Bad Roads, Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs

Just over four years ago, a war started in the Ukraine – and it’s still going, it’s just that we in the West have forgotten about itBad Roads by Natal’ya Vorozhbit is a much-needed reminder of what’s happening and how it’s affecting the war’s willing and unwilling participants. Across six playlets, we meet soldiers, their lovers, a headteacher and local farmers. All, in their own way, are winning and losing at this war.

On a research trip to the frontline, liberal journalist Natasha surprises herself when she falls for Sergei, a Ukrainian patriot willing to die for his country. Further behind the line, three teenage girls sit around waiting for their fighter lovers to show up, comparing their experiences and the gifts their men have given them.

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At an army checkpoint, a local headmaster is threatened with detention unless he can find his passport. While on the road, an army medic mourns her dead lover but knows she has to carry on with the war.

In the disturbing penultimate playlet, a girl is locked in a basement by a soldier who brutalises her. But there’s light relief at the end of Bad Roads when a farmer couple extorts money from a well-off young woman who accidentally kills their chicken.

Across these six stories are several common themes: how people become desensitised to fighting and brutality and think only about survival and their basic needs, and how traditional power and gender roles reduce people in war zones to either strong, mostly male, fighters or subservient, mostly female, civilians, there to serve the fighters’ every need.

With these themes so strong across all six parts, it’s a shame this isn’t one whole piece, allowing characters and storylines to develop. Having said that, Vorozhbit is so good at creating uncommon and distinctive characters, and showing how they evolve as their circumstances change, that it almost doesn’t matter. The fifth story, about the girl in the basement, is a particularly skilful piece of writing, with a twist as wonderful as it is disturbing.

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Although not exactly a cheerful or life-affirming night at the theatre, Bad Roads is a good show to see if you appreciate well-written characters with a sting in their tail. Or like being blown away by what can be achieved with set and lighting design in what is a relatively small performance space.

Fishskin Trousers, Park Theatre

Elizabeth Kuri’s Fishskin Trousers is an ambitious play, a story of loss, grief and mythology spanning eight centuries, featuring only three characters.

Mab (Jessica Carroll), a servant woman in the 12th Century, gives an account of her encounters with the Wild Man of Orford, a half-man/half-fish, dragged ashore in nets by fisherman and locked up in the local castle. His screams of terror and pain haunt her, so, while scared and ignorant locals torture the man, Mab befriends him – and then remembers her family secret. And realises his.

800 years later, Australian scientist Ben (Brett Brown) comes to Orford to fix a military radar system. Ben, a talented man with a PhD from Stamford, is haunted by a frat ritual gone which killed his roommate five years ago. Getting away to the UK seemed to be just what he needed, but then he hears the mysterious noise coming from the water. A haunting noise he can’t quite identify.

30 years later, Mog (Eva Traynor), returns to her hometown of Orford pregnant and unsure of what to do next. A boat trip, just like she used to take when she was a teenager, seems like a good idea. Then she hears the haunting noise.

Throughout this play, which takes the form of a round robin of monologues from the three characters, Kuti slowly but deftly reveals what connects Mab, Ben and Mog. At first, it seems the trio’s stories have little in common other than Orford, but similarities emerge and the legend of the Wild Man seems to have been real, present and influential throughout the centuries, affecting their lives and those of others.

In many ways, Fishskin Trousers is a compelling watch, and Carroll, Brown and Traynor give fine performances, with Brown’s fish-out-of-water naivety a particular hit with the audience. Even the myth of the Wild Man and the mysterious noise, barely credible in the 20th and 21st Centuries, don’t seem so ridiculous. But Fishskin Trousers also feels slightly too neat and wrapped up, where a little mystery might have been more satisfying.

Jay, Hen and Chickens Theatre

In the opening scene of Jay, it’s Jay (Flora Nisbet-Dawson) who’s keeping it together. Her girlfriend Alex (Eleonora Fusco) is curled up on the floor, severely depressed and barely functioning, while Jay is still going to work, living a life and wanting them to have a baby. Jay’s Prozac Dream (personified by a sarcastic, gun-totting Lee Anderson) tells her it’s OK to resent Alex but Jay ignores him.

Yet even after she and Alex have parted, and Jay gets together with the much cheerier Andrea (Mari-Ange Ramirez), Prozac Dream is still there. And things come to a head when the heavily pregnant Andrea runs into the also pregnant Alex, and Alex talks her way into the apartment Andrea shares with Jay, where the also pregnant Jay is having a very bad day.

