Living a Little, King’s Head Theatre

Living a Little, King’s Head Theatre

As a long time enjoyer of the horror and comedy horror genres, I was disappointed by the thinness of Living a Little. Ironically for a play about Zombie flesh eaters, there just wasn’t enough meat. I kind of knew where it was going to go, and the route it took was a little too obvious. Even the surprises weren’t all that surprising.

Equally some of the plot devices simply didn’t work as they were supposed to. If a play is asking me to suspend belief enough to believe that the main characters are living through a zombie apocalypse, they need to do more work to not challenge that sense of disbelief elsewhere. Making the main characters and plumber and an electrician may have felt like a great wheeze and an easy way to explain their creature comforts, but it did nothing to stop me questioning the incongruity of the way they lived. Why were these two among all others able to forage so successfully in a way the band of survivors Penelope (Pearl Appleby) has previously been travelling with?

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Equally, why make a semi-significant plot point of the female character’s hairy legs only for the actress to appear completely shaven. Yes, I hate myself for looking, but the dialogue directed me there more than once and once again it took me out of the drama of the play.

I liked the characters on the level they were presented to me on and I understood their motivations perhaps more than their circumstances. The temptation to party blindly in the face of disaster is one we can all relate to.  The cast did a good job with the material they had, and I could feel the audience willing the actors on.  Playwright Finlay Bain who played central character Rob is currently a more sophisticated actor than he is a writer and there were some really interesting nuances that came through. For me, his performance stood out above the others.

The themes in Living a Little deserve a hearing. How do we cope with the end of the world? What does really matter when nothing is left? There’s something in there that deserves to be explored. But for me, this play doesn’t quite get there.

 

Out There on the Fried Meat Ridge, Trafalgar Studios

Out There on the Fried Meat Ridge, Trafalgar Studios

Emma’s review of the original production can be found here

This is a play that has really grown on me. So much so that I am adding an additional ½ star to my original review. The play hasn’t changed much – though there has been a change in cast, with EastEnders bad boy Alex Ferns coming in as New Jersey gangster/poet Tommy. But it feels tighter than when I saw it on the fringe.

There are still some details I would change. Marlene’s bruises – for example – are too distracting. They don’t add to her character well either – she seems like a fighter, not a victim (and casting an actor most known for a part playing an abuser as her partner, they need to consider playing this down).

But this is quibbling over a show that gave me far more joy than I expected from a repeat viewing and even knowing what is coming, that last punchline is a doozy.

This won’t change your life and it won’t make you question everything. But it’s bloody entertaining.

Out There on the Fried Meat Ridge is on at Trafalgar Studios 2, tickets from £20

www.atgtickets.com › London › West End › Trafalgar Studios

 

The Treatment, Almeida Theatre

The Treatment, Almeida Theatre

4-out-of-5-stars-rating

It’s quite audacious to put on a play looking at the way a rapacious middle-class media takes the stories of the working class, chews them up and regurgitates them as entertainment in Islington – the proud heart of luvvie land. But that’s the theme at the heart of The Treatment – currently playing at the Almeida. The character we are asked to empathise with at the start of the play. Anne with her working class accent and upwardly mobile pretensions is used and possibly abused from the start both for our entertainment and that of the producers Jennifer and Andrew.

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The story opens with Anne telling her story of mistreatment by her estranged husband to two strangers. The “treatment” of the title could be some form of talking therapy. It is only as Jennifer focuses on the more visually stunning or salacious parts of the story that we understand this is a movie pitch. Written in 1993, this seems strangely prescient – public revelation as therapy is now almost accepted as normal, but in a world where sushi is seen as strangely exotic (the one detail that really dates the play) this would have been almost unknown – Jerry Springer was only just establishing his style at this time.

The Treatment is at times a jarring drama. It asks us to examine ourselves and our responses to the art we are watching as we do so. The Greek tragedy of Anne and Simon’s relationship is mirrored by the shallow casualness of Jennifer and Andrew’s and, through it, we are asked to examine our own attitudes towards love and what is costs us. Anne is punished for her emotional crimes in a way Andrew is not – it is clear his wealth and class insulate him from such punishment but also from any depth of feeling.

There are themes in The Treatment that may have had more resonance to audiences in 1993. The subplot of the mistreatment of 60s dreamer Clifford by the next generation would have got a more sympathetic ear before we realised quite how badly baby boomers had screwed us all. For me, this theme also places the piece outside of this age, though others in the audience may have disagreed.

