Review: In Search of Applause at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Lorelei is a professional clown – or at least she would be, if she hadn’t given it all up when she met Nigel. He’s a workaholic app developer, who takes her on nice holidays but otherwise seems to have very little time for her; he’s dismissive of her views and won’t even stop working long enough to have dinner together. Now it’s two years later and she spends her days alone, going to yoga, pouring her heart out to a therapist, and flirting with the guy behind the counter at the local juice bar. But hey, at least she’s not poor any more. Right?

Photo credit: Ian Hart

Maroussia Vladi’s In Search of Applause is an intriguing one-woman show, which likens Lorelei’s romantic relationship with Nigel to her career as a performer: though she has a beautiful stage, set, costumes and props, does any of that matter if the audience isn’t paying attention? To an outsider it’s something of a no-brainer, and Lorelei has no qualms about counselling Harry, the juice bar guy, to quit his job and pursue his dream to become a musician. And yet when it comes to her own life, despite her obvious unhappiness after several disappointingly one-sided conversations with her partner, she can’t seem to apply that same advice.

Directed by Andrew Hurst, the play is made up of a series of one-sided exchanges between Lorelei and various off-stage characters. Two of these never appear at all; the third – Nigel – is represented by a hat suspended above a chair, and the sound of rapid typing each time Lorelei returns home and tries to engage with him. As we follow her repeatedly from home to therapy to the juice bar and back home again, we get a feel for the cyclical monotony and frustration of her uninspiring life.

Maroussia Vladi gives a very expressive and engaging performance as she moves around the stage, bringing vividly to life the story’s different settings and characters. Despite this, there’s a remoteness to the character of Lorelei that makes her at times difficult to relate to. She is by her own admission quite old-fashioned in her attitudes, and the play has a similar aesthetic: everything from Lorelei’s outfits to her luggage to Nigel’s hat feel like they’re from a different time to the story itself, which creates a disconnect between what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing, and makes it harder to get lost in the action. It’s a skilful piece of storytelling, but for this reason it does always feel like exactly that – a story.

Photo credit: Ian Hart

If you hear “romantic comedy” and think Richard Curtis, In Search of Applause will not be what you’re used to. What it is, however, is a quiet and reflective piece about what drives us to make the decisions we do (or not), presented with charm, creativity and gentle humour. It doesn’t necessarily go in the direction you might expect, but it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the market for a slightly offbeat take on love and relationships.

In Search of Applause is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd March.

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Review: Rattled at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Inspired by a mother’s true account, Rachel Harper’s one-woman play Rattled is a short but punchy production tackling the sensitive topics of childhood trauma and postnatal mental health. The play is set on a lonely railway platform somewhere in southern England, where Em has just discovered a baby in a carrier. Unable to track down the child’s mother, she sits down to wait – and then, to fill the awkward silence, she begins to talk. Soon we (and baby) have heard all about her nice but dull husband Ian, their unsatisfying marriage, and her fear that she may have settled too easily and missed out on a great romance. We also learn about her childhood trauma and the abuse and neglect she suffered, and it doesn’t take long to guess the answer to Em’s repeated and increasingly desperate question: whose baby is this?

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Though it deals with some difficult issues, Rattled isn’t as hard going as it sounds; in fact it’s a surprisingly funny play, whose aim is never to wallow in the misery of mental illness but rather to advocate talking as the first step to recovery. Em is a very likeable, intelligent and witty character, and Rachel Harper is exceptional – both as a writer and an actor – in her utterly convincing portrayal of this vulnerable young woman who’s been through so much and now finds herself at breaking point. Her story unfolds very plausibly as a stream of consciousness, meandering from one memory to another and punctuated by musings on everything from Wuthering Heights to the parenting habits of orangutans. It all sounds random, unplanned – but in reality, not one word is wasted in this tightly constructed piece of writing.

