Crossing The Line, Cockpit Theatre

Review by Melinda Haunton

I loved the idea of Crossing the Line. It could hardly be more timely to look at national borders, at the ways the divide people, and at how we value different people differently at the point where they move between two countries. We are promised a “choreography with words”, dozens of mini scenes showing different experiences in making that one step, across a border, taken from myriad film and TV, familiar and unknown. And it starts promisingly, with the large cast crisscrossing and dividing the Cockpit stage with chalk lines, redividing the space in ways which are arbitrary but undeniable. It creates a powerful visual message about the ways in which we divide ourselves, and are divided.

The Cockpit has broadened out its Voilà season of Anglo-French shows into a European experience, Voilà Europe, and Crossing the Line brings together appropriately polylingual performances. We’re promised English, French, German, Polish and Italian (I seem to have missed the last). The cast plays across gender, race, age and ability, and it’s all a promising mishmash of internationalism. I was rather fascinated by the assumptions about a London audience’s capacity with language (no surtitles here). We’re expected to be able to cope with French, to recognise stereotypical military German from too many war and spy films (“Schnell, schnell, raus!”), and to need full simultaneous translation of the Polish. Which is probably about right, and highly depressing if you analyse it.

Given that I *did* analyse it, during the play’s short run time, you might guess I wasn’t swept away. In the end, I wasn’t convinced Crossing the Line’s worthy intentions really came together. It may be partly that I didn’t recognise most of the quoted scenes, which robbed them of context and too often also of emotion. The jumble of cast playing different characters left too many people trying to cover a persona or an accent they couldn’t pull off (some especially British Americans the worst of it, but a constant thread). The play goes outside Europe occasionally – to Vietnam and the Rio Grande – which felt jarring, trying to cover too much world and skimming it all a bit thin.

There is potential here, and most of the cast had chances to shine when playing to their strengths. I felt some moments of real power and engagement. A stowaway hearing border guards approaching, crouched over his single light source, determined on death rather than capture. Two dignitaries being bowed obsequiously through a border, such a contrast to the overmighty-yet-petty officialdom that characterises so many international crossings in the piece. Great use of lighting to mimic the raking searchlights of a contested border. And, for light relief, a hilarious skit to Nikita, soul-sung and with the most unlikely sexy-comic melting of a Russian guard as the song progresses.


The last, though, segued into the somewhat inevitable scene at a German border in the 1930s, Nazi salutes and all. The audience giggles carried through too, wrecking what should be a sinister moment, even if it’s a scene we’re overfamiliar with. There’s not enough emotional whiplash in the playing to move between so many scenes so fast, and it doesn’t build to much of a climax. The audience, willing to applaud, pretty much had to be told when it was over – which suggests the choreography still needs a bit of work.

The Only Thing A Great Actress Needs Is A Great Play and the Desire to Succeed, Southwark Playhouse

Review by Melinda Haunton

The experience starts before you get inside the Little stage at Southwark Playhouse. Queuing punters are poured a shot of cane spirit apiece (apparently at the cast’s insistence), and invited to drink before they spectate. Cautious sips give way to pleased smiles when it turns out not to be a throat-burning show of strength, but a meditative pleasure. I happily say the same about the play.

The Only Thing… is a Mexican production, playing in Spanish as part of the Southwark Playhouse’s CASA Festival. A 60-minute two-handed piece, it focuses on a single space occupied by the two women throughout. Based on Genet’s <i>Les Bonnes</i>, the play takes the same premise, of two servants dreaming of escaping their drudgery through murdering their mistress. But there is no repetitive fantasising here. There’s an implicit tedium, a routine of which this one day may be emblematic, but that is for the viewer to deduce.

The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs... (photo by VACA35) 3.JPG

The piece starts with the jolt that the cane spirit didn’t provide, a screaming, hectic burst of energy from both actresses (Diana Magallón and Maricarmen Ruiz, credited as writers together with the director, Damián Cervantes). The surtitles can’t hope to keep up with the hurtling women, creating edginess and uncertainty among watching Anglophones even as the audience starts to laugh at that classical comedy trope, the running servant. But the blurt of words, it becomes clear, is entirely deliberate, as we pass on to spend the hour with these women in a series of almost musically varied movements.

Screeching tension gives way in turn to comradely hilarity, painful separation in their shared space, and then an extraordinary progression from venom, to soothing, to the whispered fairy tale with which the play concludes. The successive movements are physical, some entirely wordless, but vividly observed. For a play full of nudity, it’s extraordinarily unsexual, yet entirely intimate. The fairy tale tells of a man who spies on princesses, stealing their secrets. It’s impossible not to know that the audience are doing the same.

