Border Control, Vault Festival

This one-act play might be slight, from a dramatic point of view – it’s three Border Agency officials poring (and in some cases, arguing) over a visa renewal application, but the content is dynamite for those hoping for an insight into the shadowy and robotic world of ideology tainted Whitehall bureaucracy.

There are two stories here. The first, and most illuminating, is the officious and often incomprehensible scrutiny an applicant is subjected to. The case before the mandarins is that of a UK national who’s married a Moroccan immigrant. The common sense and human approach would be to note that denying the application would separate the couple and kill their relationship. Cue the rubber stamp. Instead, the thought police spend inordinate amounts of time looking at photographs and phone records, text exchange transcripts – days and dates, trying to work out whether these people are indeed in love, as they audaciously claim, or are gaming the system like a bargain basement Gérard Depardieu in Green Card.

Having decided they are, on balance of probability, legit – both applicant and sponsor (the technical term, in this instance, for man and wife) look to be in the clear. But a casual statement, included in the appendices of the application, triggers the technocrats, and the couple are reduced to economic units and the threat of government mandated oblivion.

To the casual observer, it’s extraordinary that anyone should be evaluated in this way. As Paul Gambaccini – the immigrant chairing the after-show debate made clear, it wasn’t always thus. We used to trust people’s motives. Hell, once upon a time, particularly if you were white and from a rich country, like Paul, you’d be granted indefinite leave to remain without having to ask. But long before Brexit that attitude transmogrified into suspicion, race-based prejudice, and the boiling down of human beings to their earning potential (with all the assumptions around skilled work that implies).

The second story told here is how a system conditions thinking, perhaps attracting individuals to police it that lack a certain empathy. The two swaggering cocks, flanking the jittery and sentimental female official, barrack her with cold, partial information and technicalities. She’s not an audience proxy, however – as it’s clear that, unlike us, she’s trying to square the circle of aligning her own moderate instincts with the process she’s been programmed to follow. She’s twitchy, like a malfunctioning android.

Ultimately, despite some flashes of empathy, the system wins and her humanity’s excised. If people seeking a better life in the UK are relying on lightning to hit these Johnny Five’s, they’re likely to be in for one hell of a disappointment.

The aforementioned after-show debate, which at my performance was attended by Labour MP Wes Streeting, amongst others, including a human rights lawyer whose bank balance swells thanks to appeals against denied visa applications, provides further damning illumination.

We learn the system acts like a capricious child – changing want it wants every three months or so, and being driven by the selfish whims of successive governments. No one can agree on what basis people should he admitted to the country, it seems (debates around English proficiency and culture and belief systems informing successful assimilation into the parent society are not touched on here).

Border Control leaves you feeling a little confused, then, not to mention grubby and ashamed. We can do better, and we must.

Nuclear War/Buried/Graceland, The Old Red Lion

The Old Red Lion’s put together an interesting triptych of plays that, if you’re short for time, allow you to experience the gamut of human experience, freeing you up to live an uncomplicated and thoughtless life.

If there’s a theme, it’s crisis, anxiety – dread and self-appraisal in the face of death.

Buried is David Spencer’s monologue recounting his father’s wartime experiences. Performed by James Demaine, the character’s grandson, complete with top-of-the-morning accent, it begins with Max, buried in the rubble of a Salerno hotel following a German attack. From there we bounce around his life, listening to his earnest (and simple) reflections on faith, sex, patriotism, and death. The programme notes talk about something called “the molecular theory of fiction”. To you and me that’s the uncontroversial idea that fiction fills the gaps left by memory’s partial rendering of events. Theatre adds its own unreal dimension, you might think – a heightening of sense, retroactive sentiment, but it’s a committed performance from Demaine; a portrait of a life, albeit one painted using broad strokes.

