Feminism takes centre stage at the Camden People’s Theatre

There is a boom in feminist thought and opinion at the minute and Camden People’s Theatre have responded with a three-week long festival giving voice to feminist topics in a variety of medium – from discussion panels to cabaret, theatre and stand-up comedy, a range of both female and male artists delve into the complexities of ‘the feminist issue’.

Last Thursday I made my way down to Camden People’s Theatre to catch both ‘Pretty Ugly’ and ‘The Fanny Hill Project’; two provocative and unsettling productions which left my head in a spin as I walked away at the end of the evening.Pretty-Ugly-Camden-Peoples-Theatre-1024x1024

‘Pretty Ugly’, devised and performed by Louise Orwin, was a disturbing and revelatory experience. Using video projection, music and live performance Orwin led us into a world of teenage insecurity and the phenomenon of teenage girls seeking validation online. Part social experiment and part journey of self-discovery, this multi-media exploration of a disturbing online trend brought into focus themes of teen sexualisation, the loss of innocence and the dangers and intrigues of online interaction.

Whilst at times I felt unconvinced by the performance elements, I was struck with admiration for Louise’s honesty and bravery in portraying her own vulnerability and desire for affirmation; and as a piece of social commentary is was especially poignant. Juxtaposition of child’s toys with adult themes, naivety with experience and praise with derision all exposed the unhappy reality of a very human need for contact and validation. What further augmented the performance was the palpable feeling of discomfort within the audience as we watched real-life online interactions and became aware of our own voyeurism as we watched Louise on stage. A revealing, honest and important piece of work, it’s a real shame that less people will feel compelled to see this kind of theatre.

Fanny-Hill-ProjectNext up on the bill was ‘The Fanny Hill Project’ (a.k.a Never Ever Have I Ever…been a prostitute), produced and performed by Theatre State. Lulling the audience into a false sense of frivolity this production combined real-life experience with fiction, creating a witty and disturbing fusion of the real with the surreal. A stark exposé of the exploitation of women this production set the real life experiences of a theatre intern in New York (Tess Seddon, played by herself) alongside the fictional story of a young orphan in London (Fanny Hill, played by Cheryl Gallacher).

Both women are driven to sexually exploiting themselves by necessity and circumstance – but while one delivers her account with a somewhat embarrassed and truthful honesty, the other titillates us with a breathy, wide-eyed storytelling. Presided over by two blank-stared ‘puppet masters’ both women are driven to perform and expose themselves with a growing momentum which culminates in a nightmarish frenzy in which we see Fanny being shot in the face repeatedly by plastic penis water guns. Initially this provoked some nervous laughter, and then an uncomfortable silence. This moment highlight’s the production’s key strength, which was the combination of humour with frankness – and I was really impressed by Theatre State’s ability to at once break down the fourth wall whilst simultaneously creating a surreal alternate reality on stage. This fusion of then and now, fact and fiction worked brilliantly, and it’s this kind of innovation and creativity which makes me hungry for more theatre which challenges convention and questions reality in this way.

From both productions that night I felt we got brave theatre-making that gave me a heightened awareness of the fact that Theatre provides a space where you cannot / do not judge. These very honest and socially relevant performances confront difficult issues unashamedly, and I walked away feeling very strongly that I had watched something important.

I urge you to make your way to Camden People’s Theatre to catch the rest of the festival, and make sure to keep an eye out for future work from both Louise Orwin and Theatre State. Links below to the various websites’ for the theatre and performers – if you made it to either of the shows I’d love to hear what you thought.

Links:

http://www.cptheatre.co.uk/

http://www.theatrestate.co.uk/

http://www.louiseorwin.com/

 

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New Talent Blossoms at Pendley Shakespeare Festival

Pendley2013Image“a theatrical internship with a steep learning curve”

Now in its 64th year Pendley Shakespeare Festival has been a flagship event since its beginnings in 1949. Artistically steered by Sarah Branston, and now produced by Will Edwards, the Festival is attracting a plethora of artistic talent from some of the country’s top drama schools and courses. Meeting with both Sarah and Will last week, I was keen to find out how this development within the casts and creative teams would shape the future of the festival going forward.