Unbeknownst to Andrea, Alex says, Jay hasn’t been taking her medicine or seeing her doctor for years. Jay’s mental state isn’t great but is Alex gaslighting or is this for real? And what does Alex want to achieve by telling them this?

As an exploration of mental illness and how it can affect relationships and life, Jay is spot on, as are the observations on pregnancy, but when the play ends it feels like something is missing. Perhaps it’s the suddenness and the anti-climactic nature of the ending, or the fact that little seems to have resolved itself. Jay somehow seems unfinished and there’s a lot more that could have been explored here. Perhaps it should have been?

B, Royal Court

B, a new play by Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderon, isn’t necessarily what you expect from the Royal Court – wooden acting, stock characters, awkward, unnatural dialogue – it feels a bit amateur a lot of the time. Except that’s the point; it’s done like this very deliberately.

Alejandra (Danusia Samal) and Marcela (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) are total amateurs. Left-wingers? Anarchists? They don’t really seem to know themselves. They just set bombs to kick-start the revolution.

Jose Miguel (Paul Kaye), on the other hand, is an expert. He’s been agitating for change for decades, he’s spent time in East Germany, Sri Lanka, Colombia, you name it, and now he’s making bombs for others to set because he wants lasting change. And he’s never been caught, whereas Alejandra and Marcela almost were. And now Marcela’s obvious lie to Carmen (Sarah Niles), the next-door neighbour, about how her boyfriend was blown-up terrorists, threatens Alejandra and Marcela’s meeting with Jose Miguel, just as he’s about to deliver the bomb to them so they can go plant it in a bank.

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Alejandra (Danusia Samal), Marcela (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Jose Miguel (Paul Kaye)

Like Chris Morris’ Four Lions, B makes the relatively unexplored point that people who set off bombs aren’t necessarily idealogues with clear worldviews and a definite purpose. And they’re mostly pretty incompetent.

While Jose Miguel knows what he does, why, and how best to do it, and keeps his face covered and his hands gloved and has lies prepared for when he runs into nosey neighbours, Alejandra and Marcela are just angry kids out for fun and new experiences. And what they don’t realise is that they’ve been incredibly lucky to have been neither caught or blown-up. They think Jose Miguel’s bourgeois. He thinks they’re young and stupid. They’re both right.

And what of Carmen, who keeps popping in and initiating some painfully bizarre exchanges with Alejandra and Marcela. She clearly thinks they’re suspicious, but she also seems a bit mad. Mad enough – or canny enough – to go to the police?

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Sarah Niles as next-door neighbour Carmen

This is an unsettled, occasionally funny play and director Sam Pritchard, composer Teho Teardo and designer Chloe Lamford create a tense and disturbing experience for the audience. Teardo’s music, which creeps up on you as the characters deliver major speeches, is particularly effective.

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Chloe Lamford’s bleak set for B

But when the denouement of B finally arrives, and it can only really go one way, it feels like a letdown. Do we know much more about the motivations of bombers? And has all this achieved anything? It seems not. Which is apt.

Five Guys Named Moe, Marble Arch Theatre

Not many shows end Act 1 with the cast conga-lining the audience out to the bar, but then, not many shows are Five Guys Named Moe. It’s easy to see why the show has been revived and revived again, and this staging even goes to the trouble of making the security guards and ushers part of the atmosphere. It’s a fabulous night out.

Part fairytale, part party, Five Guys Named Moe takes the music of Louis Jordan, “the grandfather of rock & roll”, and infuses it into to five guys, all named Moe, who appear out of Nomax’s radio just when he needs them.

Nomax (Edward Baruwa) is a maudlin, early hours drinker, desperately wanting to make things up with his girlfriend Lorraine. The sudden appearance of the Moes – Four-Eyed Moe (Ian Carlyle), Little Moe (Idriss Kargbo), Know Moe (Dex Lee), Big Moe (Horace Oliver) and Eat Moe (Emile Ruddock) – is just what he needs to get himself right.

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Edward Baruwa as Nomax, pining for Lorraine

Clarke Peters, the writer and director of the show, rightly places the emphasis on the songs, which are staged on a revolving platform that moves through the audience.  It’s an exciting and thoroughly entertaining piece of theatre and choreography all accompanied by a brilliant band. If you’re not dancing out of the Marble Arch Theatre’s Spiegeltent and into the night humming “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens”, “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie” or “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” there’s something wrong with you.