Max Saunders-Singer’s Graceland, the most enjoyable play of the evening, is a darkly-comic one act drama, pitting Anthony Cozens’ dissembled chemistry teacher against an inquisitive and unruly class who’ve heard some lewd rumours about his personal life. To say more would spoil the show’s moments of pathos and revelation, but it’s a succinct and morbidly funny portrayal of an emasculated man, with an inherited inferiority complex, battling against the callous judgement of the kids, and his failure to inculcate in them, and perhaps anyone, the values of curiosity and propriety that one senses shaped the character’s youthful (now comprehensively crushed) idealism. Saunders-Singer wrote the piece on the back of a memory in which he and his peers “destroyed” a Maths supply teacher. It’s unlikely she’d take any comfort from the artistic afterthought.

Nuclear War was an incoherent voiding of the id when I last saw it at the Royal Court, and the good news for fans of free association and the libidinous interpretation of incident, is that it still is. Simon Stephens’ text remains an open invitation to perform this act of existential queefing any way you want, and Alexander Knott and Georgia Richardson’s production does just that – reimagining it as a study in duality, of both brain hemispheres and none, with Freya Sharp and Zoe Grain, moving and talking in tandem, as they repeatedly squirt on stage (figuratively speaking), pelting the audience with the residue from the playwright’s furious orgasm. What’s it about? Everything. Nothing. Life. Death. Coffee and Waffles. When it finally ends, performers and audience exhausted, especially the heterosexual man in the third row chided for failing to get an erection for his male lover, it’s the waffling that stays with you.

All in all, an enjoyable evening of chin-stroking and pint sipping.

Not Quite Jerusalem, Finborough Theatre

The Finborough’s revival of Paul Kember’s 1982 play, sees a mixed group of pasty white Englanders fleeing from their green and pleasant land, heading for voluntary work at an Israeli kibbutz. Ostensibly, they’ve scrimped and saved for the purposes of cultural exchange and a character building experience. But as the story progresses, it’s clear these miseries are divided between those after a novelty holiday, imperial English arrogance and crudity packed along with the sunscreen and tight shorts, and those trying to escape an identity crisis back home.

One can understand the attraction of reviving this play post-Brexit. Fundamentally, the tension inherent in the clash between the volunteers and their hosts typifies the sense of a nation exporting mixed messages and woolly-mindedness to rest of the world.

When asked to put on a show for the kibbutz – something that exemplifies who the characters are and where they come from, the despondent group, divided by class and temperament, are at a loss. What does it mean to be British? Who are we as a people? The characters didn’t know in 1982 and we don’t know now.

What makes Not Quite Jerusalem such a vivid and enjoyable play, is the nuanced and recognisable characters – backed here by exemplary performances from a talented cast.

Cambridge 1st year Mike’s burgeoning relationship with Gila, the blunt, abrasive local girl, teases out both his frustrations with an England he sees hijacked by entitlement, ignorance, and vandalism from unchecked elites (can you imagine?), and sentimental romanticism for the kibbutz ideal – a flat hierarchy, a country open to the world and interested in its cultures and ideas.

But the relationship, which falls as he opens up, also shows the limits of that idealism. He and his new girlfriend are separated by language and attitude. They lack a common history and understanding. This is what Mike longs for but can’t find at home or abroad.

Carrie, the delicate, try-hard artist who may or may not have come on board with false pretences, can’t understand why he rushes to the defence of the loutish, foul mouthed Dave and his sex obsessed friend, Pete. The two of them seem to embody everything that’s crass and boorish about the Englishman abroad. But Mike sees them as refugees from a culture of neglect; men without a country who nevertheless have been indoctrinated to be proud of their heritage. In 2020, we watch them make Jew jokes and bare arse, and we fancy they’re the Leave voters of the future – people whose sense of ownership over history and their identity is only going to further decline with age.

In 1982 it was emerging Thatcherism and post-war decline that imbued the black comedy of this piece with pathos. In 2020 the tourists have gone home and the chickens have followed to roost.

Not Quite Jerusalem is a snapshot of a past that recently bled into the present. You want to reach out and reassure the characters the inequities and uncertainties they feel will change, and 40 years hence they’ll have a proud island story to tell, ready to perform to enamoured audiences. You want to, but you can’t.

