty is an excellent story of a road to hell that’s paved with good intentions.

Tamasha Theatre might not be a name recognised my many, but their most famous production, East is East, certainly is. That play is credited by many for bringing theatre about South Asian communities out of the niche and into the mainstream. Since then, Tamasha have been keeping busy with lots of plays, and now the latest collaboration is with Live Theatre and Kiln theatre with a north-east connection. Playwright Ishy Din originates from Middlesbrough and Approaching Empty is heavily inspired by his time as a taxi driver. There is a big difference though: East is East was about a culture clash where conservative values of Pakistan clashed with the more liberal values on 1970s Salford; but Approaching Empty is a more universal story. The six characters in this story are all Asian, but that’s not what defines them. No, the defining feature here is the struggle of a post-industrial generation. Apart from a few incidental details, this could be a story from any working-class community.

There’s been a lot of talk over how diverse Live Theatre’s programme is this year. Normally I just go ahead and review plays without commenting on how diverse it is. It is of course an important issue, but this distracts from what’s surely the more important issue, namely how good the play is. But I will make an exception to state that on this blog, diversity scores no bonus points in reviews. All plays stand or fall on their merits as a play. I do not want anyone thinking I only gave a good review to a play for ticking the right boxes. And I especially want to make this clear here, because Approaching Empty is the best thing I’ve seen at Live Theatre for years.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: Approaching Empty, Live Theatre / Kiln Theatre / Tamasha Continue reading

Autumn 2018 fringe roundup

Last three plays from 2018 – apologies for the long delay. Once these are out of the way, I can revert to getting plays out on a more realistic timescale.

So after festival fringe season finish, I saw four other plays on a fringe scale up to the new year. One of these I’ve already mentioned, but let’s run through them.

The Turk

This first one was one of my bold choices from last season. Writer/performer Michael Sabbaton has done a string of solo plays in a distinctive style – I saw The Call of Cthulhu many years ago and his multimedia-heavy staging set the atmosphere very well. Director Sylvia Vickers, too, is a formidable name – she directs Wired Theatre’s plays at the Brighton Fringe, making them one of the leading site-specific companies on the south coast. This new play is another horror story of a similar style to Cthulhu, with delirious Johann Maelzel on a ship, shut below deck with an incredible chess-playing thinking machine “The Turk”, and it suits Sabbaton’s format very well. But, alas and alack, he did the one thing I was worried he’d do: the story and staging were so convoluted, I found it impossible to follow what was meant to be going on. Continue reading

Clear White Light: more Poe please

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Few can argue with a directorial debut that sells out its entire run. But in this retelling of The Fall of the House of Usher, I did miss the twists of the original story.

Rightly or wrongly, there’s a lot at stake when new artistic directors make their directorial debuts in their new homes. It sets in people’s minds what kind of direction you intend to take the theatre in. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this can often happen over a year after the new artistic director is chosen, such being the timescale of programming to production. So for the directorial debut of Joe Douglas to come nine months after his appointment was announced is on the early side. Part of the reason for this is that Live was already interested in this play, and Joe was keen to pick it up. And looking at the bigger picture, it couldn’t have been a better choice, because the entire run practically sold out before the run had started.

The big draw to this play was surely the music of Lindisfarne, a north-east folk group that, as we can conclude beyond reasonable doubt, has a very strong local following. But the other draw – and the one that got me interested – was a re-telling of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale The Fall of the House of Usher, with the remote house of Roderick and Madeline Usher replaced with the male psychiatric ward of a short-staffed hospital. The nameless narrator is now Alison, a nurse on her first shift. Rod, the cynical senior (and only) nurse on duty takes her under his wing, but it soon transpires his own sister is committed in the same hospital on another ward. It’s such as good set-up, with the location and Alan Hull’s music providing a perfect modern gothic setting fitting of an Allen Poe story. The only trouble is, I’m struggling to identify the Allen Poe story in this. Continue reading

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2018 Awards

Here it goes. I have lost count of the number of plays I’ve seen this year, but excluding the ones I am connected to (and giving an award to yourself is of course a big no-no) it’s about ninety. As always, the great thing about end-of-year awards is that you can no longer hide behind “Didn’t they all do well?” – you have to pick a winner. What I will say is that this year it’s been very fiercely contested. Even with twenty categories up for grabs, most with a first and second place, some damned good plays didn’t make it in.

But you don’t want a lengthy preamble, do you? You want to get straight to it. Very well, happy to oblige.

Best new writing:

Second place for this award came down to a steward’s enquiry. I saw a play at the Vault Festival that I loved, but having run since 2013 does it still qualify as new writing? After careful consideration, I’ve chosen to allow it, on the grounds that allowed similar leniency last year with The Red Lion. So the runner-up for best new(ish) writing is Matt Tedford for Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, of the true* story of how, on the eve of the vote on Section 28, the Prime Minister everyone loves to hate quit her job and became a gay nightclub hostess. With the show running for five years I was expecting it to be good, and I was of course expecting political commentary. But what surprised me was how intelligent it was, and instead of easy political point-scoring it looks deeper at why this happened. To camp disco tunes with a backing of hunky gay miners. As you do.

Vivians20Music201969In first place, a play that is far more serious, but again one that looks past easy soundbites and asks why something happened. It’s Monica Bauer with Vivian’s Music, 1969, set in the lead-up to the North Omaha race riots, imagining a story of Vivian Strong, the 14-year-old-girl shot dead by the police that set everything off. On one level, like Queen of Soho, this is a play that asks why things were this way, very convincingly recreating a world of segregation and distrust, in a world of “us” and “them”, except it’s more complicated than that, with both racial communities subdivided into further tribes who distrust one another. And on the other level, the play never once loses the humanity of the story, with Vivian an innocent who just wants to enjoy life and her music and doesn’t care a bout race, and Luigi, an estranged father who gets by in life through a silver tongue and bullshitting, more through necessity than choice. Most surprisingly, this play came out of nowhere. Most of the time I see something this successful at the Edinburgh Fringe, I’ve already seen what they can do, or know their reputation. This play, however, was just an obscure entry in the Sweet Venues programme, at first attracting single-figure audiences – until word got round and it started selling out solidly. It is rare for anyone but the established players to have a smash hit these days – this is one of the exceptions, and there’s few plays I could wish this on more. Continue reading