I was keener on the staging of the play than I was of the set. This probably speaks to my own prejudices as a city woman. The investment in a huge background cast really pays off. The core cast is rarely seen alone as in each scene there are people going about their business in the background, foreground and everywhere. This makes the small stage feel like a large and yet cramped city, evoking the island of Manhattan perfectly. On the other hand, the blank, beige walls of the production office seemed wrongly dull to me. Totally unlike the kind of projection a character like Jennifer would be expected to present through her space.

The Treatment is a good play but it is a little too sprawling. The comic relief of the taxi driver added nothing for me. The outsourcing of the ultimate nastiness to Anne from Andrew and Jennifer to John felt weak as he had no other real role in the drama. There are too many characters to care about. Maybe this too is deliberate. As a comment on cities, perhaps the crowded cast reflect that sense of claustrophobia that urban living gives you.

But this play made me think. It touched me and it moved me. It has its faults, and some aspects of it haven’t dated well, but the themes are so strong and so well played by a subtle and clever cast that you can’t help but leave the theatre with profound questions about what art is for.

A treatment has so many meanings from therapy to a script. The Treatment does the same for the viewer. It forces you to look at yourself as therapy does, and it reinterprets and neatly repackages reality as art does. If it is at all unsatisfactory, one can’t help but ask if that is not a deliberate choice by this clever drama.

 

4/5 stars.

 

Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths, Latvian House

Ionesco/Dinner at the Smiths, Latvian House

4-out-of-5-stars-rating

Ionesco’s work finds the absurd in the mundane and highlights it. This dinner party with no dinner (but generous and replenished helpings of wine) certainly fit the bill. As a newcomer to his work – and a non-French speaker – I was nervous I wouldn’t get enough out of my night to enjoy it, but my worries were unfounded. The French is translated cleverly through the serving staff (the maid and the Butler) and when not in their primary characters through the dinner party guests, but I was assured by my bilingual companion that this repetition did not detract from the action, more adding to the sense of absurdity the plays aim to ignite.

The action consists of extracts from Ionesco’s most famous works interspersed with interviews with the playwright himself played by Sean Rees (who also doubles up as Mr Smith). All the cast were superb, but particular mention should go to Jorge Laguardia as the Butler and Spanish Fire Chief, his was the highest comedy moment of the night and he dominated a difficult space well. Throughout the play, not quite enough was done with the table at the heart of the action. I would have liked to have seen it used more for the physical comedy that played out on the sides of the action. As the absurdity of the dinner scenes played out the Smiths being at opposite ends of the table from either each other or the Martins worked to highlight the absurdities of bourgeois life at the heart of the play. But while there were no elbows on the table and nor was there dancing or leaping on there either.

The staging worked to put the audience at the heart of the play, but my only real quibble was that the play fell somewhere between immersive and traditional theatre and so as a fervent advocate of immersive theatre, I found this not quite interactive enough for my liking. But this is a very minor split-hair that didn’t mar an extremely enjoyable experience. If – like me – you’re new to Ionesco, or to absurdist theatre as a whole, this was a sublime taster.

It may be that as Ionesco himself argued, this was just Guignol – a puppet show designed to amuse. But theatre cannot be separated from the circumstances in which it is staged. In putting on a French commentary about English suburban behaviours, the producers seemed to be making a broader point about the absurdities inherent in the manners we have until now taken for granted. Perhaps it may be that it is only in exaggerated absurdity that we see the truth of who we are.

Focus Group, Ovalhouse Theatre

Focus Group, Ovalhouse Theatre

 

three-starIn art, marketing is often used as a metaphor for a sense that we all inhabit a meaningless, shallow culture. And so it is in Focus Group where the audience are less immersed than they are occasional participants in a dialogue that ultimately means little to the play’s message or journey.

We are confronted with the breakdown of the central character and his descent into loneliness through professional underperformance and personal rejection. But we are encouraged to see this at least in part as a result of the emptiness of a life spent paying the bills through such a worthless pursuit as running focus groups for corporations.

More a play with audience participation than an immersive theatre experience Focus Group definitely captured the imagination during its short running time.  The staging was both clever and effective. Simple mechanisms used to delineate between the office. The home and the dream state. The use of lighting and – importantly – darkness allowed the cast to create vividly different tableaus which drove the sense of disconnection and loneliness inherent to the piece.

But it also felt like – by omission or habit – this was a play that had little love for the people whose loneliness it explored. It felt like we were invited to judge this average Joe (or Terry) by his job with little understanding that people in market research have inner lives too. Not ones driven by their jobs but by all the passions that all fully dimensional humans have.

