Interview: Yolanda Mercy, Quarter Life Crisis

“Alicia is a hot mess. She doesn’t know where she’s going in life. But everyone around her seems to know what they are doing. What does it mean to be an adult and when do you become one?”

Yolanda Mercy is Associate Artist at Ovalhouse, winner of the Rich Mix Small Story Big City Award, a visiting lecturer for Central School of Speech and Drama and a trustee of the National Youth Association. Incredibly, she also has time to be an actor and playwright, and this Easter weekend brings her new show, Quarter Life Crisis, to Ovalhouse as part of their FiRST BiTES series.

“I’d like audiences to take away with them the element of learning that it’s okay not to know what you’re doing with your life,” explains Yolanda. “We’re constantly bombarded with stories of people who are the same age as us, but seem to have it all together. I want audiences to leave the show empowered, knowing that even if you feel like you’re lost in life, there is a way out – and sometimes the clues within our names can lay the foundation of that empowerment.”

Yolanda was inspired to write the show by her own personal experience. “I felt like I was having a Quarter Life Crisis when my friends were getting married or having babies, and my biggest worry was that I have to surrender my 16-25 railcard.

“I’ve been thinking about this show for over a year, but I started working on it at ARC in June. Since then I’ve performed extracts of it at Brainchild’s Hatch, Vault festival and Ovalhouse theatre. The feedback and responses from the audience have been overwhelming – with a lot of audiences saying, ‘this show is so funny and really relatable’. Which is such an honour because I’m constantly told by audiences who have seen my shows like On The Edge Of Me, that my work is relatable.”

So, is this just a show for young people on the verge of adulthood? “No. I would say that this show is for anyone who has experienced a Quarter Life Crisis – who’s felt like everyone around them has gotten their life together quicker than they have.”

In December 2016, Yolanda was appointed Associate Artist at Ovalhouse, and Quarter Life Crisis is the first of many exciting projects she’ll be working on over the next two years. “I’m from south London. I live 12 minutes’ walk from the Ovalhouse. 6 minutes if I’m feeling lazy and need to rent a bike,” she says. “Being at this theatre where so many artists who I admire have gone through is such a huge achievement. I’ve worked really hard alongside my team Gemma Lloyd and Jade Lewis to constantly work to make exciting, thought provoking yet honest shows. I feel honoured that we’ve already started to build a loyal audience who come to see our shows time and time again. I’m so touched that people love our work. When we were doing On The Edge Of Me, we had audiences who saw the show three times. So it’s great to have a base like Ovalhouse for my audiences to access our shows and workshops.”

The show features live music, and a special guest from the local community – and there’s an element of audience participation too, although Yolanda’s keeping the details under her hat for now. “All I can say is be prepared to join in and have some fun…”

Quarter Life Crisis is at Ovalhouse from 13th-15th April.

Interview: Theatre Counterpoint, Am I Pretty?

Theatre Counterpoint produced their first show, Don’t Turn the Lights On, in 2015. The following year, with the arrival of two new members, work began on Am I Pretty? – an original devised performance which examines current issues around the self, body image, and cosmetic surgery. After months of development, the company will be presenting Am I Pretty? at Camden People’s Theatre from 6th-8th April, and are also seeking touring opportunities to share the work with more people.

The London-based company’s made up of director Dadiow Lin, producer Johanna Coulson, Mira Yonder, Valentin Stoev, Tori Zdovc and Jay Walker, who’ve worked closely together on the show. So where did the idea come from? “It started as a joke, or what we thought was a joke really. We were in a cafe, thinking about what our next project’s going to be, and Dadiow said, ‘I always wanted to have a chin’. And we looked at her and said ‘Well, you do Dadiow, you have a chin!’ We kept talking about appearance, what it means to us, and to what extent it’s linked to who we are. Having these thoughts in mind made us curious about all the people who’ve had cosmetic surgeries and what it feels like for them before and afterwards. Do they change their perception of themselves? What psychological journey might a person go through when applying this operation to their bodies and faces?

Photo credit: Jost Franko

“Cosmetic surgery is so many things, has so many dimensions. Most people dismiss it as an unnecessary vanity but it is a scientific marvel, a form of self-expression like tattoos and piercings, a complete life changer, in both good and bad ways. Some of our members’ perception of cosmetic surgery was completely changed from even just the first workshop we did. Am I Pretty? aims to start a conversation about this growing, evolving phenomenon, and to provide an opportunity to think about cosmetic surgery in all its complexity.”