This efficiency is reflected also in director Jemma Gross’ fast-moving production. Simple, effective design from Florence Hazard (set), Sherry Coenen (lighting) and Nicola Chang (sound) quickly and convincingly establishes the station setting, from the “see it, say it, sorted” announcements to the flickering lights of a passing train. Similarly, from the moment the play begins Rachel Harper’s performance leaves us in no doubt of Em’s current state of mind; every movement and gesture is loaded with meaning. She’s moving constantly, full of restless, nervous energy and unable to sit still. Each time she tells a joke, it’s accompanied by an awkward, high-pitched laugh. As the play goes on she becomes increasingly dishevelled, and even before she says a word, her emotional distress is palpable. We don’t know exactly what her intentions are at the station – though various possibilities come to mind, each more disturbing than the last – but the way she stiffens each time an announcement comes over the tannoy makes it clear that the train approaching the station is of some significance. As it gets closer, the tension both on and off stage builds as we wait to find out how Em’s story will end.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Rattled is a gripping and poignant production that doesn’t flinch in its portrayal of mental illness, particularly affecting new mothers. But it also puts its money where its mouth is; Missmanaged Theatre have teamed up with childcare agency Bea & Co to support parents by providing a free creche at Sunday matinees, and discounts on at-home childcare for audiences attending evening shows. This is clearly a company who not only believe in making high quality theatre, but who also want to make it count – let’s hope others follow in their footsteps.

Rattled is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd March.

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Review: soft animals at Soho Theatre

Don’t be fooled by the title of Holly Robinson’s debut play soft animals; despite the plethora of teddy bears scattered around the room, there’s nothing particularly cuddly about this hard-hitting two-hander. Directed by Lakesha Arie-Angelo, the play tackles grief and guilt through the surprising friendship of two very different women connected by a devastating tragedy: Sarah (Ellie Piercy), a well-off soon-to-be divorcee living in Fulham, and Frankie (Bianca Stephens), a black teenager from Birmingham struggling to cope with the demands of both uni and life.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

The tragedy is Sarah’s – the loss of a child in horrifying circumstances and subsequent nationwide condemnation of her as a mother and a woman – while Frankie’s direct involvement in the events of that day bring her to Sarah’s doorstep several months later. Over time the two become friends, though the dynamic of that friendship shifts constantly, and ultimately allows each to begin to see a way forward out of their own personal darkness.

The performances from Ellie Piercy and Bianca Stephens are perfectly pitched, the two of them bouncing off each other well as they deliver Robinson’s fast-paced, witty script. But there’s genuine tenderness between them too; if you can make it to the end of the play without at least a bit of a lump in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. While Stephens is instantly likeable as the anxious and painfully vulnerable Frankie, Piercy’s Sarah doesn’t try too hard to win our sympathy, if anything going out of her way to make us – and the rest of the world – hate her because that’s what she thinks she deserves. It’s only by seeing her through Frankie’s eyes, behind closed doors, that we come to understand and feel for everything she’s gone through, and to question our own readiness to judge a total stranger based only on what we think we know of their crimes.

Just as the script reveals little by little the details of what happened, so too does Anna Reid’s deceptively simple set. Beginning as a single cube in the centre of the stage, it comes apart piece by piece to populate Sarah’s living room with furniture, with one final reveal towards the end reminding us forcefully of the gaping absence at the heart of the story. This is reinforced throughout by the appearance of soft toys from London’s various tourist attractions, which sit sadly around the room as a reminder that there’s nobody here to love and play with them.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

soft animals is an incredibly accomplished debut from Holly Robinson, tackling difficult themes with great sensitivity while also drawing us in with a compelling story. The friendship between Sarah and Frankie is unlikely but entirely believable, and each character feels authentic despite her unusual and tragic circumstances. This is a powerful piece of new writing that will break your heart – but then might just quietly put it back together again. Highly recommended.

soft animals is at Soho Theatre until 2nd March.

Review: The Band at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Sarah Gaimster

This week, for one week only, the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, is hosting The Band – a new musical by Tim Firth, interwoven with a plethora of the hits of Take That.

Surprisingly this is not a story of how The Band rose to fame, and their ups and downs. Instead the tale is from their fans’ perspective and shows how, despite what life throws at them, they stay lifelong loyal fans.

The show opens in 1993 when we are introduced to 16-year-old Rachel (Faye Christall) dancing around her bedroom listening to the hits of her five heart throbs, ‘The Band’.

Life at home for Rachel lets the audience fondly reminiscence, with nods to nostalgic memories and references to Teletext, dancing around your bedroom to Top of the Pops and rows over the lost remote control – to name a few of the home scenes we can all relate to. 

