Review: Locked Up at Tristan Bates Theatre

Possibly the only thing worse than being locked up and kept in isolation for an indeterminate amount of time is not knowing who’s responsible or why. This is the plight of the characters in Locked Up, a tense two-hander that’s both the professional London debut of writer Heather Simpkin and the first full-length play from emerging theatre company Bear in the Air Productions.

Photo credit: Rosalind White Photography

We first meet Declan (Samuel Ranger), who passes his time pacing the floor of the cell, attempting to do push-ups, and singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall” in an endless, mind-numbing loop. The opening minutes of James McAndrew’s production convey very effectively the monotony of Declan’s day-to-day existence, and after a series of short, sharp scenes it’s not long before we too have lost track of time. It’s as much of a shock for us as it is for Declan, then, when one day he suddenly finds he’s no longer alone. His new cellmate is Topher (Conor Cook), who’s equally clueless as to their captors’ intentions – or is he?

Time passes, and the two slowly grow more relaxed around each other, allowing us to get to know them better and fill in a bit of their backstories. We soon learn that they’re very different personalities: Samuel Ranger’s Declan is sensitive and risk-averse, while Conor Cook’s Topher takes a “no guts, no glory” approach to life – so it’s no surprise that he’s the one who ends up taking charge of their escape plan. The uneasy friendship and shifting dynamic between the two is interesting to watch as it develops, particularly as we’re also not sure who – if anyone – we can trust.

Locked Up is a story about human relationships, first and foremost, and asks some searching questions about trust, betrayal and the ways in which a crisis can bring together even the unlikeliest collaborators. But it also touches on current political and social issues that we can all relate to, like the threat of terrorism and government surveillance, and the fear of failure that so often holds us back from pursuing what we really want in life.

If Simpkin’s writing isn’t enough to keep us on the edge of our seats then the light and sound effects employed at each scene change will finish the job; lighting designer Euan Davies has a row of bright spotlights shine directly on to the audience, accompanied by loud and unsettling noises. This has the practical purpose of allowing the actors to invisibly reset the stage – occasionally disappearing from it altogether when one of the characters is taken away for interrogation in the mysterious White Room – but it also keeps the audience on our toes; there’s little chance of us getting too comfortable at any point during the hour-long play.

Photo credit: Rosalind White Photography

Similarly, Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s set design is logistically clever, allowing the actors to leave and return seemingly out of thin air, but it also helps reinforce the play’s claustrophobic atmosphere. The characters aren’t the only ones who have no idea what’s going on outside these four walls; for the duration of the play, we’re as trapped and in the dark (both literally and figuratively) as they are.

The end, when it comes, is abrupt and catches us completely off guard, and though it’s frustrating that the story cuts off where it does, in a way it’s the perfect moment to stop and leave it to the audience to ponder answers to our many remaining questions. An intriguing and unnerving hour of theatre, Locked Up will keep you guessing to the end – and beyond.

Locked Up is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 28th July.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Charlotte Fox, Ouroboros

Ever felt like you’re not quite good enough? You’re not alone. In her debut solo show Ouroboros (named after an ancient symbol that depicts a snake eating its own tail, in an eternal cycle of renewal), writer and performer Charlotte Fox tackles society’s obsession with ego, superficiality, social media, narcissism and body image, and explores their effects on Charlotte, an actress in the entertainment industry.

“I was inspired to write Ouroboros by frustration with the lack of acting work,” explains Charlotte. “I was writing in response to what was happening around me, in my life and career experience. I struggled to reconcile with other people’s conflicting viewpoints. It felt like a constant battle, struggling against myself and having to obey an industry and society’s vision of ‘beauty’ and ‘perfection’ in order to fit in and seek acceptance.”

Following a run earlier this year at the Rosemary Branch, Charlotte is preparing to take the show to Edinburgh next month, where she hopes audiences will embrace its message and get involved. “It’s an explosive display on stage,” she says. “Ouroboros is like fireworks – a show that doesn’t come down, with highly physical and absurdist comedy elements, that discusses relevant and timely issues without being didactic. It has the ability to mix observational scenarios and parody them in a way that makes you laugh and cry before sending you away. It also combines music, dance, clowning, physical theatre, bouffon and a bit of mime!! One genre!? Naahh – chose ’em all!

“I’m looking forward to performing to a different audience everyday in Edinburgh. They all bring something different. You can sense it as soon as you step out. What one person might find disturbing can have another howling with laughter. It’s brilliant! I like sensing that, there’s interaction in this show and it’s fun as an actor discovering how you can play to the audience. Or how they are playing for you. I hope they’ll feel excited and moved by the whole experience, and have a willingness to re-examine their own lifestyle experiences, recall moments of similarity and most importantly laugh and perhaps squirm on the edge of their seats!”