The show’s been in development for about nine months. “The creative team was formed in June 2016, and that’s when we started developing the work. As we’re using jazz composition to shape the work, we firstly created a small piece, presented at Rich Mix in August 2016, to test out how we may establish a sense of jazz in a theatre performance. It was an important experience as we not only performed something jazzy but also gathered the comments and feedback about how this piece was perceived. After the trial of the jazz structure, we then delved into research on cosmetic surgery in order to form a ‘theme’ of this show.

“Our initial research into cosmetic surgery involved speaking to people who’ve experienced it as well as reading articles and journals about the whole process, both from the perspective of the patient and the medical people involved in the procedures. We broke down this research and data to see how it made us feel and understand the different viewpoints of those involved in the procedure. This led to us presenting a work-in-progress examining the journey of getting a nose job done at Goldsmiths, University of London in October 2016.

“Improvisation is the most important part in jazz music; therefore, after the presentation in October, we worked a whole week at The Old Vic Lab in November to seek our improvisational tools in a theatrical realm. From November until now, we’ve been generating material based on our ‘theme’ and refining our improvisational approaches, and now the performance is evolved into a three-act show with six scenes in each act. It’s huge and exciting!”

The team are clear that they’re not looking to preach about the pros or cons of cosmetic surgery: “We’d like people to leave with a more in-depth understanding of cosmetic surgery and the motivation behind people’s choice to undergo what can be a very painful, expensive and dangerous operation. However, we’re not giving a position to our audience, as it’s a very complex issue and there’s no black and white answer to it. Instead, we would like to intrigue you with more questions, challenge the superficial perspectives about cosmetic surgery, and reveal the intricate stories of the journey of becoming ‘prettier’.”

Importantly, Am I Pretty? has something to say to everyone, whether or not we’ve ever thought about cosmetic surgery. “It’s a work about how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves. Cosmetic surgery is a complex issue that we use as a lens to talk about who we are and how we might change in society. It should be interesting to anyone, as we all have some opinion on cosmetic surgery but our knowledge is often ‘skin deep’ – we know ours was until we started researching for this show. It involves a lot of issues and these go to the core of who we are as individuals, even if we have never considered having surgery.”

Photo credit: Jost Franko

And for anyone who is thinking about surgery, what would be the team’s advice? “We think it’s essential to figure out why you’d like to have cosmetic surgery – for instance, trying to discover if you will actually be ‘happier’ afterwards. If you have made up your mind, please consult the surgeon in detail, be aware of all the risks and complications, and prepare for the recovery thoroughly. We might ignore the ‘recovery period’ when seeing the effective before and after images, however, the recovery period could be very dreadful, and painful for both mental and physical status.”

What’s unique about Theatre Counterpoint, the team explain, is that they use analysis of music structures for the composition of their devised performances. “As we’ve been hosting workshops for theatre students who are also interested in devised theatre, we will keep sharing this method and developing it by expanding the scale of workshops and inviting more and more theatre practitioners to them.

“The jazz structure we take for Am I Pretty? is from ‘All the Things You Are’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. We made the basic sections in the music into different acts of the work, and the chord progressions into the scenes in each act. However, we’d like to keep some secrets about how we create these scenes, and how we interpret and deliver the sense of ‘jazz’ when making Am I Pretty? This jazz interpretation is not literal, the show does not involve music or singing. We’d love to have people come, see the show, find out, and question us about the shaping of the performance!”

Catch Am I Pretty? at Camden People’s Theatre from 6th-8th April.