Message in a Bottle, Peacock Theatre

After attending Message in a Bottle, the new Sting-inspired dance-theatre show from ZooNation, I ran to board the cruise I’d booked months earlier, and was contemplating what I’d seen when the ship capsized in a storm, casting me into the oceanic depths. If you’re reading this you know your favourite theatre critic survived, having washed up on an Island the length of a tube carriage. Being a committed hack, I filed my review by bottle, and I hope you get to read it while this show’s still a thing. Regardless, I’d be grateful if you’d sent a search vessel, plotting a radius around 2 days drift time from a position roughly 18 hours sailing from Southampton, heading toward the Azores.

While we wait for the theatre show based on the seminal Bruce Willis album, The Return of Bruno, there’s this curious placeholder that cobbles together a narrative based on a broad selection from the Police frontman’s back catalogue; the hits you know – “Walking on the Moon”, “Brand New Day”, “So Lonely”, and the ones you don’t – “King of Pain”, “De Do Do”, and later lute-inflected works with musical friendly themes like love, the environment, spiritual rebirth, etc.

It’s hard to reverse engineer the show and discern which came first – the picture book plot or the playlist, but one has to admire the team that listened to the entire Sting songbook looking for lyrical fragments that could act as narrative cues. It’s a project that could only entice the most committed Police fan, but someone did it, and from that act of self-sacrifice, comes a story told without dialogue, with just the maestro’s rearranged tracks (with vocals from the man himself and a female artist giving agency and voice to the lady characters) prompting the transition from one scene to the next.

Keeping track of the plot, amidst the on-stage gyrations, dance solos, body swings, and back bends, requires a measure of concentration. In the absence of characterisation, or language (other than that of the body), you’re left to infer that the burgeoning relationship of two young and limber people is disrupted when their rural idyll and dance-centred community is ravaged by some form of catastrophe.

Following whatever it is, gangs of hooded undesirables stalk the land, and arrive to take the women so, we infer, they can be used as sex slaves. Those not selected are interned in some kind of camp, and from there the seeds are sown that allow the central male character to contact others to aid his liberation – cue the title track, and for him to escape and go look for his love, who, you’ve guessed it, is located in the gang’s seedy red light neighbourhood. Cue, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”! Sorry, “Roxanne”.

Not all the songs match their assigned moments with precision. Is “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” a strong enough lyric to dramatise a rape threat? But for the most part there’s cohesion between songbook and interpretive prancing. As it progresses, it becomes strangely hypnotic, even trance inducing, and though this could prompt the minds of those less enamoured by the sub-genre of dance-theatre to wander off, said brains are guaranteed to visit some very tranquil places.

Billing it as a ‘masterpiece’ as the Peacock Theatre have done on their website may be over selling it a touch, but the audience I attended with were mesmerised and got to their feet at the close, impressed by Kate Prince’s vibrant and energetic choreography, coupled with the slick projection and lighting effects that make this a colourful and ultimately uplifting spectacle.

Now please send help, I’m down to my last crate of Jaffa Cakes.

Talk Propa, Vault Festival

Talk Propa is a show about the prejudicial treatment of Northern women (curious gender-specificity there) by effete Southerners. The enemy hates the eliding accents – their ticks and cadences, and imposes on this mark of cultural identification a series of boorish clichés that are inherently reductive and, signalling the mass media prism through which this discrimination is apparently felt, a block on roles of substance in film, TV, radio, and theatre. The show’s thesis is that if Northerners want to participate in a Southern dominated media, they must agree to reinforce local stereotypes.

The performers, in rallying against this cultural dominance, are themselves being reductive. They say Southern when they mean London – middle class, white; there’s no rallying against Estuary English or third generation Jamaican patois here. You could argue, so let’s be obnoxious Southerners and do it, that this betrays a problem specific to the regions – namely the mistaken belief that the homogeneity that characterises the locale, in thought and speech, is found elsewhere.

Theirs is a very specific villain, whose affront to those who’d self-categorise and structure their consciousness around a provincial identity, is to insist on a kind of broad, auxiliary form of English that can be universally understood, and which forces the listener to think beyond local associations and concentrate on the individual’s character.

As the critic Jonathan Meades once observed, linguistic universality is a great leveller – it brings people together rather than tyrannically insisting they give two fucks about, even celebrate, the dialect and traditions of a self-segregating community. Contrast that with Talk Propa’s instruction to the Southerners in the audience: “shut the fuck up and listen for once.”

