Review: Phoenix Rising at Smithfield Market

There are several reasons to go and see The Big House’s revival of their acclaimed debut Phoenix – now reworked as Phoenix Rising – and that’s before we even start talking about the production itself. First, the venue; it’s not often you get to watch a show in an underground car park beneath Smithfield Market, after all. Second: The Big House is an incredible organisation working with young care leavers – in their own words, they offer “a place where people who may have given up on themselves gain the skills and confidence to turn their lives around”. And as if all that wasn’t enough, this particular show is dedicated to the memory of Dwayne Kieran Nero, the original Phoenix cast member whose experience with MS inspired the first production in 2013.

Photo credit: Dylan Nolte

Now, in case you’re not already convinced – let’s talk about the show, which is up there with any seasoned, professional company. Written by Andrew Day in collaboration with the cast, it’s the story of 18-year-old care leaver Callum, played by the exceptionally talented Aston McAuley. Suddenly he finds himself alone in a dirty flat, visited by a parade of social workers who say the right things but ultimately achieve nothing, and haunted by memories of his difficult childhood. A promising sprinter, Callum throws himself into training – but then something strange starts to happen to his legs, and the fragile future he’s started to build for himself comes crashing down.

Though it’s a revival of the original Phoenix, the story has been reworked to incorporate the life experiences of its new cast, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the performances all come across as particularly raw and heartfelt. The anger and pain – but also resilience and humour – that we see in Callum, his friends Omar and Bready (Jordan Bangura and Daniel Akilimali), his girlfriend Nina (Perrina Allen) and neighbour Hannah (Rebecca Farinre) are all the more powerful because we know they come from a real place; in this case, acting and pretending are far from the same thing.

Photo credit: Rick Findler

The promenade performance (top tip: wear comfy shoes and layer up), deftly directed by The Big House founder Maggie Norris, takes us into every corner of the chilly, echoey but surprisingly atmospheric venue, returning again and again to the race track at the centre. Here is where the story begins, and perhaps where it will end; it’s where Callum’s enjoyed some of his finest moments, but it’s also where he has to face his army of demons – an army hauntingly portrayed by the cast in dream-like sequences, led by the mocking, skeletal figure of Oz Enver as the Disease.

Let’s not beat around the bush; Phoenix Rising is a devastating story in many ways, forcing us whether we like it or not to confront the harsh reality that so many young people in the UK face every day. But the very fact that the production is happening at all offers a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and the commitment, energy and realised potential of the company can’t help but leave us uplifted, encouraged and motivated to take action. With organisations like The Big House to lead the way, it’s possible to believe things can and will get better.

Phoenix Rising is at Smithfield Market until 2nd December.

Review: The Dark Room at Theatre503

As the title suggests, the UK premiere of Angela Betzien’s The Dark Room makes for decidedly bleak viewing. Set in a run-down motel near Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, it tells three interconnected stories, which unfold simultaneously on stage but in reality months apart, taking in themes including police brutality and child abuse. Betzien weaves these narrative threads together, as the characters slip in and out of each other’s lives, resulting in an intense 75 minutes that makes you think, keeps you guessing and ultimately leaves you reeling.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

First to arrive are youth worker Anni (Katy Brittain) and her latest charge Grace (Annabel Smith), staying for the night while Anni tries to find a new home for the traumatised teenager. Next, we meet policeman Stephen (Tamlyn Henderson) and his pregnant wife Emma (Fiona Skinner), returning from a wedding but in far from high spirits. And last to enter the room is Craig (Alasdair Craig), another police officer, who’s facing up to recent events involving another teenager, Joseph (Paul Adeyefa), and the implications for his life and career.

The Dark Room is not an easy play, either in its subject matter or its format. The script blurs and overlaps scenes, with the actors remaining in the room throughout while other stories are told. Yet each pairing occupies their own separate world, and director Audrey Sheffield skilfully manoeuvres the actors around the space so that each strand of the plot remains distinct and clear. There’s a connection between the three, which is gradually revealed as the play goes on, and places Joseph and Stephen at the centre of the intricate framework. Tamlyn Henderson is excellent as Stephen; he’s clearly a good man who loves his wife and wants to do the right thing, but has found himself trapped in a world where masculinity always wins, at the expense of everyone and everything else.