These open air performances of Shakespeare’s well-loved plays at Pendley Manor are held dear by its loyal audiences who have been returning each summer for over six decades now. Capturing the magic of Shakespeare with striking outdoor sets and costumes, and remarkably memorable performances; familiar faces both on-stage and off ensure that the festival remains true to its traditions and that its legacy is passed on to the next generation. With two full-length plays being rehearsed and performed over the course of three weeks, the production of the Festival is a huge undertaking for any individual, and 23 year old Will Edwards is the latest producer to take up that challenge. A former student of Sarah Branston’s (Director of Drama at Reigate Grammar School, and the Festival’s Artistic Director), Will is one of many emerging theatre talents who have been given the opportunity to cut their Shakespearian teeth within the Pendley Shakespeare Festival Company.

Described by Sarah as, “a theatrical internship with a steep learning curve”, actors, directors and stage managers are given the opportunity to hone their craft in a safe environment within an amateur festival renowned for its professionalism. Intent on authenticity and accuracy, when presenting some of the Bard’s greatest works, actors receive on-the-job training in verse-speaking from the festival’s Dramaturges and Literary Advisers each year. With this in mind both Sarah and Will were keen to express the paramount importance of respect for the text, throughout all the interpretations we have and will see at Pendley Shakespeare Festival.

For the young actors and practitioners the chance to work with festival veterans offers the space and time to develop their skills; whilst the older actors revel in the opportunity to tackle new acting techniques and processes which the drama school graduates come armed with. This dichotomy of old and new is what keeps the festival regenerating – and the recent influx of trained jobbing actors has encouraged Will and Sarah to consider the potential for the Pendley Shakespeare Company to become more like the repertory companies of old. Dubbed as this year’s “most exciting change” by Will, the company will for the first time be formed of actors who will perform in both plays. This has allowed for the rehearsal processes to run simultaneously, and affords audiences the privilege of watching the same players perform in two very different plays, back to back.

Taking a slight side-step away from tradition – which previously dictated that the Festival produce one comedy and one tragedy each year – this year presents two comedies, As You Like It and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Describing the pairing as “a delightful combination” both plays give the women a chance to get a one up on the men, and the unconventional ending in Love’s Labour’s Lost casts a sense of impending reality on proceedings which contrasts nicely with the more typically happy-endings-for-all conclusion to As You Like It. Shaking off the period costumes which many previous productions have donned, Sarah’s artistic vision for this year’s shows unlocks two very different but strikingly relevant backdrops for these two verbally playful productions.

As You Like It (directed by Gemma Colclough) is well-known for its elegant and humorous debates about love, and sexual politics are at the heart of this play. Boasting one of the best female roles in Shakespeare – that of Rosalind, who cross-dresses as a young shepherd boy for much of the play – this production promises to be a celebration of androgyny. Stacking a free love 60’s-inspired Forest of Arden against a Jackie Kennedy-esque court, the production aims to be at once a romantic comedy and political satire, with a few iconic fashion homage’s thrown into the mix for sport.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, in the second week, transports us to a much more dapper setting, reminiscent of Downton Abbey, with its characters on the cusp of the onset of the First World War. A polite and sparkling comedy famed for its linguistic sophistication, Peter Broad directs a production which presents us with cricket whites and schoolmasters, within an Oxford University setting, in this lesser-known comedy with an unconventional ending.

Whilst many shy away from “modern” interpretations of Shakespeare – and whilst they can be a risky undertaking for their creative teams – I would heartily encourage you to take a chance on Pendley Shakespeare Festival if considering attending for the first time. Run by a team who are passionate about Shakespeare’s legacy, the productions are full of promise, delight, whimsy and wit – and the playful and dedicated spirit of the festival make it perfect for audiences who are new to Shakespeare, and for those who have already acquired a taste for his works.

As You Like It runs from 6th – 10th August, with Love’s Labour’s Lost following on 13th – 17th August. Visit the festival website, www.pendleyshakespearefestival.co.uk, for further details and make sure to book a seat for this charming outdoor festival brimming with artistic talent.

 Box office: 01442 820 060 (Grounds open at 6pm, Performances start at 8pm)

 

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Less Than Kind (Waterside Theatre)

“She can’t be in love with him; she’s over forty”

lessthankind_uktheatreimage

Olivia Brown’s liaisons with her cabinet-minister paramour, Sir John Fletcher, have seen her rise out of her humble Baron’s Court existence into the bright lights of dinners at The Savoy and Park Lane dalliances; but when her son returns, after five years in Canada, his discomfort with her middle-class extravagances soon rocks the boat. Fuelled by a youthful political vigour and passionately against everything that Sir John Fletcher stands for, Michael Brown sets about to save his “poor mother” from a life he is sure is not suited to her.

