Aisha, Hen & Chickens

Aisha, Hen & Chickens

In the opening scene, the titular character’s no-holds-barred description of her life as the forced wife of a man three times her age leaves the audience of Aisha in stunned shock. This intelligent, promising 17-year-old tells her story in the manner of a heroine in a Shakespearean tragedy, visibly battling to speak in beautiful, poetic language in her psychologically-bruised state. When we meet her husband, he is unquestionably the tyrant she describes and we watch awkwardly as she recoils and retches every time he moves. What a horrible life Aisha has.

Further into the play, we see her husband at his most extreme: punishing her brutally for a minor infraction. It is an awful scene to watch and played for maximum psychological effect but it was too much for one audience member. I can see why he walked out, but in context, it was not gratuitous. It was also necessary for understanding more fully what was to come.

This play is told very much from the perspective of Aisha, and much of the time the other characters feel less well-rounded than she is. We only see snatches of their personalities and we don’t necessarily understand their motivations or what’s really going on. The punishment scene and the scenes which follow it, where several of the husband’s friends come to the house for various purposes, put the brutality into context whilst in no way excusing it. It also allows the writer, AJ, to comment on African culture, child marriage, the true nature of racial integration in Britain, men’s attitudes to women, male friendship, excessive drinking and the way in which we all turn a blind eye.

But if you think this is an “issue play”, unsubtly dishing up a series of stock characters and wooden exchanges, it isn’t. It is about issues, lots of them, but it’s well written and engrossing, and even manages to be funny in parts.

Lloyd Morris is the closest we get to light relief, and he gives an excellent performance as the Brexit-supporting, drunken misogynist Mr White. When we meet him, he seems like a decent man, but Aisha pulls us up on that. We thought he wasn’t as bad as her husband because he’s white? Sadly, he is.

The star of this show is Laura Adebisi as Aisha, who gives a detailed, jaw-dropping performance. Unbelievably, Adebisi is only in her second year of English and Drama degree – we’ll be seeing much more of her in the future.

At the end of this play, it looks like there’s hope of a better life for Aisha. But it also becomes clear what she had to do to get out of her situation. Neither Mr White, nor healthcare professionals, or the authorities, or anyone else helped her. This play is about how we all turn a blind eye to what’s really going on and that this has consequences.

Ordinary Days, London Theatre Workshop

Ordinary Days, London Theatre Workshop

Ordinary Days is a one-act musical in which four young New Yorkers who aren’t quite happy with their lives sing out their troubles in just 70 minutes. The plot could be right out of Sex & the City, and it all comes across as a bit First World Problems, but the cast are great and there’s a kind of a twist at the end.

Warren (Neil Cameron) is trying to find meaning and purpose in a job which amounts to little more than looking after the cat of a trustafarian artist who’s currently in jail. Deb (Nora Perone) seems to find everything (EVERYTHING!) either annoying or stressful or both, which possibly has something to do with the graduate thesis she’s writing on Sylvia Plath. And now she’s lost her notebook. Oh no.

Jason (Alistair Frederick) is really excited to be moving in with his girlfriend Claire (Kirby Hughes), although she seems less keen to have him there. Why?

We find out later, possibly too late, in the penultimate song to be precise, why Claire’s unhappy. By which time Claire’s become a fairly annoying presence on stage. It’s a shame. She’s got a really good reason for being like she is.

While a lot of the action in this show seems fairly trivial, as well as unexplained, each character does end up in a better place than where they started. Even Deb seems to chill out a bit.

The ending of the show is very sweet and you’ll leave with a light heart even if you can’t help thinking that this musical could benefit from a major re-write (and possibly a second act) to really get under the skin of these characters. Ordinary Days would probably work better if we knew more about these four people singing at us. It’s only Claire that we really understand by the end of the show.

Jam, Finborough Theatre

Jam, Finborough Theatre

Before Jam begins, the audience sees history teacher Bella Soroush (Jasmine Hyde) still in her classroom in the early evening, trying to settle down to mark essays but distracted by her uncomfortable shoes and stuff in her bag, and unable to fully relax and concentrate. We get the sense that she’s been in this state for a long time, always slightly on edge.