Review: Kicked in the Sh*tter at the Hope Theatre

The title of Leon Fleming’s new play could hardly be more appropriate, because watching it actually does feel like being kicked, if not in the sh*tter then somewhere equally painful. Fearless and brutal, the play forces us to confront two of our society’s most common and damaging assumptions – that anyone on benefits must be a work-shy scrounger, and that anyone who suffers with depression must be a malingerer – and establishes an unsurprising but often-forgotten link between poverty and mental health issues.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter

We first meet the two unnamed siblings, Her and Him, as kids – planning their futures with an optimism that becomes increasingly heartbreaking as we flash forward to how things have actually turned out. She’s now a single mother of two, while he’s struggling with depression and living in squalor. Neither has a job – he because he doesn’t feel able to work; she because someone needs to stay home and take care of their sick mum – and both ultimately find themselves at the mercy of a system that deals in check boxes and endless forms, rather than the many shades of grey that make up real human lives. Which is not to say Kicked in the Sh*tter is necessarily a political play – Fleming’s careful to make clear that the health and social care professionals are doing their best within a flawed system, and that’s as far as the criticism goes. This is a story about people, not politics.

In keeping with this, director Scott Le Crass (who previously collaborated with Fleming on the critically acclaimed Sid) keeps things simple. The set, designed by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, is made up of large boxes that resemble dark concrete, and are manoeuvred into position by the actors to become a bed, sofa, table… Consequently, our focus remains on the characters, and particularly on the powerful performances given by Helen Budge and James Clay. In a series of short, punchy scenes that jump around in time and space, they show us the despair of a mother unable to provide tea for her kids, and the helplessness of a young man fighting not only his illness but also the assumptions of those who think he’s faking.

Between the two we see genuine affection, but also a constant battle as to who’s got it worse, resulting in a downward spiral from which there seems to be only one escape. As Scott Le Crass points out in his programme notes, this is not poverty porn; there’s no abuse of the system here, no smoking, drinking or fancy phones at the taxpayer’s expense – just two people genuinely struggling to survive against ever-increasing odds.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter

At the heart of the 75-minute play is a raw, honest account of mental illness, and the sobering realisation that it can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time – even those who think they’re holding it all together. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s actually a lot of humour in the play, a hopeful message that desperate times may reveal us to be capable of much more than we thought, along with an encouragement to share our struggles with those closest to us, rather than battling on alone.

It’s not necessary to read the programme notes from Leon Fleming and Scott Le Crass to understand this is a passion project; there’s an intensity to the writing and production that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. And for those of us who are able to put dinner on the table every night, it’s a wake-up call – a reminder of just how fortunate we are, but also of how unfairly we sometimes judge those who most need our help.

Kicked in the Sh*tter is at the Hope Theatre until 8th April.

Review: Barred Freedom at the Cockpit Theatre

Barred Freedom is the ambitious first project from producer and actor Matthew Hawes. Written by Eugene Ambrose, the play has two casts, one male and one female, who’ll take to the stage on alternating nights throughout this week’s run at the Cockpit Theatre. It’s an interesting idea – the play examines not only the experience of being in prison for each set of characters, but also the developing friendship between them, both of which I imagine could play out quite differently for men and women – and it’s a pity that limited time allows only one viewing.

Anyway, for the purposes of this review, let’s discuss the boys, who are directed by Asia Osborne (while writer Eugene Ambrose directs the female cast). Set in a prison in the 1970s, the story introduces us to well-spoken, educated and – let’s be honest – insufferable know-it-all Wentworth (Adam Sabatti), who’s a new arrival in prison having murdered his spouse (one downfall of the gender neutral approach is that this unlikely word keeps coming up in conversation). His cellmate Dawson (Matthew Hawes) is the polar opposite – he’s been in and out of prison for years, can’t read or write, and spends most of the time having to decipher his Cockney rhyming slang for Wentworth, who unsurprisingly prefers Latin. The two men have been locked in their cell for an indefinite amount of time because of a riot in another wing, and try to alleviate the boredom by talking and playing games, before turning their attention to plotting an escape.

Both Matthew Hawes and Adam Sabatti – along with Mark Loveday, who plays thuggish prison guard Deacon – make their professional theatre debuts with enthusiastic and reasonably polished performances; Hawes is particularly engaging as Dawson, a cheeky chappy with hidden depths and a kind heart. Even so, there are times when the play could use a bit of action. The conversation between the two prisoners takes some interesting twists and turns, but confined as they are to one place (with only their bunks, a table and chairs, and a bucket – which fortunately never gets used – to work with), the story doesn’t really go anywhere and meanders along from one subject to the next, ending on a sweet but rather subdued note instead of the explosive twist ending I’d hoped for.