The show, which is written, performed and directed by Charlotte, has been in development for the past year. “It’s been an incredible journey,” she says. “I wasn’t really too sure what to expect at the start – it was difficult, but I knew I was tapping into something important, I had an urge to keep exploring. I always knew the style of work I liked and had a vision of what I wanted to create. So collaborations with other like-minded theatre makers were made and Ouroboros started to flourish. I had a revelation when I realised not everyone will share your artistic vision. You have to be so strong and protect yourself against people who can try and contaminate your work… It was a big lesson for me.”

Performing the 60-minute solo show, in which Charlotte portrays “a conveyer belt of hyper-functional characters”, brings with it a number of physical and emotional challenges. “It’s a huge physical demand as a performer,” she says. “It’s also very close to the bone, which brings both a challenge and reward. I know that this show has left an impact on people in a similar situation. It’s sparked discussion. It’s also allowed me to find self-acceptance as an actor, allowing my own creativity and artistry to flourish regardless of what anyone says. You can decide to say yes to yourself.”

Catch the final London preview of Ouroboros at Camden People’s Theatre on 25th July, or at Edinburgh’s Cowgate, 2nd-14th August at 1.10pm.

Review: Fat Jewels at The Hope Theatre

Temperatures soar in more ways than one in Joseph Skelton’s Fat Jewels, a dark and deeply unsettling tale of abuse, manipulation and mental fragility. An already warm theatre becomes increasingly stifling as tensions between the two characters rise, and all the audience can do is sit and wait for the inevitable explosion.

Photo credit: Laura Harling

21-year-old Pat (Hugh Train) is a loner who lives with his mum, has no friends and is troubled by violent fantasies. Convinced there’s something wrong with him, he seizes on family friend Danny’s (Robert Walters) vague offer of “therapy”, which seems to mostly involve encouraging him to let out his pent-up aggression by killing animals. But Danny has his own agenda, and takes advantage of Pat’s vulnerability to embark on a programme of emotional and sexual manipulation, all the while convincing him it’s for his own good – and in doing so, like most bullies, reveals his own deep insecurities.

We’re thrown straight into the midst of their bizarre encounter in Danny’s living room on a South Yorkshire council estate, where the heater is turned up to the max and several discarded beer cans hint at a long evening already behind us. Any hopes that this might be a normal friendship go quickly out the window as the older man suggests a trip to the zoo with a cricket bat; while Pat seems clueless as to his true meaning, Danny is visibly excited by the idea of beating a sea lion to death. And it only gets more disturbing from there, as we get into sleeping bag “worm fights”, chicken phobias and a nail-biting final confrontation during which the balance of power shifts dizzyingly back and forth.

As surreal as the plot occasionally gets, it’s sold with absolute conviction by the performances of actors Hugh Train and Robert Walters. As the naive, affable Pat, Train appears every inch the victim; it’s hard to imagine him having violent dreams, let alone acting on them – unless someone insults his mum, that is. Walters’ Danny seems by far the more volatile and dangerous of the two as he uses every unsavoury (and at times downright creepy) method at his disposal to get under Pat’s skin. But as director Luke Davies slowly ramps up the tension, cracks begin to show for both men, and while we can’t feel sympathy for Danny in the same way we do for Pat, by the time he finally crumbles we have some understanding of the insecurity and past trauma that drives him to abuse what little power he has.

Photo credit: Laura Harling

Despite some darkly humorous moments, Fat Jewels is not always an easy play to watch; in fact there are points where it’s tempting (and on one occasion necessary, for those sitting front and centre) to physically recoil. The Hope’s tight quarters and rising temperatures work with Skelton’s narrative to create a sense of claustrophobia, so that instead of being a distracting inconvenience, the discomfort becomes a vital part of the audience experience – and when combined with an intriguing plot and two utterly absorbing performances on stage, there’s more than enough in this disturbing production to keep us gripped throughout.

Fat Jewels is at The Hope Theatre until 21st July.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Flesh and Bone at Soho Theatre

Written by Unpolished Theatre’s Elliot Warren, who also performs and directs alongside co-founder Olivia Brady, Flesh and Bone is a funny, gritty and sharply topical portrayal of everyday life on a working-class estate in East London.

Tel (Warren) lives with his brother Reiss (Michael Jinks), his girlfriend Kel (Brady) and her grandad (Nick T Frost) in a rat-infested apartment block that’s just been scheduled for demolition. With money scarce, wannabe singer Kelly puts her vocal talents to profitable use by getting a job on a sex chatline, and Reiss works behind the bar in a Soho club, where he makes a startling – and not entirely welcome – discovery about his sexuality. Meanwhile Grandad’s mourning the loss of the good old days, and Tel, whose rage issues mean he can’t hold down a job, ends up robbing the local corner shop with downstairs neighbour and local drug dealer Jamal (Alessandro Babalola) in an attempt to raise some extra cash.

