Review: Bury the Dead at Finborough Theatre

A few days ago, leaders from across the world stood shoulder to shoulder to commemorate the end of World War I, and the millions of lives sacrificed during the conflict. With one obvious exception (who shall remain nameless because frankly, who can be bothered with him?), they were respectful and sombre – so it’s been pretty depressing this week to see several of them once again at each other’s throats. It’s almost enough to make you wonder what the war (any war) was even for…?

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

In Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead, written in 1935, six fallen American soldiers stand up in their graves and courteously ask not to be buried. Their violent and bloody deaths, they argue, were not of their choosing; they gave their lives for someone else’s cause, and it doesn’t seem fair that their reward should be to be buried and quietly forgotten, when each still has so much to live for.

The soldiers’ peaceful protest makes a powerful statement, but what gives Bury the Dead such an impact is the response to their actions. The military leaders, fearful of the effect it will have on morale, desperately try to keep the whole situation quiet – and when that fails, they distort the soldiers’ message into propaganda to further their cause. After the soldiers fail to obey direct orders to lie down and be buried, their superiors use fear and manipulation to get their “women” to talk them round. This may be a story about the walking dead, but there’s little doubt at any point who the real monsters are.

The beginning and end of the play are fast-paced, with set designer Verity Johnson’s bleakly atmospheric grave site often full to bursting as the establishment frantically try to find a solution to their growing problem. Director Rafaella Marcus smoothly choreographs the multiple entrances and exits, and makes efficient use of her cast; most of the eleven actors take on a number of roles. Even the six dead men are at first played by just three (Keeran Blessie, Tom Larkin and Stuart Nunn), because the others (Luke Dale, Liam Harkins and Scott Westwood) double as the soldiers who would have buried them. I don’t know if that’s how Shaw wrote the play, or if it’s a decision that was taken for this production – but either way, when the two groups come together it’s an incredibly powerful moment.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The majority of the second half of the play slows things down (arguably a bit too much), taking the form of six one-on-one encounters between the soldiers and their “women”, and giving each of the actors an opportunity to shine individually as they explain their own motivations. This is also a showcase for the versatility of Sioned Jones and Natalie Winsor, who alternate between them as the six women – though it’s great to also see the only two female cast members in the role of doctors and journalists, and not just as weeping wives and mothers.

The Remembrance Day ceremonies may be over for another year, but in Bury the Dead we’re reminded that lives lost in combat are lost forever, not just for a day. The play draws a careful distinction between heroism and honour; having the courage to risk dying alone, in pain and far from home is heroic, but there’s nothing honourable about it, particularly when the only people who gain from it are those unwilling to risk it themselves. The play asks us to remember – but to avoid repeating the horrors of the past, it suggests what we really need to do is to listen.

Bury the Dead is at Finborough Theatre until 24th November.

Review: Voices From Home at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Following a successful first outing last year, Voices From Home was back this weekend for a second short but sweet stay at the Old Red Lion. Curated by Tim Cook of Broken Silence Theatre – themselves a Brighton-based company – the two-day showcase featured five short plays on a broad range of themes, created by an all-female line-up of emerging writers from across the South East.

The evening opened with Sungrazer by Sussex writer Clare Reddaway, directed by Peter Taylor. In Sweden, sisters Annika and Inga can’t quite believe they’re related. They hold very different views on just about everything, but particularly about Annika’s job at the local nuclear plant, which comes to threaten their future together in a number of different ways. With strong performances from Eleanor Crosswell and Emma Howarth as the two bickering sisters, this gently humorous piece explores family tensions against a backdrop of scientific curiosity and environmental concern.

The future of our world is also at stake in M** & Women by Buckinghamshire’s Sydney Stevenson. Directed by Tim Cook, the play introduces us to 1 and 2 (Melissa Parker and Eleanor Grace), who are standing guard over the last man on Earth. The rest have been wiped out by a mysterious epidemic, leaving the women in charge of a crumbling civilisation. Except women and men really aren’t that different; we all love, hate, make inappropriate jokes, run businesses, start wars… Despite the title, in reality this is a play not about men and women but about human beings – and it speaks just as clearly to us now in 2018 as in any fictional future that may lie ahead.

Flying Ant Day, written by Jo Gatford from Sussex, and directed by Elizabeth Benbow, offers a fresh perspective on the role of “women of a certain age” in society. Through the story of mum-of-two Alice, who’s played with poignant vulnerability by Jennifer Oliver, we’re invited to look again at a mother – but this time to see her, not her children. Alice has begun to feel like she’s disappearing, piece by piece; her husband barely notices her any more, and her best friend Karen (Emmie Spencer) is too busy being super-mum to her own three kids to lend more than a passing ear. This is an incredibly impactful play, and one that I’d love to see developed further.

