Review: We Live By The Sea at Arts Theatre

We Live By The Sea, the latest production from Patch of Blue, opened to universal acclaim in Edinburgh this summer, before the company were invited to open the Fringe Encores Series in New York. Now they’re back in London, and having finally seen the show everyone’s been raving about, all I can say is… I get it.

Patch of Blue have worked with The National Autistic Society to bring us the story of Katy (Alex Brain), who’s 15 and lives on the coast with her older sister Hannah (Alexandra Simonet). Katy has to greet strangers by tapping their shoes three times, she can’t stand physical contact and she has an imaginary dog called Paul Williams (Lizzie Grace). She’s also incredibly lonely – until 17-year-old Ryan (Lloyd Bagley) arrives in town. What follows is a poignant and charming tale about an unlikely friendship and how sometimes changing how you think about things can make a whole world of difference.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures
Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

As ever, the attention to detail in this production is exquisite. This is a company that do their homework, and always aim to bring us a true picture, without any attempts to glamorise or conceal anything (even the fact that it’s theatre – “now we are going to do what is called a montage” was perhaps one of my favourite moments). It’s important that we see past Katy’s autism – and we do; Alex Brain is utterly enchanting, her performance revealing a creative and affectionate young girl, who sees the world with a childlike innocence and vulnerability that make you just want to go and give her a hug… And yet at the same time, the play makes no secret of the fact that doing so would probably earn you a slap. Similarly, the devotion between Katy and Lizzie Grace’s Paul the dog is heartwarming to watch, only for us to come crashing back to earth as Paul explains he’s only perfect because he’s not real.

Alexandra Simonet perfectly captures the realism of the play in her portrayal of Hannah, who seems far older than her 19 years, and is caught between affection for her sister and resentment at everything she’s had to give up to care for her. And the unexpected realisation that Lloyd Bagley’s Ryan – a more complex character than he initially appears, whose story remains something of a mystery – might be getting as much out of the friendship as Katy and Hannah, forces us to reconsider our own assumptions.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures
Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

We Live By The Sea continues the work begun by the fantastic The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, educating audiences about the experience of living with autism. But while Curious Incident does so with spectacular effects, Patch of Blue prove that far simpler techniques can have just as much impact. In addition to live music composed by folk band Wovoka Gentle, Alex Howarth’s production uses sound and light effects to give us an insight into what life’s like for someone with autism in moments of stress; flashing lights, loud noises and overlapping voices combine to create a deliberately uncomfortable effect, which has us squirming in our seat and longing for it to stop.

Yet again, Patch of Blue have created something very special. Heartbreaking, challenging and inspiring, We Live By The Sea offers us a different way of thinking about autism, immersing us in Katy’s world instead of the other way around, and celebrating her as a person without ever shying away from the often harsh reality of her life. It’s a beautiful piece of theatre, and one that everyone should see.

We Live By The Sea is at the Arts Theatre until 1st October.

Review: The Sound of Music at the Orchard Theatre

If the measure of a good show is how many people burst into song as they leave the theatre, The Sound of Music is surely well up there. Based on the true story of the Von Trapp family, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical is undoubtedly a classic, featuring a host of much-loved songs, a heartwarming love story, some unexpected Nazis and the world’s nicest children. What’s not to love?

Photo credit: Mark Yeoman
Photo credit: Mark Yeoman

Set in 1930s Austria, The Sound of Music tells the story of Maria, a young woman struggling to adapt to the restrictive life of a nun, who’s sent away to live with the Von Trapp family as a governess. Charmed by the seven musically talented Von Trapp children, it’s not long before she starts to fall for their father too. All seems to be turning out well, until the Nazis turn up and try to ruin everything (as Nazis do).

Bill Kenwright’s revival stars Lucy O’Byrne, who gives a pitch perfect performance in just about every way. Maria is a role that requires a lot more vocally than just do-re-mi, and O’Byrne wastes no time in showing off the incredible range that took her all the way to the final of TV’s The Voice, along with the irresistible joie de vivre that instantly wins over both Von Trapps and audience alike.

But it’s not just the star of the show who hits the mark vocally. Rebecca Caine comes close to outshining the rest of the cast, as she brings down the curtain on both acts with her stunning rendition of Climb Every Mountain. Former Corrie star Andrew Lancel produces a charming Edelweiss, and the Von Trapp children repeatedly melt our hearts with their polished performance and beautiful harmonies.

Photo credit: Mark Yeoman
Photo credit: Mark Yeoman

Gary McCann’s set is one of the most impressive I’ve seen at the Orchard. The story takes us back and forth more than once between Nonnberg Abbey and the Von Trapp house, with occasional trips to other locations – and the set follows suit, without ever missing a beat or compromising on either scale or detail. And these frequent set changes happen so smoothly that the audience, absorbed in the story and music, barely notices them.

Nazis aside, The Sound of Music is very much a feel-good show; it’s difficult not to walk out feeling a little bit better about life (and, let’s be honest, even the Nazis aren’t that scary, really). It’s a love story first and foremost, but there are some other themes in there too, like growing up, finding your passion in life and standing up for what you believe in, no matter what anyone else says. Also, singing is good. As are hills.