Adrian Brown’s revival of Terence Rattigan’s ‘lost comedy’ is a light and fluffy rom-com showcasing Rattigan’s dry wit in an unchallenging but amusing production.  Sue Holderness is charming as the socially elevated Olivia Brown – bound tightly to the men in her life she is confronted by a horrible ‘it’s-me-or-him’ decision; but even her return to Baron’s Court and powdered egg dinners does little to dampen her innocuous wit.

William Gaminara as Sir John Fletcher is at once a powerful political mind and doting would-be husband. His rising frustrations with Michael’s pointed disdain provoke some humorous confrontations between the greying conservative and infantile idealist; and the dynamic between the play’s three leads is pitched just right for its tea-time audiences. Whilst Charlie Hamblett’s turn as Michael is at times formulaic he gets across Michael’s petulantly confident world-view adequately, in a play which doesn’t demand any great depth from its main characters. Laura Doddington as Diana Fletcher also merits a mention. Frivolous, glamorous and the shallow counterpoint to Olivia and John’s real warmth of feeling for one another, Doddington has a mischievous twinkle in her eye throughout her performance as the materialistic socialite.

Light, and pleasing, Brown’s production of Less Than Kind is the sort of theatre I would take my mum to. At the Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury until Saturday 29th June, grab a ticket and allow yourself to be charmed by a bygone era which teetered on the edge of ‘then’ and ‘now’.

Image taken from http://www.uktheatre.net

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Chimerica (Almeida Theatre)

“What do sides have to do with anything?”Chimerica image_telegraph

Lucy Kirkwood’s new play, Chimerica, which has received its world premiere at the Almeida Theatre is a slick, fast-paced, and incredibly witty production dealing with dark political themes.

The play opens as photo-journalist, Joe Schofield (played by Stephen Campbell Moore), witnesses and photographs an iconic moment during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, in China’s capital, Beijing. The story follows his obsession with tracking down the ‘Tank Man’ who he so infamously captured on film; spurred on by a burning curiosity and idealism which has a damning effect on those caught up in his quest.

Lucy Kirkwood’s snappy dialogue moves the action along swiftly, with episodic scenes which suggest a script as well-suited to the screen as to the stage. In reflection Es Devlin’s dynamic set seems is in a constant state of flux and transition, keeping the action moving in a play which rarely stands still. Moving between Beijing and New York the audience is given an insightful dual view of the tragic events of the June Fourth Massacre through the play’s main protagonists – Joe Schofield, and his Chinese friend Zhang Lin.

In Schofield we find a destructive idealism, captured by Stephen Campbell Moore’s frenetic portrayal of a man consumed by the hunt. His unswerving drive to search out a true hero reveals an interesting dichotomy within the quest of a Western idealist toying with events which are beyond his cultural understanding. On the one hand, we as an audience spur him on in his search for Wang Pang Fei; on the other, we see how his ignorance and naivety wreak devastation on his Chinese acquaintances.

From the East we see Tiananmen through the eyes of Zhang Lin, a docile English teacher. China’s political party’s presence looms over his interactions, tensions pulsate tangibly when communication about censored subjects comes to the fore; and his dejected acceptance of his reality is turned on its head when ghosts from the past stir him out of his grief-induced stupor. Benedict Wong plays the part with a moving sense of loss, which permeates Zhang Lin’s character; and his final stance in the play is a stirring depiction of bravery and protest.

Campbell Moore and Wong are supported by a remarkable ensemble cast including Claudie Blakley as the sarcastic and cynical Tessa, Seann Gilder as an under-enthused journalist and Trevor Cooper as a gruff but ultimately liberal editor – and the production’s cast as a whole never fail to keep pace with a feat of contemporary writing which deserves to be lauded as the best play of the year.

Chimerica continues at the Almeida Theatre until Saturday 6th July, before transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre for a limited run from Tuesday 6th August.

Image taken from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

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Love Bites, ‘Apartment’ (Etcetera Theatre)

Sunday morning, 12th May, and waking up after the first and 156last performance of the Love Bites ‘Apartment’ plays is a bittersweet feeling. At the close of any show I have worked on there is always the relief of waking up with a day ahead of you that is completely your own – for me that has meant a long lie-in, a film in the afternoon and not having to get out of my pyjamas until well past midday…but you also wake up knowing that a chapter (albeit a small one) has closed.

My experience of working with Love Bites has been an entirely uplifting one – a confidence boost for a young creative still finding their feet, an opportunity to meet a team of highly talented like-minded individuals, and the opportunity to learn from them; and also a reinvigorated appetite for continuing to make and experience theatre.