Ultimately, though, it’s Grace’s story that lingers most in the mind. Annabel Smith is mesmerising as the volatile and vulnerable young girl whose life has been so horrific it’s left her broken and feral. In contrast, Katy Brittain’s Anni exudes the weary patience of an experienced youth worker who’s seen it all before – not just in this case but in an endless line of mistreated and neglected children over the course of ten years. Her lack of surprise in the face of Grace’s outbursts is perhaps the most disconcerting point of all.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

After carefully building the suspense little by little, the play’s conclusion comes suddenly in a burst of drama (with lighting designer Will Monks creating some genuinely unnerving effects in the play’s dying moments). Though conclusion is perhaps the wrong word, as we’re left with the depressing sensation that nothing’s really changed; just as they weren’t the first, Grace and Joseph won’t be the last young people to end up in their situation. And though the play’s set in Australia, it issues a universal challenge to society to change the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Certainly not a light evening’s entertainment, but a grimly thought-provoking piece of theatre that deserves to be seen by many.

The Dark Room is at Theatre503 until 2nd December.

Review: Netherbard at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

Why go and see one Shakespeare play when you can see several all at once? In Netherbard, the debut show from Budding Rose Productions, Kate (Rosemary Berkon), Amy (Tayla Kenyon) and Lena (Katrina Allen) have been cast as the three witches in Macbeth. In between rehearsals they take time out to moan about Abby (Lucinda Turner), who’s snatched the role of Lady Macbeth from under Kate’s nose – along with Lena’s boyfriend and Amy’s dream role in Eastenders.

Their light-hearted banter takes an unexpectedly dark turn when Abby herself arrives, and the trio realise they’re no longer rehearsing Macbeth, but King Lear. By the time they realise what’s happened and why, there’s no going back, and so begins a mad chase through a selection of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, uncovering a tale of envy and ambition the Bard himself would be proud of. The only difference is that here the women are taking their destiny into their own hands, instead of slinking off to die quietly backstage while the men do the fighting.

Even the most diehard fan would have to admit women don’t always get a great deal in Shakespeare’s world, so it’s refreshing to see the girls stepping into the spotlight and taking on some meatier roles. Despite some sombre themes and nefarious deeds, Netherbard is very much a comedy, and under Rosie Snell’s direction the energy never wavers. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves and keep pace well with the rapid-fire dialogue – though it’s not always so easy for the audience to keep up, particularly later in the play when things start to get a bit chaotic and the actors are talking over each other. At just a couple of minutes under an hour, it’s all over very quickly, but manages to pack a lot of action into that brief time, and I would have happily stayed for more.

Janice Hallett’s lively comedy is great fun for Shakespeare fans, and a perfect opportunity for those who want to show off by identifying all the famous speeches that come up in the script (although it is possible to cheat a bit thanks to Greg Spong’s set, which is full of clues – some obvious, some less so). But the play’s equally enjoyable for lovers of Eastenders or reality TV where, let’s be honest, you’re just as likely to find people stabbing each other in the back as in any Shakespearean tragedy. 

Netherbard is an impressive debut from an exciting new female-led company. It’s a shame the initial run was just two days, but hopefully it’s not the last we’ve seen of this offbeat tribute to Shakespeare and the cut-throat world of showbiz.

Review: Flycatcher at The Hope Theatre

Gregg Masuak’s Flycatcher is unsettling from the start, kicking off with an eery, monotonous chorus of “nobody likes me, everybody hates me…” led by Emily Arden’s unblinking Madelaine, while the rest of the cast emerge from the corners, where they’ve been frozen like waxworks since we entered.

From there, things get increasingly disturbing and bewildering as awkward waitress Madelaine becomes obsessed with Bing, an idealistic young life insurance salesman. Unfortunately, he in turn is obsessed – though in a (slightly) less creepy way – with Olive, a gallery owner who reminds him of his idol Grace Kelly and is herself trapped in an unfulfilling relationship with a married man. When Madelaine befriends Olive, you just know it isn’t going to end well… Meanwhile a seemingly unrelated subplot involving Madelaine’s grandmother Mae, growing old disgracefully in a desperate bid for attention, circles back in the play’s shocking final moments to complete the intricate web connecting all the characters to each other.