For lifelong fans of The Sound of Music, this revival is a fitting tribute. For first timers or – dare I say it – sceptics, it may just win you over. Either way, it’s a production not to be missed.

The Sound of Music is at the Orchard Theatre until 1st October.

Review: dreamplay at The Vaults

What did you dream about last night? I can’t be sure, although I have a feeling at one point I was teaching some American children how to do the can-can. This is pretty standard; my dreams hardly ever make any sense, if I remember them at all. But what does tend to stay with me is how they make me feel – sometimes happy and relaxed, occasionally relieved, other times tense and panicky. (I once had a dream I was on the run, and spent the entire following day feeling uneasy and looking over my shoulder, without really knowing why.)

Anyone seeking a linear or even logical narrative in BAZ Productions’ dreamplay, based on August Strindberg’s 1901 play, will inevitably leave feeling disappointed; each time we come close to understanding what’s going on, the play veers off in an unexpected direction and brings us back to square one. And yet there’s no denying that the scenes we witness – as disjointed and downright odd as they undoubtedly are – evoke some pretty powerful emotions. Some are funny, others sad, others a bit scary (nothing quite like being suddenly plunged into darkness to get the heart racing). And I’m willing to bet if you asked the audience on the way out which moment in particular spoke to them, there’d be a lot of different answers.

Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio
Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio
At this point in a review I’d usually include a plot summary, but as we’ve already established, that’s not really relevant in this case. That said, there is the hint of a story running through the scenes: a young woman, Agnes, comes to Earth to try and discover what makes human beings sad. It’s a quest that ends in disappointment, however, and Agnes finally leaves without the enlightenment she was hoping for.

The Vaults, beneath Waterloo Station, is an atmospheric and inspired choice of venue for director Sarah Bedi’s mysterious journey into the world of dreams. As we move from each space to the next, we’re plunged into a different world: a dimly lit auditorium; a modern bedroom; vast, echoing tunnels; even the open air. And while the promenade experience is an unusual and occasionally frustrating one – just as you’re getting comfortable, up you get and move on again – it also feels necessary to create that sensation of being in a dream, where your surroundings can and do change without warning. The only scene that didn’t really work for me was the last one; with the audience all on our feet and most of the action taking place on the floor, those of us in the back struggled to see what was happening.

The cast take on a variety of roles throughout the show. Colin Hurley is convincing as an audience member plucked from his seat; it’s simultaneously a disappointment and a relief when he’s revealed to be a plant. Jade Ogugua and Jack Wilkinson shine in perhaps the closest scene to “normality”, in which a recently married couple argue about their finances, while Michelle Luther is both entertaining and slightly terrifying as a performer controlled by the cello music to which she dances. That music is provided by alternative cellist, vocalist and singer-songwriter Laura Moody, in whose hands the cello becomes not just a musical instrument but almost human, capable of menace, joy, playfulness and despair.

Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio
Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio
From a traditional perspective, dreamplay doesn’t really make any sense. It’s a series of striking images and moments that, afterwards, we may struggle to connect. As someone who likes to leave the theatre understanding what I’ve just seen, I now find myself a little frustrated at my inability to pinpoint what this play was all about. Then again, I often feel that way about my dreams (I have no idea where teaching the can-can came from, for instance, and that bothers me) – so in that respect, dreamplay is right on the money.

dreamplay is at The Vaults until 1st October.

Want to know more? Read my interview with director Sarah Bedi.

Review: Rehearsal for Murder at the Orchard Theatre

After ten years producing classic thrillers from the pen of Agatha Christie, Bill Kenwright has taken a (slightly) new direction. Rehearsal for Murder is the first production from The Classic Thriller Theatre Company; written by Murder She Wrote’s Richard Levinson and William Link, and adapted for the stage by David Rogers, there’s nonetheless a distinctly Christie-esque quality to this story of love, murder and revenge.

rehearsal-for-murder-grimsby-auditorium

Playwright Alex Dennison (Alex Ferns) has started work on a new script, and gathers together his old cast, director and producer for a rehearsal. Not by coincidence, this reunion happens to take place exactly one year after Alex’s fiancée, the beautiful movie star Monica Welles (Susie Amy), fell to her death in an apparent suicide. And it soon becomes clear to the assembled group that Alex has a very specific reason for bringing them all back together; despite all the evidence to the contrary, he believes Monica was murdered – but by who…?

There’s a defined formula to this kind of mystery: a cast of suspects, each with a clear – if not always entirely imaginative – motive for the crime; a suitably spooky location (this particular story takes place in an empty theatre) from which nobody’s easily able to escape; a few red herrings; and, of course, a twist in the tale before the murderer is finally revealed. It’s also not uncommon for the first act to involve a lot of talking and not much in the way of action, as motives are established and clues worked in so as to give the audience a fighting chance of figuring out the mystery. Rehearsal for Murder is no exception. After a relatively slow start, the action kicks off in dramatic fashion in Act 2, culminating in an unexpected turn of events which, like all good twists, is only predictable with the benefit of hindsight.