Emma Zadow’s very funny Norfolk-based play The Cromer Special, directed by Charlie Norburn, takes place in a fish and chip shop on Christmas Day. Maggie’s working behind the counter, despite having no customers – or indeed any fish – and has been joined by her best friend Lucy, who’s been driven out of her own house by her sister’s avocado-loving boyfriend. The play doesn’t hold back in its witty dissection of the class divide that’s sprung up between the Cromer locals and the students at nearby UEA, and this – along with brilliant comic performances from Claudia Campbell and Abbi Douetil – earned it some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

After the hilarity of the previous play, the evening ended on a somewhat darker note, with Home Time by Olivia Rosenthall from Essex. Directed by Tess Agus and performed by Isobel Eadie, the monologue begins with a scene many of us will know all too well – the rush hour commute. A grim picture is about to get even worse, however, when a young woman is sexually assaulted on a packed tube train, unseen (perhaps) by her fellow commuters. It’s a horrifying scenario – not least because it’s all too easy to believe that it actually happens – and very powerfully told, with a conclusion that’s simultaneously mundane and devastating.

As well as much-needed support for regional talent, it was also refreshing to see a programme championing female writers and performers. Each of the five pieces in Volume Two of Voices From Home brought something different to the stage, resulting in another excellent evening full of variety and mixed emotions. Despite all being under fifteen minutes, each play is able to tell a complete story – although most would certainly work also as longer pieces – and each leaves us with something to go away and think about (even if it’s just the merits, or otherwise, of avocados).

For future Voices From Home events, visit brokensilencetheatre.com.

Review: Unbelonger at the Cockpit Theatre

Anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t quite fit in will be able to relate to Ekata Theatre’s haunting piece of physical theatre, Unbelonger, which returns to London as part of the Voila! Europe Festival for the second year in a row. Though the piece tells one young woman’s very unique story, the emotions and sense of isolation it conveys are so broadly universal that it has something to say to almost everyone.

The central character, played by Janaki Gerard, is marked out as different from the start by the fact that she, unlike everyone else, wears a scarf (as an accessory; importantly, it has no overt religious connotations). As we follow her through school, dating and work, we see her repeatedly excluded from the groups that everyone else seems to fit into with such ease, although whether this exclusion is imposed on her by others or by herself is left open to interpretation. And yet when she tries to free herself from the thing that makes her different – in this case, her scarf – she’s left feeling incomplete and more alone than ever.

Directed by Erika Eva (who also stepped in to perform at this particular performance, alongside Durassie Kiangangu and Silvia Manazzone, after cast member Tongchai Hansen sustained an injury shortly prior to the show), the action takes place on a largely empty stage, lit by four bare bulbs that represent different stages of our protagonist’s life. Creative use is made of a handheld lamp, and wooden crates that become rucksacks, a candlelit dinner table, and business briefcases – but the most important item on stage is the scarf, which comes to life as a character in its own right in the hands of Silvia Manazzone. Through this object puppetry, we come to understand the close relationship between the young woman and her scarf, and see how this dynamic evolves as the story develops.

In addition to the physical movement on stage, sound and light play a hugely important role in setting the tone of the piece. Composer and musician Xavier Velastín, on the Cockpit’s gantry, is almost as fascinating to watch as the cast on the ground, as he creates unique audio effects through his own body movement. This is particularly effective at moments in which the central character feels most isolated from her peers, as a harsh blue light floods the stage and the sound of distorted voices creates a deeply unsettling and alienating atmosphere.

Although the show features very little in the way of spoken word (at least in English – several other languages feature prominently), the emotions it seeks to evoke come through loud and clear. Unbelonger doesn’t seek to make any particular statement; we can choose to interpret the protagonist’s scarf in a multitude of ways – as an indicator of race, gender, sexuality, age, class, or almost any other human characteristic that might set us apart from others. What we can all agree on, however, is how effectively the piece conveys the feeling of being excluded and alone, and the frustration of knowing that what causes us to feel that way might also be the one thing that makes us who we are.

The final performance of Unbelonger is at the Cockpit Theatre on 12th November.


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Review: The Fire Raisers at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

The Fire Raisers was written by Swiss playwright Max Frisch in 1948, reportedly as a response to the Communist takeover in Prague – though the play never specifically references that event. Instead, it takes as its setting the home of respected middle-class businessman Gottlieb Biedermann, whose town has recently been targeted by serial arsonists. Biedermann is one of the first to speak out against the attacks – but when two fire raisers talk their way into his home, making absolutely no secret of their intention to burn it down, he flat-out refuses to acknowledge the truth that’s right in front of his eyes.