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Ain’t no party like a five guys party

Talk Radio, Old Red Lion

30 years ago in the USA, the parents and grandparents of today’s Twitter trolls and YouTube conspiracy video makers had no choice but to call up their local talk radio station if they wanted a mass audience for their hateful and/or mad views. And while the talkback radio genre is still going strong today, in the USA and elsewhere, it shocks people less often. It’s normal. But in this 30th-anniversary production of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio we get a 1980s view of this then burgeoning form of media, and it’s still as disturbing as it was then.

In Talk Radio we see what happens behind the scenes and on air during one edition of KTLK’s Night Talk with Barry Champlain. Barry (Matthew Jure), an angry chain smoker with little patience, is taking calls from the usual role call of eccentric regulars, single-issue campaigners and crazies, while producers Stu (George Turvey) and Linda (Molly McNerney) make sure there’s always someone on the line. But then station manager Dan (Andy Secombe) arrives to inform the trio that the executive team from Metroscan, who own 375 radio stations, are listening in to the show with a view to syndicating it nationwide.

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This should be great news, but Barry’s not the type to want to impress the suits. Instead, he provokes them and his audience by breaking the news on air that the show’s about to hit the big time. As Dan turns pale, seeing the deal he thought he had in the bag disappear in front of his eyes, Barry sits back knowing that his callers – who’d love to go national too – will not disappoint when they phone in that evening.

And they don’t. A 16-year-old has just found out she’s pregnant, now she wants the station’s help to track down her boyfriend. Kent (Ceallach Spellman), a teen who’s bunked off school for a couple of days to party with his girlfriend, is worried that his girlfriend won’t wake up. And a neo-Nazi’s worked out that Barry must be Jewish, so he’s sent him a bomb.

This is riveting stuff and the cast play it perfectly, really capturing the atmosphere and tension of a live radio show which isn’t going to plan. You even start to understand the appeal of this sort of programme, albeit as the cracks start to show. Why would Barry be the first person you call when you find out you’re pregnant? Or when your girlfriend won’t wake up? And what qualifies him to dispense views and advice and to tell others to shut up?

Barry seems to wondering this too, and in a moment of daring, desperation or deliberate career suicide – it’s hard to tell – he invites Kent to come into the studio. This makes for a very dispiriting spectacle. Kent is mostly a fame-seeker, with little of substance to share. And so is Barry. And when the lights fade on Barry’s end-of-show sign-off, plunging Max Dorey’s stark parody of an 80s radio studio into darkness, this really feels like the end of it all.

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Mrs Orwell, Old Red Lion

On what would turn out to be his death bed, writer George Orwell proposed to Sonia Brownell, an assistant magazine editor 16 years his junior. Brownell, in love with French philosopher Maurice (who’s married) and a fixture at fashionable London gatherings of artists and writers, was initially reluctant to accept but later warmed to the idea. Why she did it and why he wanted it are explored in Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell.

Orwell (Peter Hamilton Dyer), his body ravaged with TB and his mind wracked with guilt for past wrongs, doesn’t get women and seems best able to express himself through creepy expressions of lust. Even to Sonia (Cressida Bonas), who he’s genuinely in love with, his offer, stiffly made in his hospital room, is more akin to a business proposal than a romance. If she marries him she will inherit his money and become his literary executor, with few conditions.

Present through much of this is the up-and-coming artist Lucian Freud (Edmund Digby Jones) who visits George in order to sketch him, and to see if he can get Sonia into bed. He only partly succeeds. Sonia is a woman who knows her own mind and something about George has attracted her, even if Lucian is there to remind her that George isn’t up to being a proper husband.

By the end of the play, Sonia has willingly taken over much of the organisation of George’s life from his publisher Fred Warburg (Robert Stocks) and is about to take over from Nurse (Rosie Ede) and support him through his recuperation. It’s an unconventional love story, and love isn’t necessarily the word for it, but it’s genuine.

The slow reveal of Sonia’s growing love for George is well played by Cressida Bonas, who by the end of this story seems like a woman who’d kill to protect her man. Peter Hamilton Dyer is also brilliant as George, a troubled man defeated, rallied and then ultimately defeated by his illness. Edmund Digby Jones’ Lucian is a wonderfully louche presence and he has a lot of fun with his role. The way he walks in and out of George’s room, swinging his satchel and his grandfather’s fur-trimmed coat, is sublime. The set, designed by Rebecca Brower and Daisy Blower, is also very impressive for the way in which it gets so much from such a small space.

