Review: Monolog 2 at Chickenshed

Following the success of last year’s inaugural event, Chickenshed’s Monolog is back in 2019 for a second outing. Seven very different pieces of new writing, all for solo performers, have been split into two groups and will be performed on a rolling basis for the duration of the run. On press night, however, we were treated to the full showcase – a varied, thought-provoking and entertaining selection covering a broad range of themes, including pregnancy, prison life, mental health, race and identity, and political protest.

The seven monologues were selected from a wide range of submissions, and each stands out in its own way. In Barbara Bakhurst’s poignant The Hostel Angel, directed by Grace Coulson-Harris, fourteen-year-old Sunny (Sophie White) reflects on life in a hostel with her stepdad. Determined to make the best of their grim living situation, she decorates a chart with stickers and makes cups of tea for the neighbours, as she watches her stepdad quietly fall apart – all while clinging with heartbreaking optimism to the belief that one day her absent mum will come back to them and everything will be okay.

The Hostel Angel illustrated by Martha Vine

There’s more youthful optimism in Face The Strange by Matthew Patenall, directed by Sydney Burges and Bradley Davis. Lee (Alex Murtinheira), a young man with autism, seizes the opportunity to join the protests against Donald Trump’s visit to the UK – but the day doesn’t go quite as planned. The piece asks some searching questions about the nature and effectiveness of public protest, and taps into the growing political engagement of young people across Britain.

The shortest piece in the programme is Belinda and Wendy Sharer’s poetic Mirror Me, directed by Loren Jacobs and Belinda McGuirk. A young woman (Celie Johns Main) dreams of being a dancer, and of being admired by the audience for her talent and tenacity – but a cruel twist reveals those dreams can exist only in her mind. The piece blends words and movement in a beautifully wistful performance. And in We Are All In It Together by Peter Hastings, directed by Rachel Yates (assisted by Ashley Driver), a prisoner (Kieran Faye) sits in his cell, thinking about life behind bars and eagerly anticipating his wife’s visit the next day – even though she missed the last one, and she’s just sent him a letter… Written from first hand experience, this is a keenly observed account of prison life and all the emotions that come with it.

Even, Odd… Odd, Even by Hannah Smith, directed by Sarah Connolly, is set in a dystopian society where everyone’s required by law to wear a number rating their current emotional state from 1 to 100. For one young woman (Sabina Bissett), though, there’s a big difference between the number she displays and how she actually feels. This was one of my favourite pieces of the evening – a powerful and very topical exploration of mental health and the damage that can result from keeping our feelings hidden away.

The panel received and reviewed all submissions for Monolog 2 blind, without knowing who had written what – and it’s both refreshing and encouraging to realise that five out of seven pieces in the resulting showcase are female voices. The final two of these are possibly the strongest of all. In Milly Rolle’s My Exploding Universe, directed by Tiia-Mari Mäkinen, a young woman has just discovered she’s pregnant after a one night stand. Milly Rolle gives an excellent performance; her panic and confusion are palpable as she contemplates her uncertain future, looks back at lessons learnt from her own mum, and confronts the responsibility she now faces of bringing new life into the world.

Stranger illustrated by Ryan Gough

And last but by no means least, Stranger, written and brilliantly performed by Alesha Bhakoo, delves with warmth, humour and insight into the writer’s experience as a second-generation immigrant in the UK, and her struggle to reconcile her two cultures and figure out who she is. Directed by Milly Rolle, Stranger concludes with a surprise twist that reminds the audience what we’re watching isn’t a story but real life.

Monolog makes a dramatic contrast to Chickenshed’s recent Christmas production, which – as is traditional – featured a cast of hundreds. But despite the simple staging and intimate venue, there’s just as much diversity, talent and food for thought to be found in this very enjoyable showcase championing powerful new writing. Who’s up for Monolog 3?

Monolog 2 is at Chickenshed until 2nd March. Check the website for the schedule and to find out which pieces will be performed on each date.

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Review: Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre

September 11th, 2001: while the world was watching the horrifying events taking place in the USA, a very different story was beginning in the Canadian town of Gander, Newfoundland. With American air space closed, the locals opened their homes and hearts to 7,000 stranded passengers, working tirelessly for five days to feed, clothe and house their terrified guests, and proving that even in the very darkest of times, the best of humanity can still shine through.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

This is the story told in Come From Away – a funny, moving and uplifting new musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Having won best musical awards across North America, the show now arrives in London where, if there’s any justice, it’ll prove to be just as successful.

I might as well admit that I’ve been a bit obsessed with Come From Away ever since I first listened to the Broadway cast recording about a year ago – but while the soundtrack is great, the show itself is on another level altogether. It may have come out of North America, but like its cast of characters the show’s message is universal, and at a time when the news is full of doors being slammed against those who need help, it’s a story we all need to hear – especially when it’s told as powerfully as this.