Enter Kane McCarthy (Harry Melling), a student she last saw 10 years ago at a different school. A student she’ll never forget and is still scared of. He just wants to talk, he says. He’s dying of a brain tumour and just wants to sort out what happened back then, he says. Except, he’s got a baseball bat and a large backpack with him, and this really doesn’t look good.

Kane has ADHD and comes from a difficult background but has the sort of charisma and daring that would have made him a legend at school, the lynchpin in a gang of teenage troublemakers, scourge of the teaching staff. It’s hard to imagine Kane having a good relationship with any authority figure, or any authority figures having a good relationship with him, but things went particularly sour with Bella. Over the next 90 minutes, Matt Parvin’s script slowly reveals why.

Kane was very good at getting under Bella’s skin. It started with low-level pranks in class and taunts that she had big teeth. It progressed to racist smears and Kane implying that Bella liked telling poor white people like him what to do. Bella dealt with it as best she could.

Now, with Kane in front of her and she in front of him, they both have a chance to justify what they did on that day when it all came to a head and they both ended up in hospital, and, ultimately, each at new schools. Then there was the time four people came to Bella’s house, damaged her property and left racist messages on the walls. She’s sure one of them was Kane and she wants him to confirm it.

As the details emerge and are relieved, Kane seethes that Bella ultimately outwitted him, getting back her life while he has almost nothing, oblivious to how he made her suffer and how hard she must have worked. Harry Melling skillfully conveys Kane’s mood swings and hyperactive, inarticulate rage.

Bella, meanwhile, must confront that she wasn’t blameless in all this and that the career she’s clawed back could be over if anyone ever starts believing Kane over her. In Jasmine Hyde’s performance is the sense that this will never be over.

This is difficult material, and lesser actors would struggle to convey to the audience why Bella doesn’t just run away and call the police as soon as possible, or that Kane is at least partly sincere in wanting to settle the matter. You can’t take your eyes off either of them, and Jam is gripping, although it lets itself down towards the end in a scene where Bella and Kane re-enact their fight.

It doesn’t entirely work and it’s hard to understand why either of them would get sucked into this sort of roleplay. As a consequence, the ending of the play seems unsatisfying, although it, unlike the re-enactment, has a reality to it.

Whatever the truth of what happened between Bella and Kane back then, it’s clear that this is something they can’t resolve or ever feel comfortable about. And as an audience member, you are left with much the same feelings about the play.

Chinglish, Park Theatre

Chinglish, Park Theatre

You know those badly translated Chinese signs you see on the internet, where something inoffensive in Chinese turns out to mean “Fuck Vegetables” in English? That’s the starting point for the Park Theatre’s new play Chinglish.

Daniel Cavanaugh (Gyuri Sarossy), the owner of a well-established family-run sign-making company in Cleveland, Ohio, is pitching to make the English language signs for a new arts centre in the provinces of China. And with help from English teacher turned business consultant Peter Timms (Duncan Harte), he’s got a meeting with Minister Cai Guoliang (Lobo Chan) and his deputy Xi Yan (Candy Ma). Things are looking good. It’s then that he learns the first rule of doing business in China: always bring your own translator. Because if he was relying on hapless government translator Miss Qian (Siu-see Hung) to translate, it’d be no deal.

Soon after, Daniel learns the other rule of doing business in China: it’s about who you know and what side they’re on. And what initially looks like Xi Yan siding against Daniel and Peter to the benefit of the Minister, turns out to be something rather different.

If this all sounds like the sort of story you hear a lot – corruption and intrigue between Chinese government officials and foreign businesspeople – then yes, it is, and a very funny one as well, except writer David Henry Hwang cleverly turns the mirror on the Western world and makes Daniel every bit as deceitful and corrupt as the Chinese officials he’s pitching to. Not that that harms Daniel’s chances of making it in China. Far from it.

Chinglish is a clever and very topical play, performed in both English and Chinese (with English surtitles), which shows as deep an understanding of both Western and Chinese cultures as you’re likely to see on the London stage. The cast give excellent performances, with Candy Ma particularly outstanding as the ambitious Xi Yan, and Siu-see Hung, Windson Liong and Minhee Yeo hilarious as a series of woeful translators. The set is also very clever, and both as simple and complex as anything in the script.