You can’t blame these northern women for fighting a rearguard action, with palpable anger, against the clichés, many of which are rooted in misogyny, that have come to define them to the ears of those within the M25. No one wants to be told they’re loud, tasteless, parochial, self-absorbed and obsessed with region-specific ephemera, even if it’s true. And no one wants to be written off as stupid because they stubbornly refuse to jettison a dialect that suggests a certain insularity, or inability to adapt to wider communities. It’s a show that simultaneously makes you embarrassed for thinking these things while pleading for the right to impose local preoccupations on hitherto unenamoured gatekeepers.

Ultimately, the show’s cocktail of mischief and indignation make it a memorable night out. But I wondered if the show had the wrong target. Isn’t the creative centre of gravity in the country, thanks to the economics of the last 40 years, the problem? And if you could rebalance that – if people and ideas flowed through the North the way they do the South; culture being the Southern brew of choice; then wouldn’t the regional specificity being defended here become redundant? Discuss – but not with me, I’m off for a piss.

In My Lungs The Ocean Swells, Vault Festival

That title, coupled with playwright Natasha Kaeda’s tendency for phrase making in dialogue, more redolent of prose than speech, may initially lead you to expect a romantic invocation of Cornish coastal life; the beauty and the boredom, the gulls and the hulls. But In My Lungs… is a tale of conscious uncoupling forged by romance’s arch enemies – market forces, economic migration, and governmental neglect.

Cornwall, you may have read in a magazine on a summer beach holiday, is the poorest county in the faltering UK. The decline of traditional industries like tin and – contemporary relevance klaxon, fishing, have turned a once proud people into dependents supported by the seasonal influx of obnoxious London tourists.

It’s a county so poor and under populated that the only reliable immigrants all have chronic arthritis. The indigenous locals can’t afford their own housing stock because depressed wages and depressing employment can’t hope to compete with the asset-rich southerners who’ve bought the homes originally built for local workers, turning them into summer chalets. If you’re young you’re faced with the agonising choice of leaving your friends and family to go where the money and the buzz is, namely the other end of the line, or stay and watch the best years of your life become indistinguishable from your dotage.

The couple we meet in this two-hander offer two contrasting and ultimately irreconcilable world views. She’s shrewd and ambitious, ready to leave the familiar rock pools and swells behind for the promise of economic opportunity, cultural diversity, and lifestyle gubbins; he’s the hereditary fisherman with the same connection to the sea as his quarry and livelihood. And haddock, as any Cornishman will tell you, are seldom seen in Soho.

Our couple grew up with, and eventually into each other, in the kind of towns where you can know the same people all your life if you’re not careful. Her ambitions separate them without breaking them, but you just know, because you feel you know someone who’s lived this very scenario, that something’s gotta give. Girls like Julie who don’t stay and marry the grafting lunks that man the boats, are destined to write plays about them when they join the metropolitan arts scene. This play’s existence signals its ending.

There’s two lived-in and likeable characters here, who capture both the wide-eyed embrace of city living from the dying market town, and the non-transferable parochialism that engenders heartfelt attachment to topography and tradition, but kills curiosity.

It’s a tale that’s more tragedy than polemic. Julie, the local girl who gets high on London life, misses her man and her mum, but doesn’t yearn for a return to nights at the Lamp and Whistle followed by pissed up karaoke in the White Lion.

We’re older than she is, so we know that she’ll be back in her 40s when her city boyfriend dumps her for a Brazilian swimwear model, but for now she’s just accepted that, though unfortunate, an economy that deracinates and isolates an individual in a hideous inversion of the community bias built into all happy and successful human societies, is a fact of life, not the grotesque social injustice it truly is.

Perhaps ironically, it’s the uneducated and unambitious local boy who realises that it’s better to, figuratively speaking, die on your feet than live on your knees. His connection to his place of birth can’t be broken, even when its back is, and there’s a nobility in that sentiment that’s rather moving.

If you want to understand why Cornwall, a county heavily subsidised by the EU, voted for Brexit, you could start with that one totemic idea.