Described by Frisch as a “lesson without teaching”, the allegorical play can be seen as a comment on any number of 20th or 21st century political events that have seen even the most respectable citizens turn a blind eye to blatant wrongdoing. It’s left to the audience, however, to decide specifically where and how we apply that message. This new production by Theatre of Heaven and Hell is similarly non-specific – although the inclusion of original songs by director Michael Ward does give the play at times an unnecessarily didactic feel, particularly during a rather heavy-handed and superfluous final number.

The cast of actor-musicians generally manage the comedic chaos well, with strong central performances in particular from Darren Ruston as Biedermann, and Marius Clements and Jake W Francis as the two would-be arsonists. Ruston’s Biedermann is very much the everyman, despite his many flaws, and even as we laugh at his stubborn stupidity, we can understand – if not condone – why he behaves as he does. When he turns to the audience and demands to know what we would have done in his shoes, it’s a particularly uncomfortable moment for everyone.

Similarly, we can’t help but be charmed by Clements and Francis, even though we know full well they’re up to no good. Each time they openly admit they’re plotting to burn down Biedermann’s house, we laugh along with both them and their victim because it seems so ludicrous; who would confess such a thing if they really meant to do it? Watching them, we’re reminded of those leaders who use their charisma and the appearance of buffoonery to slip under the radar (in keeping with the spirit of the play, I won’t name names – but I think we can all think of a couple of examples…).

At once an enjoyable absurdist comedy and a cautionary political parable, The Fire Raisers is a fun show with a bit of an edge. There are times when the production feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to get its point across, rather than allowing Frisch’s script to speak for itself – but that grumble aside the play has lots to say and, for the most part, says it well.

The Fire Raisers is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 17th November.

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Review: Gilded Butterflies at The Hope Theatre

Debates about the death penalty tend to focus, unsurprisingly, on the moral rights and wrongs of taking a life for a life. Less, perhaps, is known about the dehumanising conditions in which condemned prisoners must await their fate – often for years, or even decades. Tormented Casserole’s two-hander Gilded Butterflies, devised by the company and directed by Kathryn Papworth-Smith, sets out to remedy that. Based on the true account of death row survivor Sunny Jacobs, the play paints a brutal picture of what everyday life is like in solitary confinement, and in doing so it also offers us a poignant glimpse at the lengths to which the human spirit will go to survive, even in unimaginably bleak circumstances.

Photo credit: Rebecca Rayne

Maggie (Francesca McCrohon) is a young woman who spends her days alone in her prison cell in Florida. It’s been a year since she saw or spoke to anyone besides her guards and her lawyer, but she keeps herself upbeat by painting, writing daily letters to her husband, and dreaming of what she’ll do when her lawyer gets her out. Then one day she gets a new neighbour (Samantha Pain) – but having company may not be quite the blessing she expected, and Maggie soon finds herself forced to face up to some devastating truths about what she’s done, and where she might be headed.

Samantha Pain plays three roles: the nameless prisoner next door, Maggie’s lawyer and her sister Lauren. Each of these is not so much a character in their own right as a vehicle to shed a little new light on Maggie’s situation, and it’s Francesca McCrohon who steals the show throughout. Smiley, chatty, kind: in any other circumstances Maggie’s the kind of person you can imagine yourself getting along with. Both the script and McCrohon’s performance draw us in, and for at least the first half of the play we even find ourselves sharing a little of her bright-eyed optimism about the state of her appeals.

And then we find out what brought Maggie to death row, and the tone of the play shifts in a much darker direction. Her dreams for the future are exposed as just that – dreams – and we realise what we’re seeing is a woman desperately battling to hold on to who she is against a system that’s determined to steal every last scrap of humanity from her, before finally ending her life. The lack of human contact; the refusal to allow her the most basic of items; the fact that she’s not even allowed to attend her own court hearings to plead her case; each new detail is one more reminder of how the American justice system views prisoners as less than human, a problem to be eradicated rather than addressed in any constructive way. Maggie is not innocent of the terrible crime for which she’s been convicted, but based on what we later learn of her circumstances, she’s not wholly guilty either – a subtle difference that a black and white system like the death penalty completely fails to take into account.

Photo credit: Rebecca Rayne

The play is simply staged; given the nature of the story, visually there’s not a lot to look at except a static set – consisting of two cells outlined on the ground, each with a metal bed and not much else – which helps to emphasise the monotony of Maggie’s daily existence. At each scene transition, white noise sound effects and abrupt lighting changes from Naomi Baldwin create an oppressive atmosphere that no amount of chatter can quite dissipate.

Gilded Butterflies is a thought-provoking and moving piece that highlights the urgent need for a change in policy and attitudes. The story may be set on death row, but the talking points it raises – specifically around mental health and the importance of rehabilitation rather than punishment – can be just as easily applied to justice systems around the world, including that of the UK. And if the play happens to also make you angry about the insanity of the death penalty – well, that’s an added bonus.

Gilded Butterflies is at The Hope Theatre until 24th November.


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