When Rachel makes it to school we meet her four friends Debbie, Claire, Zoe and Heather (Rachelle Diedricks, Sarah Kate Howarth, Lauren Jacobs and Katy Clayton) whose friendship and love of The Band makes them inseparable. The school friends decide to bunk off school after lunch to try and meet their heartthrobs, and there the journey begins. 

We flick between what ensues that day in 1993, and how their life’s dream of meeting The Band is as alive as ever in the current day, when we see the friends now in their 40s (played by Rachel Lumberg, Alison Fitzjohn, Jayne McKenna and Emily Joyce). 

The Band are played by Five to Five members Yazdan, Curtis, Nick, AJ and Sario, who won their places in BBC’s popular reality show Let it Shine. The five guys stitch the show together with 18 cleverly placed Take That hits.

The songs are well performed, in a couple of cases have been remastered to fit the tone of the scene, and are accompanied where relevant by Take That fans’ favourite dance moves and fabulous boy band stage costumes too. 

A special mention should go to Andy Williams playing Every Dave, whose cameos include school caretaker, roadie, bus driver and policeman, to name a few. His character adds a scattering of light moments, comedy and more of The Band’s songs throughout the show. 

The show takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster with life troubles that we can all relate to. Claire’s story brings a tear to the eye at one point, but there are plenty of belly laugh moments placed throughout the ride to raise audience spirits too. 

This is one of the best shows I have seen at the Orchard, so don’t miss the opportunity to see it while it’s here. 

The Band is at the Orchard until Saturday 9th February, when it continues on its UK tour. Grab your tickets before it’s too late, this show is too good to miss!

Review: The Orchestra at Omnibus Theatre

The show must go on… but at what cost? In Jean Anouilh’s The Orchestra, set just after World War II, petty in-fighting and lingering suspicions between the members of an orchestra in a small French spa town contrast sharply with their jaunty repertoire. Under the watchful eye of the manager, they must play on despite mounting tensions, uncomfortable revelations, and an unexpected climax to the evening’s entertainment.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Set in real time, the 50-minute play alternates between musical interludes and the snatches of conversation in between, and sometimes during, the performances. From these we learn that leader Mme. Hortense (Amanda Osborne) and cellist Suzanne (Stefania Licari) are love rivals, fighting inexplicably over the orchestra’s meek pianist – and sole male – M. Leon (Pedro Casarin); violinists Patricia (Luna Dai) and Pamela (Sarah Waddell) clash over their very different views on sex and relationships; and flautist Leona (Jessica Hulme) is forced to sit and gasp appreciatively as Ermeline (Charlotte Laporte) talks at length about her marital problems. And all the while, the manager (Toph Enany) prowls in and out of the theatre – having also made his presence felt in the bar before the show – as a constant reminder of the pressure to paste on a smile and perform.

There’s an undercurrent of dark humour in Anouilh’s text, translated by Jeremy Sams, though it’s more of the satirical than the laugh out loud variety. Bickering and breakdowns are delivered with conviction by the internationally diverse cast, with Amanda Osborne particularly enjoyable as she tries to keep the group upbeat and focused on the task at hand. While the other characters’ conversations establish a backdrop of ongoing frustration with their own lives, the love triangle that connects Mme. Hortense with Stefania Licari’s melodramatic Suzanne and Pedro Casarin’s perpetually flustered M. Leon is more immediate and explosive, providing some drama and preventing the play from becoming too static.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Unfortunately the musical scenes in Kristine Landon-Smith’s production – with the exception of the final one – don’t hold our attention in the same way, and this frequent loss of engagement means the play never quite takes off. The cast do a convincing job of miming along with the recorded soundtrack, but besides a few sideways glances and the odd bit of dialogue, there’s often not that much going on. Perhaps this is deliberate, to emphasise the divide between the players’ professional and personal demeanours; that certainly comes across very effectively. But it does mean that after a while – each piece is a good couple of minutes – the audience is left with not much to look at, the cheerful tunes we’re listening to (composed by Felix Cross) already having been dismissed by members of the orchestra themselves as little more than background music for a polite but indifferent audience.

Most of us have, at some point, had to put aside workplace squabbles and present a united front in the name of professionalism. Anouilh’s play presents a heightened version of that scenario, taking it to absurd lengths and setting it in a very particular time and place, but it remains enjoyably relatable – and this production, while not perfect, is a welcome revival.

The Orchestra is at the Omnibus Theatre until 17th February.

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