Scrounger, Finborough Theatre

Athena Stevens’ new play recounts her real-life dispute with British Airways and London City Airport; one woman’s struggle against age-old enemies of the people like thought-terminating bureaucracy, cynicism, self-interest, and incompetence.

What gives this battle an additional dimension is the playwright’s athetoid cerebral palsy (the opposite of spasticity, she helpfully notes). Consequently, the airline damaging her bespoke wheelchair (and ejecting her from her flight when they couldn’t load it despite being pre-notified of their passenger’s special requirements) rendered Stevens immobile and housebound for several months. The ensuing social paralysis, sardonically recalled and given an additional layer of absurdity with a jaunty background score and expressionist set, cost Stevens a lot of fairweather friends. As the play progresses, one feels this, not the David V Goliath setup, is the real story.

Scrounger is a defensive piece of work; the author’s cynicism and bitterness cuts across its absurd vignettes and myriad of broad supporting characters, played with a twinkle by Stevens’ versatile “PA”, Leigh Quinn. That said characters have been reduced in this way – essentially boiled down to clichés and in the case her ex, the label “boyfriend”, signals Stevens’ antipathy toward the players who, as she sees it, were similarly reductive, treating her as an angry disabled woman whose righteousness and expectations made them uncomfortable.

There’s similar antipathy toward the imagined audience for this play, proving that caricature cuts both ways. Scrounger is strongest when its weakest, as a series of sitcom-like setups (it plays like a TV pilot-in-waiting) that make a serious point about the treatment, both disdainful and patronising, of disabled people. Stevens fares less well when berating her audience for their imagined hypocrisy, virtue signalling and moral cowardice.

It’s accrued anger, built from encounters with nice middle-class people who appropriate the fight for social justice as a badge without doing the work; a lecture that doubles as a call to activism; but the assumptions it makes are dehumanising – unfortunate in a play about championing an individual’s humanity. “I don’t know how to engage with people on the wrong side of justice,” she tells us, and we believe her.

Stevens’ disability presents some practical challenges. As a performer, she can be hard to understand. I spent half an hour wondering why she kept referring to a ginger vacation at the Elephant and Castle, imagining an influx of redheads to the area, only to realise she was saying “gentrification”. This is not to belittle Stevens. She has a play at the Finborough and I don’t. However, her delivery distends the play and strips the dialogue of some its implied comic rhythm. An interval would have been a welcome bit of punctuation.

I won’t patronise Stevens by recording that Scrounger is a brave or important piece of work, but as an insight into a member of society failed by systemic stupidity and social illiteracy, it’s relevant, as well as dryly funny – the right kind of funny in a stone-faced world.

The Wind of Heaven, Finborough Theatre

Years ago I worked with a patriotic Welshman who referred to his homeland as “God’s own country”. Playwright Emlyn Williams clearly thought the same as she based her allegorical play in a Welsh mountain village, Blestin; a place that by virtue of nominative determinism seems guaranteed a second coming.

The play originally opened in April 1945 and you don’t have to be Kenneth Tynan to realise The Wind of Heaven’s about post-war anxiety and social rebuilding – specifically, the moral reconstruction of the nation following the existential threat it had faced. Its Crimean War period setting – 1856, acts as a suitable proxy. There’s wounded soldiers housed in local hospitals suffering from tuberculosis and cholera, a town stripped of its children, and a local matriarch, Dilys, who’s flirted with atheism since her husband died.

Enter Ambrose Ellis, a former local boy turned obnoxious city slicker and circus entrepreneur, who’s returned to search for local freaks. Naturally, he’s materialistic, opportunistic and Godless – the antithesis of community spirit and civic virtue. A chance encounter leads to the uncovering of a biblical prophecy and Gwyn, the town’s only remaining child, whom scripture suggests may be a Welsh Jesus.

From the, er, comfort of 2019 it’d be easy to sneer at The Wind of Heaven’s sentimental moralising, so let’s do that. The Finborough’s great strength, when blowing the dust off forgotten plays, is that it refuses to update them for modern audiences – they’re time capsules and all the more interesting for it. But the corollary of this approach is that occasionally the cultural assumptions embedded in these old texts may strike the modern eye as regressive.