Not mentioned in Mrs Orwell, but seemingly still a part of it, is that Sonia was supposedly the model for Julia in Orwell’s masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the book, the main character, Winston, lusts secretly after the much younger Julia, who ultimately betrays him when they are both captured by the Thought Police. That Sonia didn’t betray George and was ultimately a fierce protector of his estate and legacy, is heartening. Tony Cox’s play does her story justice.

The Witch’s Mark, The Space

The Witch’s Mark, written and directed by Timothy N. Evers, draws inspiration from historical and contemporary accounts of the Scottish witch trials. Edinburgh in 1591, is in the middle of a witch craze, and it’s a place where anyone can be accused and put to death.Agnes Sampson (Celeste Markwell), a healer offering traditional remedies, is an obvious target for the witch hunters. She even has a book, bequeathed to her by her mother (who was also a healer), detailing the medicinal properties of various plants.

Agnes Sampson (Celeste Markwell), a healer offering traditional remedies, is an obvious target for the witch hunters. She even has a book, bequeathed to her by her mother (who was also a healer), detailing the medicinal properties of various plants.

Her accusers allege that she danced naked for the devil. But did she? She says, quite clearly, that she did not. She admits to being a healer, who gathered plants to make her medicines, but she was never tempted by the Devil (played Evers), as is claimed.

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In The Witch’s Mark , we hear Agnes’ testimony and defence. The Devil taunted her, she says. He offered her a diamond and tried to groom her too. She even sees him in the eyes of her accusers, but she has never given in to him. Never.

Agnes gives a clear, confident and defiant testimony. She’s a strong woman, and this makes The Witch’s Mark, set more than 400 years ago, feel very contemporary. The way Agnes speaks is reminiscent of the assertiveness of today’s activists, whether they’re fighting for the rights of women, ethnic minorities or those who identify as LGBTQI*.

The problem is, almost all of this play is defiant speeches. And we hear almost nothing about the other people involved in this story and their views. Even the Devil, seemingly so important to the story, says very little. It all feels a little one-sided.

A naive girl called Gilly Duncan, an aspiring healer who turned Agnes and other women in to the authorities, is someone I’d like to have heard from – or more about. Why did she do it? And did she really fall pray to the Devil’s advances, as Agnes claims?

Odinn Orn Hilmarsson’s sound design, provides an evocative soundtrack to this play, and Celeste Markwell gives a wonderful performance as Agnes, but contrasting voices would have added depth to The Witch’s Mark. And as great as it is to see a strong woman defy dominant men and a biased justice system, we needed to hear from characters who represent the patriarchy and the establishment to understand the full horrors of how women like Agnes have been brutalised and put down.

The Passion of the Playboy Riots, Hen and Chickens Theatre

In The Passion of the Playboy Riots, writer/director Neil Weatherall imagines a meeting in the early 20th Century between W.B. Yeats (Loclann O’Grady) and Lady Gregory (Cath Humphrys), two of the founders of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and leading lights in the Irish Literary Revival, and Patrick Pearse (Justin McKenna), one of the future leaders of the Easter Rising and the man who read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic outside the General Post Office.

As fellow Irish patriots, law student Pearse assumes that Yeats and Gregory must surely be interested in staging his allegorical plays about Irish life. It turns out they are not, and Pearse goes away to devote his time to other ways of achieving home rule, such as encouraging his fellow patriots to disrupt performances at the Abbey Theatre.

This is a play about the two Irelands, the ones who want home rule but have also benefitted from British rule, and those who want home rule because they haven’t benefited from British rule. And sometimes, as Yeats observes, the line between these two groups is hard to determine.

Either way, it is divisive, and in a United Kingdom still struggling to deal with the results of last year’s EU referendum and U.S. election – both of which, although mainly the former, could impact on the fragile peace in today’s Republic of Ireland – this feels rather topical. The problem is, Weatherall’s attempts to draw parallels between then and now are largely confined to lines which feel like they’ve been crowbarred into the script, about taking back control and making the country great again. The cast, understandably, struggles to make these lines feel free real. They might as well have winked broadly to the audience as they delivered them.

The Passion of the Playboy Riots has an interesting and topical premise but could do with a re-write. It also succeeds more when it comments on the theatre and writing than when it does on nationhood and politics. An exploration of Yeats, a man of contradictions who changed his viewpoint on politics many times throughout his life, may have made for a more satisfying play.