Mirroring the events and community that inspired it, Christopher Ashley’s production is a seamless team effort, in which every cast member works incredibly hard with the resources at their disposal to produce something quite wonderful. There’s not a hint of ego; despite the amount of stellar talent on stage, no one actor ever feels more or less important than any of the others – so all I can say is that (deep breath) Jenna Boyd, Nathanael Campbell, Clive Carter, Mary Doherty, Robert Hands, Helen Hobson, Jonathan Andrew Hume, Harry Morrison, Emma Salvo, David Shannon, Cat Simmons and Rachel Tucker are all outstanding.

Nor are there any fancy sets or special effects – armed with little more than a few chairs and a couple of simple wardrobe changes, the company bring to life hundreds of real people and stories, giving each one of them the care and respect they deserve. Nick and Diane, who met and fell in love during their time in Gander; Beverley Bass, the pioneering female pilot devastated at seeing the thing she loves most used as a weapon; Hannah, the mother desperate for news of her son, a New York firefighter; Unga, the pregnant bonobo chimp… any one of these or countless other true stories featured in the show would make a powerful narrative all on their own. Put them all together and the emotional impact is off the scale.

The score, as you’d expect, comes straight out of Newfoundland; with Alan Berry’s excellent band on stage throughout, we could easily be down at the legion with the locals (particularly at the end – whatever you do, don’t leave at the curtain call). Here again it’s all about the ensemble; there’s only one solo number in the whole show, and even that ends up featuring half the cast. The whole production overflows with enthusiasm, generosity and community spirit – the very qualities displayed by the people of Gander back in 2001 – and if it doesn’t send you home with a smile on your face then to be honest I doubt anything will.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Come From Away has everything the world needs right now: infectious music, great performances, a fascinating true story, and a much-needed message of hope, kindness and acceptance. It’s a love story, a comedy and a celebration of Newfoundland spirit and culture – and yet it never loses sight of, or respect for, the tragedy at its heart. If you want to laugh, cry, dance and (however briefly) feel a little bit better about the state of the world, do yourself a favour and go and see this show. I’ll probably see you there.

Come From Away is at the Phoenix Theatre until at least September (hopefully much, much longer).

Review: In Search of Applause at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Lorelei is a professional clown – or at least she would be, if she hadn’t given it all up when she met Nigel. He’s a workaholic app developer, who takes her on nice holidays but otherwise seems to have very little time for her; he’s dismissive of her views and won’t even stop working long enough to have dinner together. Now it’s two years later and she spends her days alone, going to yoga, pouring her heart out to a therapist, and flirting with the guy behind the counter at the local juice bar. But hey, at least she’s not poor any more. Right?

Photo credit: Ian Hart

Maroussia Vladi’s In Search of Applause is an intriguing one-woman show, which likens Lorelei’s romantic relationship with Nigel to her career as a performer: though she has a beautiful stage, set, costumes and props, does any of that matter if the audience isn’t paying attention? To an outsider it’s something of a no-brainer, and Lorelei has no qualms about counselling Harry, the juice bar guy, to quit his job and pursue his dream to become a musician. And yet when it comes to her own life, despite her obvious unhappiness after several disappointingly one-sided conversations with her partner, she can’t seem to apply that same advice.

Directed by Andrew Hurst, the play is made up of a series of one-sided exchanges between Lorelei and various off-stage characters. Two of these never appear at all; the third – Nigel – is represented by a hat suspended above a chair, and the sound of rapid typing each time Lorelei returns home and tries to engage with him. As we follow her repeatedly from home to therapy to the juice bar and back home again, we get a feel for the cyclical monotony and frustration of her uninspiring life.

Maroussia Vladi gives a very expressive and engaging performance as she moves around the stage, bringing vividly to life the story’s different settings and characters. Despite this, there’s a remoteness to the character of Lorelei that makes her at times difficult to relate to. She is by her own admission quite old-fashioned in her attitudes, and the play has a similar aesthetic: everything from Lorelei’s outfits to her luggage to Nigel’s hat feel like they’re from a different time to the story itself, which creates a disconnect between what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing, and makes it harder to get lost in the action. It’s a skilful piece of storytelling, but for this reason it does always feel like exactly that – a story.

Photo credit: Ian Hart

If you hear “romantic comedy” and think Richard Curtis, In Search of Applause will not be what you’re used to. What it is, however, is a quiet and reflective piece about what drives us to make the decisions we do (or not), presented with charm, creativity and gentle humour. It doesn’t necessarily go in the direction you might expect, but it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the market for a slightly offbeat take on love and relationships.

In Search of Applause is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd March.

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Review: Rattled at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Inspired by a mother’s true account, Rachel Harper’s one-woman play Rattled is a short but punchy production tackling the sensitive topics of childhood trauma and postnatal mental health. The play is set on a lonely railway platform somewhere in southern England, where Em has just discovered a baby in a carrier. Unable to track down the child’s mother, she sits down to wait – and then, to fill the awkward silence, she begins to talk. Soon we (and baby) have heard all about her nice but dull husband Ian, their unsatisfying marriage, and her fear that she may have settled too easily and missed out on a great romance. We also learn about her childhood trauma and the abuse and neglect she suffered, and it doesn’t take long to guess the answer to Em’s repeated and increasingly desperate question: whose baby is this?