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Here is felt like Terry’s loneliness was a judgement of the meaninglessness of his chosen profession. It may be that I am reacting as much to the sensitivities of the current age as to the source material, but I felt uncomfortable judging his life and choices as I felt I was being guided to do. It felt elitist in a capricious way.

Having said that, the play certainly captured the nature of loneliness and the interplay of Joe’s inner and outer lives, his faux cheeriness to the “focus group” audience and his quiet desperation were well depicted. It was moving and disturbing and confusing and amusing in all the right places. While the other characters existed only in their relation to Terry, they too brought a depth and pace to the drama.

If Focus Group were a flavour I would say it was sweet and sour. If it were a time of day it would be twilight. Focus Group certainly made me think. I just didn’t necessarily like what it made me think.

 

 

Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road, White Bear Theatre

Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road, White Bear Theatre

3/5 three-star

Some theatre leaves an indelible mark on you, changes your perspective on life, art politics of philosophy or challenges your innermost perceptions of yourself and the world you live in. Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road is not that piece of theatre.

That is not to say it wasn’t a genuinely pleasant and enjoyable whimsical way to spend an evening, but to have your perceptions of the good people challenged by the thin dimensions added in the characterisation of the people who flit in and out of the lives of new roommates Mitch and JD you would have to have pretty low opinions of West Virginians in the first place. These supporting characters were taken from central casting a GTA game would be proud of (racist hillbilly, insecure, meth head, Jersey gangster) and each given a twist to try and round them out (a heart of gold, artist, poet!). To be shocked by these revelations you would have to believe that human being reverts to stereotype with no redeeming features. Which was hardly the message of the show as a whole.

Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road (c) Gavin Watson (3).jpgThe weakness of these characters matters less as the play is superbly carried by the two central performances. In particular, author Keith Stevenson as central character JD. Stevenson is completely believable as the affable, charming hillbilly who feeds, calms and soothes his neighbours, solving their dramas and bringing a non-judgemental love to their lives. The nervous and new Mitch is there to supply the audience’s sensibility to challenge and translate the other characters. He’s the everyman whose questioning of the people he comes across allows us access to their inner lives and thoughts. He’s also the butt of much of the comedy having let his job at the local spork factory fall through his sweaty hands. Mitch’s journey from the scared derision of JD’s circumstances to acceptance and joy in his character mirrors that of the audience.

This play won’t change your life. If you want insight into Trump’s America and the circumstances that led to his victory, stay in and read Hillbilly Elegy, but if you want a pleasant night out that will keep you entertained for the 70-minute duration of the play, this has enough heart and enough fun to make it worth your while.

Trumpageddon, King’s Head Theatre

Trumpageddon, King’s Head Theatre

I’m not sure seeing Trumpageddon on the night of the US elections was entirely sensible,especially not with the intent of reviewing it. Tonight – of all nights – I am not dispassionate or detached. It was also not a night I wanted to be off Twitter.

You see, I’m a political junkie and on nights like this I’m Jonesing for my real life fix – and no fringe methadone is going do it for me. So I was quite surprised by exactly how diverted by Trumpageddon I was.

It’s essentially a one man show – and oh what a man! Trump is a gift of a character and Simon Jay makes the most of what he’s given. His impression may not be as accurate as Alec Baldwin’s, but he has the essence of the man to a tee.

Simon4.jpgThere was – for me – an awkward question in how well our audience of Islington liberals enjoyed a show based on the thoughts and morals of Donald Trump. The jokes were, by necessity, often crude, sexist, homophobic, racially insensitive. Were this audience of liberals enjoying the joke as meta? Or just the permission to laugh their worst laugh in a liberal space? Is this – as Simon Jay said to me when I asked – “Bernard Manning in OrangeFace“?

I have come down as no (says a guffawing liberal member of the audience). I say that not to get myself or the production off the hook. But there was just enough subtle character breaking moments (“I know because I said it” was a regular refrain) to show intent. And intent matters, context matters.

The show is structured largely as a Q&A with a few set pieces. The comedy set pieces don’t all work. I will go to my grave wondering about the deeper political, editorial or contextual point of Hunt the Bunny but when Jay gets into his flow he’s great.

Ultimately this is a very funny show who everyone should hope closes soon as Trump loses his status. When I wake up tomorrow and he’s been elected – well the replays of the Protect and Survive information films that segment the show will have come in handy.

Due to popular demand and the fascination with the lunacy of this American election, another performance date for Trumpageddon on Monday 14th Nov at 7pm has been added. Tickets can be purchased here