Photo credit: Owen Baker

They’re a motley crew, as evidenced in an opening scene that sees them all caught up in a violent brawl over a plate of scampi at the local pub. But while the play is, on the surface, a comedy that revels in its characters’ larger than life personalities, its message is more complex than we might first assume. As each of the five steps into the spotlight to tell their story, we get a glimpse beyond the stereotype and begin to appreciate their daily struggle to be seen, heard and understood, not just by the rest of society but within their own community. Each of the five characters hides a secret from their peers, held back from revealing the truth by a fear of judgment – and yet despite these internal fractures, in moments of crisis they’re able to put their differences aside and come together to defend their way of life against outside threats.

The company’s name is very quickly revealed to be a misnomer, as the play’s first rate cast are anything but unpolished. Everything about the performance is so slick and assured that even the script’s infusion of Shakespearean verse with a 21st century Cockney flavour feels completely natural, and combined with the intricately choreographed physicality of the ensemble scenes, holds our unwavering attention for the play’s full 80 minutes. The audience is an acknowledged and important part of the production, which draws us into the world of the characters with its humour and honesty, but never quite lets us forget that we’re only there as observers – so while Tel, Kel and friends may pour out their hearts to us, they’re also not afraid to issue a challenge if they feel they’re not being taken seriously. We’re on their turf, and they make sure we know it.

Photo credit: Owen Baker

Inspired by Elliot Warren’s own East End heritage, Flesh and Bone is an affectionate, entertaining and unapologetically irreverent tribute to a community that’s much more than a caricature, and has plenty to say for itself if only anybody would listen. But it also tackles universal themes – homosexuality, bereavement, misogyny and more – that will strike a chord with audiences from any background. If this is the debut production from Unpolished Theatre, then I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Flesh and Bone is at Soho Theatre until 21st July.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Ross McGregor, The White Rose

Arrows & Traps have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with over the last few years with their unique and exciting adaptations of classic works of literature, from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky. But next week marks a new chapter for the company, as they present The White Rose, the first original play written by Arrows founder and artistic director Ross McGregor.

The White Rose tells the true account of the life of Sophie Scholl, a young student in Hitler’s Germany, who, with her brother Hans, forms a group of intellectual freedom fighters – calling themselves The White Rose,” explains Ross. “Together they lead the only major act of civil disobedience to the Third Reich. They have serious objections to what their government is doing during the war, particularly in Russia and Poland, and decide to voice their opinions in a series of leaflets that they write and distribute covertly all across Germany. Their resistance to the regime, although pacifist and passive in nature, causes major shockwaves all across the country, just at the point in 1943 when the war is turning in the Allies’ favour. It’s the story of a small group of young people standing up to the greatest act of brutality that modern history has ever seen.”

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

Ross first heard Sophie’s story earlier this year on a podcast called ‘The women who changed history but were ultimately forgotten by it’, and realised that here in Britain, we know very little about her. “I don’t think the story is that well-known, at least not in England, and this production seeks, in a very small way, to rectify that. In Germany, Hans and Sophie Scholl are national heroes, with over 190 schools named in their honour, streets, town squares, foundations, museums – one of the group was even made a saint. In a recent poll on German television, German citizens were asked to vote for their Greatest German. Sophie and Hans came fourth. They beat Einstein, Bach and Beethoven. I felt this was a female-led story that needed to be told – and with the world as it is currently, and how those in power are treating the weak and vulnerable, it seemed incredibly topical.”

In light of recent news headlines (and the arrival of a certain U.S. president in London), the story of The White Rose feels even more frighteningly relevant. “You would hope that the horrors of the Third Reich were behind us, but you only have to turn on the news to see the latest updates on the concentration camps in America – land of the free,” says Ross. “Concentration camps are defined as a location where individuals are detained against their will indefinitely without trial, and that is exactly what the Trump administration is currently doing. Children are being separated from their parents, and specific minorities are being targeted as enemies of the state, being compared to criminals without a crime actually being committed. Our future lies in the voices of the next generation, and the principles that Sophie and the other members of the White Rose stood for are as valid and vital today as they were in 1943.”

The White Rose marks the next step in the Arrows journey, which began back in 2014 with Much Ado About Nothing at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre. “Since 2016, our last Shakespeare show, we’ve been moving towards more modern work – mainly because we’ve done so many Shakespeare plays, and he’s not writing any more so we’re running out of material,” says Ross, who’s directed all twelve Arrows productions to date. “I have a deep love of Russian literature, and so that was our focus to begin with, with Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. As we moved forward, I began writing the shows, beginning with a Frankenstein that served also as a biopic of Mary Shelley herself, and an entirely new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted from the original Russian and a literal translation. After some success in the format, I felt it was time to do an original piece, without the comfort blanket of it being an adaptation, and Sophie’s story completely gripped me.