In the first flurry, the women are hard to differentiate except by their extreme size difference, which invites simplistic comparisons based on their weight. They are living the same life, the same experience, occupying the same grim square of space; only the bodies are different. As the play progresses, though, they diverge, one anxious, obsessive, delicate; the other maternal, full of certainty, anger and comfort. Is it a shame that these characterisations match their body types in stereotype? Perhaps a little. I could have lived with less repetitive focus on eating disorders, too, and yet another instance of live on-stage cookery sent us home strongly perfumed with fried onions. But when Ruiz performs a solo dance of precision and feeling, silent, ignored by her onion-frying co-worker, then hangs up her shoes, still silent, it makes the single most resonant moment of the night for me. For all their forced proximity, these are individuals.

A sly line early on says if only the women did their piece in English, they could tour the world. Happily, they didn’t need to do so for us to have the chance to see it.



The Only Thing A Great Actress Needs Is A Great Play and the Desire to Succeed played until 21 October. The Festival continues to 28th October 2017


Dolphins and Sharks, Finborough Theatre

The signs are excellent when you enter the Finborough’s latest set. It’s instantly, vividly a cramped, tatty copy shop, with a cheap metal door, and cluttered counter face-on to the single bank of audience seats. Small touches succeed in expanding the space and creating the atmosphere: pigeon-holes of infinite stationery; outdated binders and hardware around the entire auditorium; hectoring cheap signs about paying upfront; and a lone, hopeful Obama poster almost unbearably poignant. I leaned back in the top row, and discovered I had rested my head against an obsolete HP DeskJet. The nostalgia for crap workplaces past is instant and overwhelming – more universal than its specific Harlem setting might suggest.


The cast, too, is spot on. James Anthony Tyler’s new play is described as a three-hander between sparky, ambitious Xiomara (Rachel Handshaw), office jester/old hand Isabel (Shyko Amos), and college boy newcomer Yusuf (Ammar Duffus). They share a workplace in uncomfortable proximity and are thrown into escalating discomfort by a promotion and the ensuing power shifts. All three actors inhabit the roles from the outset, creating believable relationships as well as individual characters. Although their energy dips just before the interval, the second half vibrates with power as the situation unravels. Duffus, in particular, has a wonderful range of expression as the confused interloper; the electric play between Handshaw and Amos works whether they are best of friends or venomous enemies. I found, though, that lowly-billed Mrs. Amenze (Miquel Brown), brought a welcome and almost-equal fourth dimension to the play: the only character who steps out of the rat-race, and whose focus is more communitarian than cash-based. Danilo (Hermeilio Miguel Aquino) rounds out the cast, more as a catalyst than a contributor. The office printer, sinisterly malfunctioning, acts as a chorus.

What about the play, though? It’s angry. I’ve seen this described as a comedy, but it’s played (rightly) as a tragedy full of jokes. There’s intense claustrophobia in this unlovable workplace. At the interval, there was no applause, and not because the audience were unappreciative. It was a deep mental dive from which we hadn’t resurfaced in time for clapping. Themes of exploitation and parallels with slavery abound, especially effective in mute movement between each act; the text can be a little didactic in pointing up the same. Race is a huge issue, uniting and dividing the characters both; each identity is given due respect and due anger. It’s no coincidence that the only white character is the unseen, all-powerful Mr. Timmons, an overmighty Oz whose word dictates, but who never deigns to visit this lowly place.

But this is fundamentally a play about economics, exploitation, and the terror of falling without a social safety net. An old story, perhaps but raw with contemporary issues. Yusuf’s steepling student loan repayments brought a groan of recognition. The copy shop fiscal stakes sometimes feel too low for drama (I’m not gripped by a disagreement about 75 cent copy charges), and yet the stakes for the employees are horribly high. These are trapped people dependant on insufficient income in jobs none truly wants, all too aware that worse work situations are out there. (Sound familiar?)


credit Alexander Yip

Hope through solidarity is raised, and yet there are far too many ways to divide this group, divisions which gape as the play progresses. Dolphins, apparently, do it better. I left feeling it might be best if we give the world over to the cetaceans.


Dolphins and Sharks is on at the Finborough Theatre until 30 September: Tickets from £16.

Just to Get Married, Finborough Theatre

Guest review by Melinda Haunton

Walking into the tiny Finborough theatre for this revived Edwardian play is very much like stepping back in time. Music hall classics play as the audience assembles, and the pub’s own ornamental plasterwork is whitewashed back into prominence to create a genteel salon atmosphere, Tiffany lamp, piano, helplessly-pinned decorative butterflies and pious family photographs galore.