The shows were a great success – with a crowded theatre on all three nights (including a waiting list on the last night!) – and great feedback from audiences who really appreciated experiencing grass roots theatre which was packed full of promise. For the first time in my directing experience I got to wait it out backstage with the actors and enjoyed soaking up their nervous energy and feeling the anticipation of the performances to come. No show goes by without its line fluffs, spilt kettles and slightly aimless set changes, but hearing the audience laugh and gasp, and seeing them coming out smiling made it all worthwhile, and it really felt like we’d pulled it all off in the end.

Craig Donaghy’s hilarious Zoned Out, performed by Thea Beyleveld as Gemma, was an excellent start to each evening. Gemma’s stream of consciousness, which verged on the politically incorrect at times, was delivered with a wide-eyed innocence which was both endearing and perfectly timed. Thea balanced Gemma’s naivety with a generous dose of over-sharing in a monologue about breaking up and the horrors of moving to zone 7.

Next up was Ziella Bryar’s play, Apartment 101, in which we peeked in on a highly-strung lawyer with an unexpected house guest. Hannah James as Kate, and Samuel Dent as Zak, played off each other brilliantly; Kate’s dry asides combating Zak’s new age, holistic optimism in a play which touchingly and humorously revealed the futility of revisiting past relationships which do nothing for one’s self-esteem or happiness.

Third up was The Favour by Jack Fiehn (and the play which I got the chance to direct). In The Favour we witness a couple in the throes of an awkward breakup and, even if I do say so myself, I think James Rose and Orion Ben gave engaging and extremely natural performances as Jason and Allison. Offering a slight change of tone from the previous two comedies, Jack’s play revealed the awkwardness and heartbreak of the end of a relationship, the implications of having to reveal the news to your family and friends, the inconvenience of needing to find somewhere else to live, and the uncertainty of knowing whether you really want it to finish at all.

The final performances of the evening came from James Rigby (as Joel) and Jamie Alderson (as Steve) in Daniel Frankenburg’s St Sebastian. A darkly funny piece about two men connected by the love of the same woman, the twists and turns of Daniel’s script made this one of the stand-out pieces of writing for me. From the initial ambiguity of Joel’s intentions towards Steve, to the gasp-inducing reveal by Steve at the end made this a very clever take on the theme of love and relationships, and tied up the evenings performances excellently.

It has been a fantastic experience working with all the people involved in Love Bites and I just wanted to finish off by thanking all those involved. Thanks to Ziella Bryars- producer, writer and director- Sophie Davies in casting, Katy Davies in media and PR, Orlanda Bryars and Zoe Hurwitz who helped out backstage, all the writers, directors (including Sophie Davies, Ziella Bryars and James Veitch) and actors, and to Etcetera Theatre for hosting the performances. It has been a privilege to work with all of you on the shows – thank you for all being so welcoming, friendly, and utterly professional, and I hope I’ll get the opportunity to work with all of you again in the future. I think the creative talent across the board is a real insight into the inventiveness and creativity which cries out to be tapped by the decision-makers in the industry, and hope to see Love Bites and similar projects continuing to flourish on fringes of London’s theatre scene.

Apologies if I have come across as sickeningly gushy about the whole experience, but I really would encourage all young writers, directors and actors who are currently based in London to get involved with Love Bites if they get the chance.  Details of their forthcoming opportunities are posted on their website, www.thelovebitesplays.com and you can follow them on twitter (@lovebitesplays) or like them on Facebook.

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Love Bites Diary (part 2)

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Orion and James reading as an Elf and Centurion on Day 2…

Day three…and we’re having the tech / dress rehearsal at Etcetera Theatre in Camden today. Journeying in with a bag full of props I’m eager to get into the space to see what we have to play with. I get there around 11.45am and meet Ziella and James Veitch (one of the other directors). I take the opportunity to set up our stage to see how it will work, and get chatting to the other creative teams as they filter in.

Everyone is in good spirits, and very friendly (a common theme with all the Love Biters I’ve met so far), which helps me to relax. The day starts with us running through the set changes and technical cues with each team. It’s a straightforward tech, so doesn’t take too long, allowing our stage manager (Zoe) to get to grips with the changes in between each one act. I enjoy the feeling of sitting in the theatre, feeling a part of things, and think it’s a good sign that a number of the actors and writers have returned to the process having worked with Love Bites on a number of occasions previously. What’s unique about this show, Sophie Davies (Casting) tells me – is that there is a lot of new acting talent being brought into the mix, which has helped the shows stay fresh. From the brief moments I see of the other plays during the tech, it’s evident that the level of talent has not dipped since I last watched Love Bites – and the quality on stage continues to validate Ziella’s artistic vision for the company.