Williams’ play finds great virtue in the idea that modernism is corrupting, the pastoral is soul cleansing, and that good old Christian values like subservience, abstinence, humility and charity must be observed if society is to heal itself following a period of great upheaval (and moral threat). If that strikes you as reactionary, you’re not alone, and consequently it’s difficult to see the play’s wind as anything other than a brain-fart.

Still, if you don’t mind the preachiness or the admonishment, The Wind of Heaven boasts a suitably earnest cast and fine staging; the Finborough’s tiny space once again miraculously reconfigured with the sparing use of period props and canny lighting. In a complicated world the story offers some time worn comforts; it’s the dramaturgical equivalent of that thing you old Dad used to say. Just try to forget what he did after that.

Mamma Mia the Party! An immersive experience?

I found myself back in 2018 with access to a free ticket to Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again (“The one with Cher” as I call it.) I had avoided Mamma Mia for various reasons, I am indifferent to their songs but appreciative of ABBA’s vocal ability/Eurovision connection but I wanted to this evening at the cinema to make sense so I watched Mamma Mia with my critical eye

As you can see I was somewhat distracted by the baffling “WHOSE DA DADDY” story for the wrong reasons. I bring up this because if, like me, you found the films baffling then Mamma Mia the party, an immersive spin off the films/stage show is one of the most batshit mental things I have ever seen.

I was excited about this new immersive experience but my excitement soon turned to disgust as the prices for this dining experience were revealed as this tweet from Carl Woodward.

To which I responded with

I think when we talk about theatre being inaccessible we need to talk about a dining experience which is more expensive than a holiday to Greece. A limited menu that sells wine only by the bottle and in some cases premium prices. Spoilers: It all tastes like wine, some are just nicer than others.


Cut to Autumn 2019 and I suddenly get offered a ticket to Mamma Mia the Party through a friend. I obviously said no because this is clearly not a cheap seat and *checks notes* oh no, I am basically cheap and said yes, rearranged my plans and ensured I was on time for 18:30 door opening. I wasn’t going to say no to anything worth £150+. I am not crazy.

There are much better reviews on the experience but I will say I was rarely impressed, from wandering through the O2 arena as if you were going to a restaurant before a gig (Can I please get an award for not crying that I was going here instead of Jimmy’s World Buffet) to the long queues just to get in.

Audience members are offered 1 (ONE) welcome drink and then you are are on your own. You’ve possibly just paid £150+ for a glass of fizzy pink wine and the hope that you will get the sharing starter of greek dips and bread before your neighbours, who you might know because even if you have scraped £150+ on a ticket your friends have hopefully told you where to stick your invite. My god that sharing platter is small but it is the most generous portion of the night. Once that food is gone, it is gone.

At least the starter is veggie-friendly. The following two courses contain octopus and beef and lamb (which are beautifully cooked but that beautifully cooked) with a few veggie friendly sides but no vegetarian on my table had a decent alternative offered to them.

The show doesn’t really begin; cast members wander around talking to you as you are chewing gormlessly on some bread. They are all attractive in conventional way and then you realise why this feels so strange. This isn’t a party. Normal people don’t have parties like this, with nearly naked men in scuba gear, some cirque de soleil-esque acrobatics in a fountain and a baffling scene which was compared to Eyes Wide Shut. This is a fantasy, a fantasy you are on holiday, a fantasy that this loosely linked storyline about a Greek man and his daughter’s semi incestuous romance with her step-mother’s nephew makes any sense. It is a sensory overload with its live band, the extreme lighting and even the tasting of the food. It is theatrical but not necessarily in a good way. The face of a man who looked like he had been fighting in Somme, rather than out having a meal will stay with me for a long time. Compare that to the Baby Boomers getting drunk and dancing the night away whilst being held back from ruining the choreography of the show. It is a sight for the eyes.

The strength of this show is those that are having a great time. You would have to a heart of stone not to be charmed by the cast but the concept, the style of substance is so shallow. Is this good for theatre. No. Is this good fun? Absolutely.

Mamma Mia the Party is booking until May 2020. Tickets, from £85, are released at 9am on 15 November 2019