“When I was writing The White Rose there was an increased level of freedom, as the play has never been performed before, and you don’t have any ghosts of previous performances to exorcise or measure up to, but the writing of the script took a huge amount of research, which was a fascinating and thoroughly engrossing process. What quickly became clear was that all of the characters in the play could have had a play written about them, the source material was that rich, so it became more about working out what the focus was, and pairing the original story down into a theatrical form. Decide the story you want to tell, and try to tell it as cleanly and clearly as possible. It’s been an incredible honour to work on such a rich and detailed piece of history.”

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

While adapting works of literature carries with it an obligation to honour both the source text and those who know and love it, Ross argues that telling a story based on real historical figures is an even greater responsibility: “With our previous work in adaptations, we tried to serve the fanbase of the original novels, whilst still infusing each piece with something original and modern, but with The White Rose we’re dealing with a true story, involving real people, real crimes, real deaths, and several members of the story are still alive today. There was an immense responsibility to stay true to the actual events that took place 75 years ago, to the extent that the script uses verbatim pieces of text from diaries, court transcripts, first person accounts and interrogation documents. The story was unbelievably brave, heartbreaking and inspiring just as it was, without any embellishment, and I wanted to honour the sacrifice this incredible group of young people made.”

Regular Arrows fans will recognise many familiar faces in the cast of The White Rose, which opens next week at the Brockley Jack Studio. “With this being such a special show, filled with such rich and nuanced characters, I wanted a cast that represented the best of what Arrows & Traps had to offer. Eight of the nine members of the cast are returning members to the company, and it filled me with such joy to cast them before the script was written, as it allowed me to write for the actors, and cultivate roles that I knew would challenge them, as well as play to their strengths.  I think a large part of the enjoyment of coming to see an Arrows show, as we’re a rep company, is to watch familiar faces in contrasting roles, and appreciate how that ensemble dynamic changes and shifts across the different texts we tackle. 

“We have our resident Movement Director Will Pinchin, who was an Off West End Award finalist for his portrayal of the Creature in our recent Frankenstein, returning as Hans Scholl. We have Off West End Award Best Actor nominee Christopher Tester (Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein) as Gestapo Interrogator Robert Mohr, Pearce Sampson (Macbeth, Gospel According to Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night, Three Sisters) returning as the heartbreakingly tragic Christoph Probst,  Conor Moss (Three Sisters) as the blisteringly funny Alexander Schmorell, Freddie Cambanakis (Three Sisters) as the dashing heartthrob Fritz Hartnagel, Beatrice Vincent (Frankenstein) as the powerhouse Traute Lafrenz, Alex Stevens (Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Gospel According To Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night) returning as moral compass Willi Graf, and of course Cornelia Baumann (Taming Of The Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Othello, Frankenstein, Three Sisters) playing Sophie’s cellmate Else Gebel. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure it would be an Arrows show if Cornelia wasn’t in it, she’s the heart of the company, and the best actress I’ve ever worked with. 

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

“And lastly, but of course by no means least, we have the wonderful talent of Lucy Ioannou in the title role of Sophie Scholl. Although Lucy is new to the company, she has blown me away in rehearsal with her dedication to the role – she’s incredibly talented and an absolute joy to direct. For me, three weeks into rehearsal, she is Sophie Scholl.”

The Arrows’ next production after The White Rose sees a return to classic literature, as they turn their attention to a chilling new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Dracula is again a new piece written in-house, which is going to be at the Brockley Jack just in time for Halloween,” says Ross. “Whilst having the focus of being an utterly terrifying experience, we’re also going to simultaneously tell the story of Bram Stoker, and his tumultuous relationship with infamous actor, arguably the most famous of his generation, Henry Irving. As the writer and director of the show, I’m currently in the research stages for the piece, and I cannot wait for it – we’re certainly ending the year with a bang, and have something truly spectacular planned for the new year, which I can’t talk about just yet. 

“I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention Artistic Director Kate Bannister, and Producer Karl Swinyard, at the Brockley Jack, who have supported our work for the last three years, and given us a home in which to cultivate our creative direction and find the work we wanted to make. You cannot hope to meet a more generous and caring theatre management team than Kate and Karl – they’re the best of the best, always on your side, and always open to taking new work. Kate fell in love with Sophie’s story from Day One, as she passionately cares about telling female-led stories, and supporting new writing, and it’s been such an honour to work with them on a great season so far.”

The White Rose runs from 17th July to 4th August at the Brockley Jack Studio.