Chinglish is at the Park Theatre until 22nd April.

A Dark Night in Dalston, Park Theatre

A Dark Night in Dalston, Park Theatre

Former nurse Gina couldn’t help it, she just had to help Gideon when she found him dazed and wounded on her Dalston doorstep. And he just had to stay in her flat when it turned dark because it’s Friday and he’s Jewish and he can’t take the train all the way back to Stanmore on shabbat. Especially not in his condition.

The attraction between the two is obvious almost from the beginning, and as this unconventional shabbat progresses, it seems more and more that these two are made for each other.

Gina (Michelle Collins) has kids who won’t speak to her and can’t work as a nurse anymore because she’s too busy caring for her bedridden husband Billy. To say she feels trapped is stating the bleedin’ obvious, although it’s one of the few obviouses she isn’t stating. Gideon (Joe Coen), 27, is engaged to a nice Jewish girl who’s perfect for him but comes regularly to Dalston to have sex with one of Gina’s neighbours. His father won’t allow him to follow his passion for film, so he works as an accountant with men he hates who only talk about football and women.

As their stories emerge throughout the night, escape routes for each of them emerge and are tried. But ultimately, both just need to face up to who they are, what they want to be, and what they can cope with. Gina needs to untangle her feelings for Billy, and Gideon needs to deal, one way or the other, with his family’s expectations and become his own man.

Stewart Permutt’s witty script is full of twists and turns. It deftly hints at what’s to come without spoiling the surprise. Michelle Collins and Joe Coen perform it brilliantly, both creating nuanced, relatable and likable characters. Also worth mentioning is Giles Thomas’ sound design, which cleverly evokes the background hum of bustling, dirty, multicultural Dalston as it changes throughout the night.

As to how it ends, we never quite find out. But this one, dark night is certainly the start of something for Gina and Gideon – whether it’s being together or living their own, happier lives apart.

Coming Clean, Bounds Green

Coming Clean, Bounds Green

Stripping off isn’t generally the first thing you do when you get to work but for naked house cleaner Ethan Mechare that was the point. As to what happened next, well, it could be just about anything. He also did some cleaning sometimes.

In his one-man show Coming Clean, currently being performed in various venues, including a home in Bounds Green, Ethan revisits his experiences working as a naked house cleaner. But first, how did he start out in this?

Ethan was at a loss. He’d moved to London from his native California but didn’t know what to do with himself. In the end, he turned to Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine for some inspirational advice, and he made himself a mood board/vision board/dream board. On his board, he realised, were two things he really loved: naked fun with other guys and spot cleaning. Oh boy, does he love spot cleaning. And so, a small business was born.

Under the name Ernest, he advertised his services, and clients in all their weird and wonderful variety started to book him. There was the guy in the pristine apartment who wanted Ernest to, um, pleasure himself and then clean it all up. There was the 50-something East End cab driver whose wife had recently died, who invited a hot, young “mate” over to join he and Ernest and make it a party. And there was the ex-military South Londoner who also invited a guest, but sadly left Ernest downstairs with the vacuum cleaner.

There was also the man who wanted Ernest to recreate a niche interest video he’d seen on the internet. Ernest declined to do it but Ethan gleefully showed it to us. (If it’s not to your taste you can vote not to watch it, but I suggest that you don’t. It’s less gross than it sounds, and rather charming in its own way.)

Helping Ethan throughout the show is his friend, stage manager, sound effects engineer and snack distributor Cath Royle, a sort of Madge Allsop meets Debbie McGee figure, except she banters back when Ethan mocks her. The dynamic between the two is a perfect combination of bitchy and loving, and Cath’s a great addition to the show.

The masterstroke, though, is performing the show in a house. This is about fantasies where the erotic and the domestic are combined, and perhaps only in someone’s real life, lived in, living room can a group of strangers feel comfortable enough to participate. What are your fantasies, Ethan asks, have they ever been fulfilled, and dare you admit to them? Some did, even if it was just to confess that, being British, some of this is a bit too much for them.

Whatever your fantasy or taste in online videos, this is a life-affirming, funny and thought-provoking show, cleverly put together with director Jill Patterson and well-performed by Ethan Mechare.

Tickets are available via http://comingcleantheshow.com/.

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