Ex-Eastenders villain Alex Ferns is the heartbroken playwright; although clearly slightly unhinged, his desperation to solve the mystery of his fiancée’s death is heartfelt and it’s hard not to cheer him on in his pursuit of justice, even when he starts waving a gun about (because of course, there had to be a gun). Ferns is joined by a cast of familiar faces from TV and film, including Peak Practice actor Gary Mavers, Carry On star Anita Harris, and veteran of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, Ben Nealon, as a variety of theatrical ‘types’ – each of them with something to hide.

rehearsal-for-murder

Rehearsal for Murder is at once comfortingly familiar and yet still original enough to surprise, with a liberal sprinkling of theatre-related humour, thanks to the choice of setting. At times the pace is a little more gentle than it needs to be, and the story does sometimes feel a bit thin – but that comes with the territory, like the way everyone knows Hercule Poirot’s a famous detective, yet they always choose to commit murder when he happens to be visiting, then seem surprised when he solves the crime. Formulaic it may be, but fans of classic murder mystery won’t be disappointed in this enjoyable and cleverly staged thriller.

Rehearsal for Murder is at the Orchard Theatre until 24th September.

Interview: Hatstand Productions, Never The Same

“We began as four year olds playing with a dressing up box, bringing stories to life… and not much has changed since then,” says Lily Lowe-Myers of Hatstand Productions, the company she founded with her best friend Robyn Cooper. “As children we made many funny films that we hope no one ever digs up, and as teenagers some better ones that won national competitions – and eventually we formed Hatstand Productions four years ago in response to the professional work we were making. This is our fourth play since then and we are currently finishing our third film.”

That play is Never The Same, which opens in the Bridewell’s Lunchbox Theatre on 27th September: “It’s a dark but joyful female two-hander, exploring the beauty and sorrows of friendship and the lengths and limitations of what we can do for another person.”

neverthesame-flyer-front

Hatstand Productions have built a reputation for creating fun and innovative two-hander female musicals, and Never The Same is their first non-musical. “I didn’t set out to write a non-musical this year, but the deeper I fell into writing the play, the clearer it became that this would be a straight drama,” explains Lily. “I wasn’t sure how to break it to the fantastic composer we’d collaborated with the last few years, but then he contacted me to say he was in the midst of his PhD and couldn’t do a show this summer. Life is sometimes mystic like that!

“Working on a non-musical felt a lot like I was writing a play for the first time all over again. I realised how much collaboration had been involved working with a composer, and how nice it was to have someone to bounce ideas off. I felt a lot more vulnerable about sharing it, in fact; when I had to get the first draft done to submit it to the Ms Shakespeare new writing festival, I sent it with an apologetic cover letter saying, ‘This is my deformed baby, but I think it will grow into something strong and beautiful.’ Luckily they thought so too and it was chosen to be performed.

“Since then, it’s been a great pleasure to work with the phenomenally talented and generally fantastic Matt Costain as our director. His excitement about the play makes me fall in love with it all over again, and means that I can leave my writer’s hat at the door and concentrate on being an actress.”

Never The Same is Hatstand’s fourth show at the Bridewell Theatre. “When we first created a one-act show, we quickly learnt that the Bridewell was the top place for lunchtime theatre, and we loved that they reached an audience that might otherwise not get the chance to see a show. Knowing this, we stalked them and won them over. We’re so happy that we did, as we now have a great relationship with them and this is our fourth show in their beautiful venue. Did you know that under the floor of the theatre is still an old Victorian swimming pool (minus the water!)?

“We were worried this year, with a drama play, whether they’d still be as keen because we had such success with our ‘perfectly sized mini musicals’,  but their response was ‘whatever you make will be great’. It’s lovely to work with people with such belief in us.”

Photo credit: Hatstand Productions
Photo credit: Hatstand Productions

Never The Same is the story of two best friends reunited after seven years. “It’s the most thought-provoking, heart warming, funny, honest, entertaining lunchtime ever!” promises Lily. “Every action we take comes from somewhere. Over 45 minutes, we invite you to piece together the mystery of why two friends find themselves on the run, and whether they can ever find their way back, or if they would even want to.”

In their work, Hatstand explore many types of story telling mediums including film, theatre, puppetry, dance, magic and song – and their choice of name is hugely significant: “Our aim is to create entertaining work that sheds light on the beauty and complexity of the human spirit and to create work with strong, entertaining and complex female roles.

“We called our company ‘Hatstand’ as we liked the idea of our audience shedding their hats of worry or coats of doubt on our metaphorical hatstand as they took their seats. And hopefully, having experienced another reality, as they go back out into the world their coat seems lighter, or they try someone else’s for size, or leave theirs behind for good. 

“Oh, and we try to get our lovely hatstand – that we named Ted – into our shows!”

Never The Same is at the Bridewell Theatre from 27th September-7th October.