A brief sojourn for lunch allows us to escape into the daylight and the Camden market crowds, before the dress runs at 2pm….

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Initial set-up for The Favour at Etcetera Theatre

This next bit – having people watch the show for the first time – is the bit I was most nervous about. There’s something extra nerve-wracking about presenting something to your peers – but the feedback following Orion and James’s performances are positive, and whilst we have heads full of insecurities we are reassured that the broad brush strokes have been painted allowing for us to focus on certain technical or blocking problems which we hadn’t picked up on in rehearsals. I am worried about whether the writer will be disappointed by our decisions, as we’ve taken the piece down a much more serious route than I think he intended, but we shall have to wait for his verdict following the performance on Saturday!

Feeling slightly unsettled Orion, James and myself slipped away from Etcetera to have a debrief and work on some new ideas for blocking to help prepare for the last rehearsal on Monday. In reality there is definitely nothing wrong with making changes only three days into the rehearsal process, but with the quick turnaround it feels daunting…

Day 4, and we’ve decided to get out of the comfort zone of Orion’s flat and rehearse somewhere different – so we return to Love Bites’ original haunt, the Calder Bookshop for our final rehearsal. We work on the blocking more than anything else, trying to correct the moments which seemed too static in order to lift the energy a bit. Having worked hard on characterisation and tone in the previous rehearsals this allows the actors some respite from playing the emotions in order to help cement the technical side of things in their minds. After a busy weekend we decide to call it a day when the actors are confident with the changes, and it’s funny to walk away knowing that the next time we meet will be on Thursday for the performances.

Due to my tardiness in uploading this blog, that first performance is tonight…here’s hoping we can pull it off, I can feel a familiar churning in my belly coming on…

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Love Bites Diary…04.05.13

James Rose & Orion Ben

A couple of weeks ago I got an out of the blue(but very exciting) email from Ziella Bryars (writer/director/producer/founder of Love Bites Plays), asking if I’d like to direct a one act for their next set of shows in May. ‘Absolutely yes!’, I thought, as I had been a big fan of Love Bites’ work after going to see one of their shows in November 2011.

The one act was “The Favour”, by Jack Fiehn, a funny, but poignant piece about a couple in the throws of breaking up. With a turnaround of just two weeks I met the actors, Orion Ben (playing Allison) and James Rose (playing Jason), via email. I’d never worked on a one act before – and was a bit daunted by the task of capturing and conveying two characters in just fifteen minutes. However, as I read and re-read the script I found that Jack has given us loads to play with, and the beauty of a standalone one act was the opportunity to create back stories and motivations which were entirely our own.

Orion, James and I met for the first time last Thursday (2 May) night, exactly one week before the first performance – I’d certainly never done it this quickly before! I had been nervous about meeting the actors, as we had four intense days of rehearsal ahead of us and I really hoped we’d gel well – it turns out I had nothing to worry about. Meeting at the Actors Centre in Covent Garden we did a couple of read-throughs of the script and chatted through our ideas about the characters, whilst getting to know each other. It was relaxed and comfortable, and a good way to start to the process.

Friday morning was an early start, and I had a lot of ideas running through my head on my way into Deptford, where we would be rehearsing. We invaded Orion’s house, got acquainted with Zumba the cat and created a rehearsal space in Orion’s living room. Having cut the script into sections we ran and dissected each section bit by bit, forming a picture of the characters and playing with ideas. It was fluid, the momentum of the script really carried the varying emotions we hoped to convey – and though knackered by the end of the day it felt like we had really achieved something.

Deptford art

Deptford art

A later start today gave me the chance to take in Deptford a bit more, and I enj

oyed a wee cup of tea in what I think was a converted tube carriage come coffee and cake establishment (very cool…). The sun shone through the showers, and despite feeling tired I relaxed. We’d covered a lot of ground yesterday so today we focused more on reinforcing what we’d done before and committing it all to memory, in the hope that performing in the actual space tomorrow wouldn’t completely throw us. Eager not to over-rehearse we stopped when we felt we’d got it, and went our separate ways to chill out before the dress / tech tomorrow.

And so that brings me to now. I’m looking forward to meeting the other teams tomorrow and seeing the four shows coming together in one place. I hope we’ve done justice not only to Jack’s script but also to Love Bites as a whole. With only two days of prep time left, I’m a little sad that the whole process has been such a quick one after all…

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