William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) – Reduced Shakespeare Company – Wilton’s Music Hall

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As a fan of Shakespeare, wordplay, and Disney (SPOILER ALERT: this show contains Disney references), I should have been the ideal audience member for the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s newest show. Unfortunately, the subject matter simply wasn’t enough to keep me engaged during this messy evening of uninspired comedy. The show follows 3 actors who are trying to stage, as the title suggests, an abridge version William Shakespeare’s (fictitious) long lost first play, an unwieldy manuscript telling a convoluted story involving every one of Shakespeare’s existing characters. Admittedly, they did manage to form moderately coherent scenes using an assortment of lines from virtually every Shakespeare play, which is no easy undertaking. Even so, this hodgepodge of Shakespeare references offers very little in the way of genuine laughs, and their plethora of puns could only get them so far.

 
The loosely-strung “plot” of the play follows a rivalry between Ariel and Puck, Shakespeare’s two most celebrated sprites, as they travel the world, mischievously interfering with the lives of Shakespeare’s iconic characters. Almost every scene however, exists only for the purpose of setting up some pun-based punchline, which grows tiresome very quickly. The show, which now runs almost two hours, including an interval, would undoubtedly have been far more effective as a 10 minute sketch.

 
It’s not that I expected some highly sophisticated commentary on the state of mankind; I’m well aware of the goofy, light comedy that the Reduced Shakespeare Company is known for. But any comedy show, no matter how deliberately insubstantial it may be, has to be sustainable throughout its own running time. “First Play” lacks the freshness and sense of variety that made their earlier work, such as their classic “Complete Works” show, so successful.

 
Humour, of course, is wildly subjective. So if you think this mad-cap evening of messy entertainment will appeal to your sense of humour more than it did to mine, I sincerely hope you don’t let me dissuade you. “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged)” plays through Saturday at the historic Wilton’s Music Hall, before continuing its UK tour.

By Joe Weinberg

Lizzie – Greenwich Theatre

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“Lizzie Borden took an ax, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one.” These words, taken from a popular folk rhyme, are the first that we hear in Lizzie. Much like the show’s protagonist, they’re deceptively simple. They may be set to a simple nursery-rhyme melody, but there’s a blood-stained rage hiding just below the surface.

Lizzie appeared in its first embryonic forms in the early 90s. In 2009, the writers (Tim Maner, Alan Stevens Hewitt, and Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer) decided to expand and rework the material, and turn it into the full-length piece that it is today. This production currently playing at London’s Greenwich Theatre, marks the UK premiere, though it began at Denmark’s Fredericia Theatre.

The story is a fictionalized account, inspired by the true story of Lizzie Borden, a young woman who was put on trial in 1892 for the murder of her father and stepmother. Yet despite being set in the late 19th century, Lizzie is anything but a period piece. It takes the form of a Riot Grrrl concert, using a series of fierce rock numbers to delve into Lizzie’s painful path to patricide. It’s always a pleasure to see a musical embrace the style of music that best evokes the character’s emotions – time period be damned. Lizzie is more than just an infamous news story from 1892, she’s a rebel who refuses to tolerate her abusers. She sings these pulse-pounding rock ballads because it’s the only music that can channel her rage.

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In addition to the visceral music (by Cheslik-DeMeyer & Hewitt), Lizzie also manages to tell its story very clearly and effectively. Musicals of this variety often push the clarity of the storytelling to the background, allowing the music to take center-stage, especially when it’s predominately sung through. Lizzie doesn’t allow that to happen; the lyrics (Cheslik-DeMeyer & Tim Maner) are always rooted in the storytelling.

The book (Maner) is well-structured, taking a fairly literal, scene-based approach to the story. This was effective, but it also raises the question: was setting it up like a concert really the best decision? On one level, it makes perfect sense: the show, with a cast of four women, is an homage to Riot Girrrl groups. The music lends itself well to a concert setting, and the use of bright lights and hand-held microphones is effective. On the other hand, the storytelling structure and physical staging are more like a traditional book musical, as opposed to something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a comparable show that fully embraces its concert setting. This is a minor quibble, though, and didn’t detract from the experience.

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This production’s international cast consists of Bjorg Gamst (Lizzie), Eden Espinosa (Emma Borden), Bleu Woodward (Alice Russell) and Jodie Jacobs (Bridget). Each one delivers a powerhouse performance, perfectly capturing their character’s ambitions and emotions, while bringing the house down with jaw-dropping vocals.

Though the alternative style probably won’t be every musical theatre fan’s cup of tea, Lizzie provides a killer score that perfectly matches the passionate, psychologically complex story.