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Though it deals with some difficult issues, Rattled isn’t as hard going as it sounds; in fact it’s a surprisingly funny play, whose aim is never to wallow in the misery of mental illness but rather to advocate talking as the first step to recovery. Em is a very likeable, intelligent and witty character, and Rachel Harper is exceptional – both as a writer and an actor – in her utterly convincing portrayal of this vulnerable young woman who’s been through so much and now finds herself at breaking point. Her story unfolds very plausibly as a stream of consciousness, meandering from one memory to another and punctuated by musings on everything from Wuthering Heights to the parenting habits of orangutans. It all sounds random, unplanned – but in reality, not one word is wasted in this tightly constructed piece of writing.

This efficiency is reflected also in director Jemma Gross’ fast-moving production. Simple, effective design from Florence Hazard (set), Sherry Coenen (lighting) and Nicola Chang (sound) quickly and convincingly establishes the station setting, from the “see it, say it, sorted” announcements to the flickering lights of a passing train. Similarly, from the moment the play begins Rachel Harper’s performance leaves us in no doubt of Em’s current state of mind; every movement and gesture is loaded with meaning. She’s moving constantly, full of restless, nervous energy and unable to sit still. Each time she tells a joke, it’s accompanied by an awkward, high-pitched laugh. As the play goes on she becomes increasingly dishevelled, and even before she says a word, her emotional distress is palpable. We don’t know exactly what her intentions are at the station – though various possibilities come to mind, each more disturbing than the last – but the way she stiffens each time an announcement comes over the tannoy makes it clear that the train approaching the station is of some significance. As it gets closer, the tension both on and off stage builds as we wait to find out how Em’s story will end.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Rattled is a gripping and poignant production that doesn’t flinch in its portrayal of mental illness, particularly affecting new mothers. But it also puts its money where its mouth is; Missmanaged Theatre have teamed up with childcare agency Bea & Co to support parents by providing a free creche at Sunday matinees, and discounts on at-home childcare for audiences attending evening shows. This is clearly a company who not only believe in making high quality theatre, but who also want to make it count – let’s hope others follow in their footsteps.

Rattled is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd March.

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Review: soft animals at Soho Theatre

Don’t be fooled by the title of Holly Robinson’s debut play soft animals; despite the plethora of teddy bears scattered around the room, there’s nothing particularly cuddly about this hard-hitting two-hander. Directed by Lakesha Arie-Angelo, the play tackles grief and guilt through the surprising friendship of two very different women connected by a devastating tragedy: Sarah (Ellie Piercy), a well-off soon-to-be divorcee living in Fulham, and Frankie (Bianca Stephens), a black teenager from Birmingham struggling to cope with the demands of both uni and life.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

The tragedy is Sarah’s – the loss of a child in horrifying circumstances and subsequent nationwide condemnation of her as a mother and a woman – while Frankie’s direct involvement in the events of that day bring her to Sarah’s doorstep several months later. Over time the two become friends, though the dynamic of that friendship shifts constantly, and ultimately allows each to begin to see a way forward out of their own personal darkness.

The performances from Ellie Piercy and Bianca Stephens are perfectly pitched, the two of them bouncing off each other well as they deliver Robinson’s fast-paced, witty script. But there’s genuine tenderness between them too; if you can make it to the end of the play without at least a bit of a lump in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. While Stephens is instantly likeable as the anxious and painfully vulnerable Frankie, Piercy’s Sarah doesn’t try too hard to win our sympathy, if anything going out of her way to make us – and the rest of the world – hate her because that’s what she thinks she deserves. It’s only by seeing her through Frankie’s eyes, behind closed doors, that we come to understand and feel for everything she’s gone through, and to question our own readiness to judge a total stranger based only on what we think we know of their crimes.

Just as the script reveals little by little the details of what happened, so too does Anna Reid’s deceptively simple set. Beginning as a single cube in the centre of the stage, it comes apart piece by piece to populate Sarah’s living room with furniture, with one final reveal towards the end reminding us forcefully of the gaping absence at the heart of the story. This is reinforced throughout by the appearance of soft toys from London’s various tourist attractions, which sit sadly around the room as a reminder that there’s nobody here to love and play with them.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

soft animals is an incredibly accomplished debut from Holly Robinson, tackling difficult themes with great sensitivity while also drawing us in with a compelling story. The friendship between Sarah and Frankie is unlikely but entirely believable, and each character feels authentic despite her unusual and tragic circumstances. This is a powerful piece of new writing that will break your heart – but then might just quietly put it back together again. Highly recommended.

soft animals is at Soho Theatre until 2nd March.