It’s a bizarre play, part thriller, part comedy and made up of a lot of very short scenes – some literally a few seconds – that keep the cast of eight moving constantly on and off stage. Though the action predominantly revolves around the four main characters, the other actors (Nathan Plant, Susanna Wolff, Bruce Kitchener and Melissa Dalton) work just as hard, in a variety of eccentric and distinct supporting roles that intersect with the central characters at different points. This structure could have resulted in a very stop-start production, but under the direction of writer Gregg Masuak everything flows smoothly, and the actors – who frequently retire to the corners of the space to prepare for their next scene – never miss a beat. There’s still a lot to take in from one minute to the next, but it’s difficult to fault the way the snapshot scenes are presented.

Emily Arden is genuinely quite scary as Madelaine as she weaves her web of deceit around Bing and Olive, glowering all the while at a world that’s never accepted her (though her rare attempts at a smile are even more frightening), and visibly growing in stature and confidence as she puts her plan into action. She makes an unlikely pairing with Alex Shenton’s Bing, a charming salesman who wins over his customers by selling them a dream of a better world; one of the biggest tragedies of the play is seeing him lose the puppy dog eagerness with which he pursues Olive, played by Amy Newton. Their relationship progresses very naturally through the awkward flirting stage into something resembling stability, but is equally convincing as both it and they begin to fall apart. Completing the core cast as Mae, Fiz Marcus offers some light relief, although her vulnerability and desperate need for someone – anyone – to listen to her is heartbreaking; she spends most of the play talking into a void as all the other characters avoid or scorn her.

There are elements of the story that are strange and confusing, and I’d be surprised if anybody left feeling they understood everything they’d just seen. However, the performances, design (I really loved the simple effectiveness of Anna Kezia Williams’ spiderweb set) and direction combine to create an atmosphere of foreboding and drama that keeps us engaged even when we don’t really know what’s happening. A distinctly odd evening, and the style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is undeniably an excellent production.

Flycatcher is at The Hope Theatre until 2nd December.

Review: The Very Perry Show at the Hen and Chickens

People are odd. Which is a good thing; if we were all completely normal, life would be very dull. You only have to tune into a neighbour’s conversation on the train, or look at the other customers in a cafe to appreciate how wonderfully weird human beings are.

Kate Perry knows this more than most. She likes to collect people – and then share them in all their delightful eccentricity. So it is that we come to meet the likes of Carmel, a pensioner with a Ken Barlow obsession; Jimmy, a pigeon fancier from Bolton; and Bridget, a little girl making friends – whether they like it or not – with her fellow passengers on a flight to the States. These are just three of the characters brought to life in the comedy monologues of The Very Perry Show, a fun-filled one-woman performance that stops off in London this week on its way to New York.

Directed by Jeremy Stockwell, the show takes a no frills approach; each character has one or two accessories to differentiate them visually from the rest, but they’re really just a bonus thanks to Kate Perry’s talent for embodying completely each distinct personality. The affection she feels for each of her creations is obvious – even Suzie, a bored twelve-year-old from Surrey who’s just been expelled (again), and to pass the time plies her mother with tranquillisers, then calmly films the ensuing carnage for a web series she likes to call Mummy on the Brink.

That slightly dark episode aside, all the characters are interesting and lovable in their own ways (though in Bridget’s case, there’s a big difference between ten minutes in a theatre and several hours on a plane). And of course there are a lot of laughs, even in the stories we might not expect to be that amusing – like Marie, who’s reminiscing about the day she heard her father had died; not a cheerful topic, yet Marie ultimately ends up getting one of the biggest laughs of the night.

The final character in the collection is Mary Peachy-Bender, an Amish wife and mother of “six childrens” (and she does not want any more). The extreme circumstances in which Mary lives offer plenty of opportunities for comedy, but there’s also a sadness to this character as she imagines a different life, and that makes her somehow the most believable of them all.

Kate Perry is a great performer – quite apart from her talent for creating characters we can both relate to and laugh at, as a host she’s warm and inviting, addressing the audience directly but not in a way that will make anyone uncomfortable. The show is an hour of good, clean fun that moves along at a gentle pace without ever losing our interest, and proves that there really are interesting characters everywhere if you take a look around.

The Very Perry Show is at the Hen and Chickens until 11th November.