It’s about the last time that we feel comfortable, as Cicely Hamilton’s Just to Get Married returns for the London stage for the first time in 99 years. A lone photo of a suffragette demonstrations disrupts the display; out of place, yet critical to the story Hamilton chose to tell. The play is luxuriously cast, with ten characters, played by nine actors. This makes for too many to name in this review, but there’s a real lingering impact from the luxuriously-upholstered Lady Catherine (Nicola Blackman), unmarried, sparky Georgie (Philippa Quinn) and increasingly as the play develops Adam (Jonny McPherson), the inevitable single man possessed of good fortune who catalyses the whole play.

There are too many actors for this cramped space too, but blocking is well managed, and we only notice the crush in carefully staged instances when a character – usually Georgie – is made to feel superfluous, her place removed. It’s Georgie’s dilemma which preoccupies the playwright: the position of an unmarried 29-year-old woman. She is presented all too clearly: a poor relation, “trained for nothing” but wifehood in a marriage-centric society, with an unprepossessing but eligible suitor to contemplate.

Adam represents her last and only chance of marriage. The two paths available to Georgie (marriage or independent poverty) are neatly illustrated in the first scene – we know we’re in deft authorial hands here, even if it’s arguably *too* neat. It’s fair to warn, too, that the century-old slang creaks (“toad”, “old girl”… PG Wodehouse’s advice for aspiring fiancés to ‘grip firmly and waggle her about a bit’ while declaring, ‘“My mate!”’ isn’t far off what we see). But there’s real honesty too in the play’s theme, about the undervaluing and under-preparation of women for a role without male support, and male-derived cash.

We might think that Georgie is capable of far more, but she doesn’t recognise it. In showing us this, the three acts take on distinctly different tones. The first pitches us into that comfortable Edwardian salon, an excruciating Jane Austen world of naked hypocrisy: Georgie desperately enticing a proposal from the stereotypically-eligible Adam, having already made us well aware it’s purely a matter of practicality for her.

It’s a fascinating exercise in audience complicity, as we long for him to propose because we know how the narrative should run, even though Georgie’s lack of sincerity is laid out to us from the first lines. Act 2 impressively takes this forward, into honesty, anger and anguish. There’s a long scene here of great emotion, impressively sustained after the drawing-room froth which preceded it. Act 3 is the weakest, the well-made play showing its bones slightly too much, and at least in my part of the audience everyone guessing the denouement even before the relevant characters appeared on stage. But a positive outcome is welcome nonetheless – this isn’t a play about punishment, it’s about hypocrisy versus honesty, about what society enforces and how we might, just, escape from that. In that, its subject is very far from dated.

Just to Get Married is on at the Finborough Theatre until 19 August. Tickets from £16:

Food, Finborough Theatre

Guest review from Melinda Haunton

What is Food? Steve Rodger’s play, based in a Tasmanian backwater takeaway, receives its European premiere at the Finborough Theatre, and leaves me fascinated, but also confused.

Is Food a southern Gothic? There’s sufficient bitterness, sex, abuse, plotting and stifled secrets to see it as such. Its themes are plenty dark enough, and warrant warnings for disordered eating and abuse of a minor. Or is Food a nearly-heartwarming story of two sisters – Elma who stayed at home, Nancy who wandered into the wide world – reunited and overcoming past childhood tensions sharing a dream to open a successful restaurant?

To an extent, the tension of these two layers is a fruitful one. In particular, the third player this triangle, Hakan, suits the latter story, sometimes comically oblivious to the undercurrents of the sisters’ mutual pain. Perhaps part of the confusion is that Hakan, a positive soul enjoying his light-footed life, is indeed living that lighter play, while Elma and Nancy are in a much darker tale. Ambiguity and a refusal to spoon-feed the audience can be, should be, neat effects, that keep us attentive. The cast, particularly Emma Playfair as a practical, self-protectively tough Elma, do a great job of creating their atmosphere. The bitterness of the sisters’ history provides an intense, genuinely atmospheric start to the piece, which Hakan (Scot Karim) brightens perceptibly. The sex we see is affectionate and intimate, never awkward.