There’s definitely potential here, though; there are a few almost-incidents that could be developed, and with a bit of pruning (we probably only needed one alphabet game, for instance) the play could be a really interesting one-act piece exploring the true nature of freedom, which ultimately emerges as the story’s central theme. More could also be made of Deacon’s character; his appearances are few and far between, and seem to serve primarily as bonding opportunities for the two cellmates. He’s a bit of a stereotype – bullying prison guard who thinks the prisoners’ lives belong to him – but right at the end, Mark Loveday’s performance reveals a hint of uncertainty that could be explored further. Maybe the prisoners aren’t the only ones looking for a way to escape their grim reality? 

For a debut production, Barred Freedom is off to a promising start, with solid performances and some thought-provoking questions to take away and mull over. It needs a bit of honing, but I’ll be interested to see how the play develops from here.

Barred Freedom is at the Cockpit Theatre until 25th March.

Interview: Paul Bradley, Caste

Best known to many for his long-running roles in Eastenders and Holby City, next month Paul Bradley will be taking to the stage at the Finborough Theatre in a long-awaited revival of T.W. Robertson’s Caste. This new production from Project One marks the 150th anniversary of the ground-breaking comedy, which hasn’t been performed in the UK for over 20 years.

So what’s it all about? “Well of course the clue’s in the title,” says Paul. “It’s a play about social divisions in Victorian London. Eccles, a drunken father with no money, has two daughters: Esther, who’s being courted by George, an aristocrat and miles above her in social station; and Polly, who’s being courted by Sam, a man of her own social class. George’s mother is a snobbish Marquise who disapproves completely of the match and is appalled by the Eccles family. George and Esther marry but he’s called to fight in India. He disappears and Esther’s father drinks and gambles away all the money that had been left for her and she’s now, as well as having given birth to a son, impoverished again. I won’t spoil the denouement but it’s a comedy so all ends well!”

Photo credit: Greg Veit Photography

Paul joins the cast – which also features another TV favourite, Susan Penhaligon – as Esther’s father Eccles, and he’s enjoying exploring his character’s hidden depths: “Eccles is a drunken father – so a bit of a stretch for me there! He’s a complicated man. On the surface he seems just a drunken beggar, but he’s intelligent and sees himself as being as good as anyone in a higher station. He is also cruel and has an addict’s selfishness. He claims to be a champion of the working man but hasn’t worked a stroke in twenty years. Although he doesn’t live by them, the sentiments he spouts are commendable; he’s a victim of both his circumstances and his own ‘life choices’.”

Caste was described by George Bernard Shaw as “epoch making” – but what made Robertson’s play so revolutionary for its time? “It’s the first ‘cup and saucer’ play – the equivalent of the 60’s ‘kitchen sink’ dramas,” explains Paul. “And it’s as radical as they also were. The people and situations are realistic – a mirror to nature of Two Nation Britain. It’s also that rare thing; a funny play which looks at English social mores.”

And Paul believes the play is just as forward-thinking today as it was 150 years ago. “Absolutely. It’s so modern, so – depressingly – relevant. A real political play. It expresses, in a comical way, real, deep concerns about class, aristocracy, poverty and social mobility.

“It’s very funny and moving and a sort of social document. I think it will amuse, move but also leave an audience thinking. It spotlights the challenge of social mobility. Without satire it introduces real characters whose social gulf seems insuperable but who, in finding love, see that gulf as irrelevant.”

Photo credit: Greg Veit Photography

Caste‘s production team is headed up by director Charlotte Peters, currently Resident Director on An Inspector Calls in the West End. “I’m rather daunted by how brilliant the cast and director and designer are,” says Paul. “They’re a brilliant team who are all committed to making this show a landmark production.”

It’s been more than two decades since Caste was seen in the UK, and Paul’s delighted to be bringing the play to a new audience. “When I first read the play I loved it and felt I had to be part of it. I can’t believe that this hugely influential work hasn’t been performed for so long. It’s the sort of groundbreaking play that the National or RSC should be championing.

“Because it is such a gem I feel a responsibility to live up to the author’s vision, and I think this is a view shared by us all. With a play of such quality it is a gift to be a part of the production. I hope that we start a re-appreciation of Robertson’s work and find a new audience for him.”

Caste is at the Finborough Theatre on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays from 2nd-18th April.