By Joe Weinberg

(photos: Soren Malmose)

We Are Brontë – Vaults Festival

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Hyper-conceptual fringe theatre can be a fascinating brand of performance art, filled with new ideas that push boundaries and challenge our notions of what theatre can be. Yet, sometimes it also deserves a big dose of ridicule. Publick Transport Theatre Company fills that prescription brilliantly with We Are Brontë, a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the Brontë sisters’ gothic world. We’re treated to interpretive movement, gloomy lighting, and heaps upon heaps of symbolism, all of which is pointed out quite clearly by the cast, just in case you happen to miss it. Sarah Corbett and Angus Barr take on the personas of two clownish actors, one of whom is unwaveringly serious, and the other, constantly fretting over whether or not the audience understands what’s happening. He makes it unmistakably clear that they just want to show us the spirit of the Brontë cannon, rather than any literal elements. We watch them cluelessly stumble through their performance, relentlessly trying to get us on their side, all while giving the impression that they perhaps have never read a book by any of the Brontë sisters.

Granted, their gags land with varying levels of success, but the entire performance is filled with quirky humour, cleverly poking fun at pretentious, alternative theatre. However, when considering the show’s style, target audience, and history of performance venues, the question arises: at one point does a satirical show become the very thing it makes fun of? Still, the answer hardly matters when the show is so enjoyable.

We Are Brontë has now completed its week-long run at the Vaults festival, but keep your eyes open in case it, or another project by Publick Transport, makes another appearance in the near future.

By Joe Weinberg

Run the Beast Down – Finborough Theatre

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Which mammal makes the creepiest sound? If you guessed the fox, you’d be right. Playwright, Titas Halder seems to have picked the perfect animal to represent his protagonist’s psychological struggle. Making its London premier directly after a brief run at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre, Halder’s new play, Run the Beast Down is an eerie exploration of one man’s descent into madness. After losing his job and his girlfriend while battling insomnia, Charlie finds himself with a blurred sense of reality and self. In the midst of his nightmarish fog, he begins to feel haunted by a mysterious fox, who is either an ordinary stray wandering his neighborhood, or perhaps an anthropomorphic entity out to get him. At night, Charlie hears the fox’s creaking scream, which he accurately describes as “otherworldly.” When we in the audience hear it, sometimes disembodied and sometimes from Charlie’s own mouth, it sends chills down the spine.

 
Ben4.jpeg-e1485559128563.jpgBen Aldridge, the play’s lone actor, gives a commendable performance as Charlie, exhibiting a keen naturalistic spark that blends well with the surreal text. Aldridge is accompanied only by Chris Bartholomew, the on-stage sound designer and DJ. Bartholomew produces a live electronic score, woven into a captivating soundscape that adds an excellent texture to Charlie’s narrative. The direction (Hannah Price) combined with the lighting (Rob Mills and Robbie Butler) and set (Anthony Lamble), also successfully build the mood of the show, and add clarity to the text. Price has Aldridge write on the stage each title of the play’s 7 sections. Over the course of the performance, the small platform becomes crowded with words, giving the sense that Charlie’s psychological conflict is building upon itself. The sparse set consists of a small platform, backed by 8 strips of light slanting upward from the floor, suggesting a lurid, artificial forest. The strips, as well as the rest of the lighting, create a bold and atmospheric mood that complements the soundscape well. The lighting also maintains an excellent specificity, largely using blue and orange to map out the mental war between Charlie and the fox.

 
The play itself is psychologically compelling, though it takes a little while to gain momentum. The many details of Charlie’s life and personal relationships were occasionally tough to absorb, due partly to the descriptive structure of the text, and partly to Charlie’s own twisted sense of reality. However, these details are rightfully secondary to the play’s overarching themes and impressions, which allow us to become ensnared in Charlie’s psychotic world. Arguably, the play might have worked better if it had not been a one man show. If there had been other actors playing the various roles, we might have gotten a more fleshed out sense of the people in his life, and how each one affected him. Also, we might have gained from seeing more of the events play out, rather than hearing them described to us. But ultimately, what the play lacks in clarity, it makes up for in tone and overall impact, especially when supported by a talented lead and smart production.

By Joe Weinberg

The Iron Man – Unicorn Theatre

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Unicorn Theatre’s magical production of The Iron Man is simply oozing with creativity. Adapted from the Ted Hughes novel of the same name, the simple story follows an iron giant who befriends a young boy, and must help save the world from a monstrous alien creature. However, Hughes’ story, lovely though it may be, is not what makes this production so captivating. The man behind the magic is the show’s creator, Matthew Robins, who is responsible for the wide range of artistic storytelling methods employed in the 50-minute production. The show contains minimal words, instead utilizing puppetry, water color animation, live-streaming, music, and sculpture to create the play’s enchanting world.
The Iron Man, Unicorn Theatre. Photo Helen Murray (1)-XL.jpgDespite being geared toward young audiences, the production does not pander to them at all. It’s tinged with darkness and sophistication, with a tone that’s ominous as often as it is charming. I even felt a pang of fear upon the first appearance of the story’s extra-terrestrial villain. And indeed, adults may appreciate the intelligent stagecraft just as much as (if not more than) the children. One rarely sees a theatrical production so successfully embrace and incorporate several visual art forms. Yet even with the abundance of imaginative stage effects, the show does not muddle up the story, nor does it feel overly busy. It gives each moment its due, allowing the production both to satisfy its audience, and leave us wanting more.

By Joe Weinberg

Dirty Great Love Story – Arts Theatre

Dirty Great Love Story – Arts Theatre

 

Dirty Great Love Story, Arts Theatre - Felix Scott and Ayesha Antoine, Courtesy of Richard Davenport for The Other Richard.JPGAlmost five years after its award-winning run at SoHo Theatre, Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna’s autobiographical two-hander returns to London, now at the Arts Theatre on the West End. It tells the story of Richard and Katie’s long, messy path to love, as they overcome the awkward challenges that life throws in their way.

However, despite the play’s unrelenting earnestness, it doesn’t quite reach its full potential as a piece of storytelling. The story is based on real events, yet still feels like a cliché-ridden romantic comedy. Perhaps it was this rom-com quality that inspired Marsh and Bonna to tell the crazy story of their own relationship. Unfortunately, what might have seemed wild and extraordinary in their real life experience, doesn’t appear so when retold as entertainment. Instead, it feels like a million other love stories we’ve seen before, without anything really significant to set it apart.

The one aspect of the play that does stand out is that it’s written as rhyming poetry. This style astutely reflects the way in which, after countless retellings, many couples’ relationship stories turn into rehearsed duets. The poetic style is a remnant from the play’s inception, back when it was just a ten-minute poetry performance by the authors. However, the poetic style doesn’t adapt well to the full-length incarnation. It’s an inventive choice, and it does produce a few beautiful moments, but overall it just makes the play feel even more inane. Furthermore, the humour throughout the evening tries to be cleverer than it actually is, causing much of it to fall flat. To get laughs, the writers rely on low-hanging comedy fruit, such as “awkward” and “relatable” jokes.

Even the most clichéd stories with the most uninspired humour have the potential to succeed when anchored by a strong central relationship, but unfortunately the play doesn’t quite capture that either. Simply put, it was difficult to care what would happen to them. Originally, the two writers played themselves in the show, so perhaps the characters have lost their inherent chemistry in the casting other actors (though this would be through no fault of Ayesha Antoine and Felix Scott, who play their respective roles admirably).

It’s worth mentioning that the play is not unbearably bad by any means. As it is, tonight’s audience as a whole did seem to enjoy it. It’s unexceptional, and may not appeal to everyone’s sense of humour, but it has the potential to be a fun evening out for those seeking light, forgettable entertainment.

By Joe Weinberg

BU21 (Trafalgar Studios 2)

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Much like the play’s own traumatised characters, Stuart Slade’s BU21 feels precarious, but ultimately achieves great depth through cathartic honesty. The intimate six-hander, now playing at Trafalgar Studios after a successful run at Theatre503, tells the story of six people who have been scarred by a terrorist attack on flight BU21 (a fictional attack that takes place in the very-near future). The play explores their varied experiences predominately through monologues directed at the audience. Largely using the character of Alex as his mouthpiece, Slade attempts to address the potential hypocrisy of writing a commercially-produced play that critiques the commodification of tragedy. Slade seems acutely aware of this possible pitfall, and this self-awareness is partly what allows the play to narrowly avoid becoming cheap “misery porn” (to use his own term).

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Furthermore, texts that rely heavily on narrating past events have the potential to quickly become tiresome and lifeless, but Slade manages to overcome this hazard as well by putting the dramatic emphasis not on what happened to these people, but on the power of telling their stories. We see these three-dimensional characters stumble, hesitate, and go on tangents as they struggle to find words that accurately describe the experience that shattered their sense of reality. The monologues even include many moments of levity, which could have been distasteful if they didn’t arise so organically from the stories.

bu21-theatre503-clive-keene-and-florence-roberts-courtesy-of-david-monteith-hodge-6The small cast portrays these six characters with striking sincerity. Every character feels fully alive and real, with each actor perfectly embodying their character’s own distinct struggle. Dan Pick’s direction is also high effective, helping to bring the characters to life while utilizing the intimate space to envelop us in the action. The set (Alex Doidge-Green), lighting (Christopher Nairne), and sound (Owen Crouch) worked in tandem to create a sensory experience that mirrored the unstable psyche of survivors on the road to recovery.

Though the play doesn’t entirely manage to avoid assaulting us with its own relevance, there is genuine value in tackling the sensitive topic in its critical manner. BU21 doesn’t aim to disturb us or teach us a lesson, but rather challenges the numbness we feel as a society constantly bombarded with tragic news. Slade achieves his goal not through sob-stories, but through stark honesty, making the impersonal feel profoundly personal.

By Joe Weinberg