Emma Playfair, Lily-Newbury Freeman


But for a short play, there are surprising longeurs. Hakan’s lengthy exposition on his past sexual history doesn’t seem to establish anything other than that he’s less damaged than the sisters – which isn’t saying much. Semi-dance movements are sometimes clunky, adding little to the text, though I confess that when the meaning of one ‘dance’ became clear, I gasped aloud. I wish I’d had more such moments of revelation. The character of Nancy (played by Lily Newbury-Freeman) is particularly blurred. Her backstory spells out grotesque abuse, but the script and publicity suggest a disturbing belief this equals Lolita-esque freedom. Worryingly, I never truly understood why she decided to return home, the event which catalyses the play’s action. Her damage is apparent; her motivations less so.

Confusion even extends to the eponymous theme. What is the meaning of food in Food? With one character’s backstory of disordered eating, it may be the enemy. And yet it’s also redemptive, cosy and enjoyable. Bread handed out to the audience at an emotional high point fills the small theatre with rosemary and yeasty goodness. Is it healthy or sinister that free carbs have such an effect on our mood?

It’s apparently the season for live frying of breakfast materials on the London stage, but unlike the clarity of The Deep Blue Sea’s redemptive fried egg, the bacon Elma fries at the curtain could be a distress signal or a return to comfort. Perhaps, like so much else about this play, it’s something you should read two ways, a recognition that life is complex. But you can have too many ambiguities. By the end, I was wishing the playwright had given us a few more signals to the way ahead.


Food is on at the Finborough Theatre until 15 July Tickets from £14.


Footprints on the Moon, Finborough Theatre

Guest post from Melinda Haunton

Is it a bad sign when an award-winning Canadian play doesn’t receive its European premiere for almost 30 years? You might guess so, especially when it’s playing in rep on the unfashionable nights of the week (Sunday-Tuesday only) and on the set designed for its more favoured stage-fellow. Even the author’s programme note suggests second thoughts, reflecting on the play’s focus on what is lost, rather than what is gained, in the play’s central issue: when a woman chooses to stay in her hometown rather than exploring the possibilities of the wider world.

All that said, it’s the Finborough Theatre’s mission to rediscover plays which resonate with a UK audience, and Maureen Hunter’s Footprints on the Moon well deserves its chance. From the moment Joanie (Anne Adams) skulks onto the stage in teetering espadrilles, swatting at a gnat bite, the play brings the audience into both place and moment. Joanie’s mood veers from discontent to despair, anger to fear and back, through an intensive series of encounters exploring her wish for life to stop changing, and stop taking people away from her. It’s a strong piece of characterisation, unsympathetic yet understandable, repetitively harking back to a time when Joanie was happy – when her daughter was young, before she met her long-fled husband – and wishing that others’ needs didn’t clash with her own. “Some leave, and some get left,” is the brutal summary of her plight. As we learn, Joanie has been standing still all her life, firmly in the latter category. But Adams carries us along with Joanie enough that this fundamentally hopeless wish for permanence is more wistful than pitiable.

The cast make nicely contrasted foils, from Derek Hagen’s sleazy yet attractive Dunc Carr to Sally Cheng’s petulant turn as Joanie’s disapproving daughter Carol Ann (a touch of the Saffy Monsoons in her prim button-downs does no harm to the characterisation and period). Samantha Coughlan’s Beryl, outspoken friend and carb-bearing neighbour, wins the warmest laughs for a character written with great sympathy. A few crashed cues notwithstanding, the ensemble works well together in a series of intimate exchanges and heightened emotions. When anger flares, it’s all too believable.

This production enjoys its physicality. That hand-me-down set, and using five cast members on the Finborough’s tiny stage, make for momentary awkwardnesses which suit Joanie’s discomfort with her world. Hair (greasy, wild, long, smugly neat, combed with love), shoes (teetering, sensible, and nakedly discarded), foodstuffs (unappetising plates of discarded stew, luscious shared chocolate cake) and costumes (from flaunting short-shorts to slobbish, blood-smeared cast-offs) all play their part in plausibility, and the soundtrack of 80s greats throbs with easy emotions. The telephone bell, symbol of the outside world that Joanie fears, becomes increasingly insistent and threatening.

Is Maureen Hunter right to think her relatively early work dwells on the limitations of small-town life? Up to a point. Joanie’s naïve hymn to the predictability of her hometown, a prizewinning essay which brings her just a little too much pride, is interspersed as voiceover during scene changes. Its ironic counterpoint to Joanie’s disintegration is not subtle: “I like just about everyone in this town” is not a claim which survives the night. But the play succeeds in its way. Joanie’s motivations are unravelled, explained, and unresolved through its turns, leaving us with better understanding but no easy answers. It’s a journey of empathy that’s well worth taking.


Footprints on the Moon is on at the Finborough Theatre until 13 June. Tickets from £16: