Review: Talking Gods by Arrows & Traps

You wait all year for an Arrows & Traps production… and then five come along at once. Unable to return to the stage just yet, Arrows have instead taken to the screen – and given the often cinematic style of writer and director Ross McGregor’s work, it should come as no particular surprise that the transition works pretty seamlessly.

The Talking Gods season imagines what would happen if the Gods of Olympus walked among us here in 21st century Britain. And while it might not be quite how we’d hoped to see them again, there’s no denying this is Arrows & Traps at their best, taking old stories and making them new and relevant for a 21st century audience through clever writing, exquisite performances and, as ever, meticulous production values.

Nicolle Smartt as Demeter. Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

At around seven and a half hours in total, Talking Gods is quite a time commitment. But don’t be tempted to cherry pick, because while each piece tells its own story, there’s a bigger picture unfolding in the background: a story of individuals forced against their will into a role they never wanted – by love, by fate, or by a tyrannical ruler who, even as his downfall approaches, is still managing to wreak havoc. And after a year where we’ve all, to some degree, had our freedom of choice taken away from us, that could hardly be a more appropriate thread through which to connect the five pieces.

The relevance doesn’t end there, however – with references to war, climate change, social isolation, sexual crimes against women… at times it’s hard to believe these stories are actually ancient myths. And although the details might be different – Persephone (Nicolle Smartt) is lured away from her mother by flirty texts from Hades; Pygmalion (Edward Spence) is a video game designer who falls for a rogue AI in one of his adventures – in McGregor’s careful hands, the essence of the stories remains intact. Even better, we get to hear new voices, many of them female: Hestia (Nicolle Smartt again), Persephone’s aunt, who’s left to pick up the pieces when she runs away; Eurydice (Charlie Ryall), whose love for Orpheus (Christopher Neels) isn’t the picture-perfect romance we’ve always been led to believe; Ariadne (Lucy Ioannou), who’s so much more than just Theseus’ love interest and the “keeper of the Minotaur”. I wonder how many of us turned immediately to Google after finishing each play, to find out more about the characters we’d just met. I imagine quite a few.

As for the performances, there’s not much to be said – in the very best way. In the years I’ve been reviewing Arrows & Traps, I’ve yet to see a bad performance from any actor, and Talking Gods is no exception. Arguably, there’s even less room for error in this format than in a live show, since the audience is even closer and has nowhere else to look, but every member of the cast steps up to the challenge flawlessly, taking an accomplished script and bringing the characters to fully three-dimensional life just as powerfully, personally and poignantly as if they were in the room with us.

Charlie Ryall as Eurydice and Christopher Neels as Orpheus. Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

I’ve already mentioned how the Arrows style lends itself to the small (or indeed big) screen, and this is thanks in no insignificant part to the expert efforts of the production team, whose use of lighting, music, video and sound effects bring another dimension to the pieces, elevating them beyond the realm of plays that just happen to have been filmed, and turning them into fully developed film productions in their own right. Their sterling work also allows each piece to have its own style, which keeps things fresh and the audience engaged throughout the lengthy total running time.

And yes, to those who are wondering, there is a dream sequence. They make us wait for it, but when it comes, it’s as powerful and dramatic as we might hope, with an emotional gut-punch of a final image guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat of any theatre lover. Talking Gods is great storytelling, expertly presented with the trademark Arrows wit and intelligence, and a cast of fascinating characters that make the series as bingeable as any Netflix drama. But it’s also a lament for all that’s been lost over this past year, and a heartfelt plea for its safe return – and I think that’s something all us mortal meatbags can relate to.

Talking Gods is available to watch for free at arrowsandtraps.com/talkinggods.

Review: Monolog 4 at Chickenshed

When I visited Chickenshed last February to review the third instalment of Monolog, little did I know it would be one of the last shows I’d attend for a very long time. So Monolog‘s return as an online offering for 2021 is both a welcome sight and a poignant reminder of all the live entertainment we’ve missed out on over the last twelve months (not to mention a bittersweet farewell to the theatre’s artistic director Lou Stein, who leaves in April).

Monolog 4 follows the same format as in previous years: eight individual pieces of new writing, seven of which have been filmed in Chickenshed’s Rayne Theatre (one couldn’t be recorded due to unforeseen circumstances), and each performed by a single actor. While 2021’s show lacks the variety of styles we’ve seen in past years, the range of themes is as extensive as ever, with pieces covering betrayal, prejudice, celebrity and much more.

In Cathy Jansen-Ridings’ Gin Sisters, Belinda McGuirk plays Yvonne, who learns to her shock that her ex-husband’s in a new relationship with her best friend. With days to go before her daughter’s wedding, Yvonne is left to deal with both the betrayal and the loss of the one person she would usually have relied on for support. It’s a poignant and often funny piece about friendship, philosophy and learning to prioritise what’s most important in life, even when it hurts.

Metamorphosis, written by Lucy Dobson and performed by Cathy Jansen-Ridings, sees newly widowed Joy reflect on a life spent conforming to society’s expectations. Her daughter wants her to sell the house and move into a granny flat, but Joy has her own ideas for her future, and her delight at the scandal she’s about to cause is infectious. Though one of the shorter monologues of the set, this piece raises some important questions not only about the ways women are expected to behave, but also about why we’re prepared to go along with it.

One woman certainly not behaving as she’s expected to is Lisa, played by Julie Wood in Rebecca Hardy’s Come Closer. Trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, Lisa’s discovered an outlet for her disappointment: stalking her past crush and present-day rockstar, Howard. She knows she’s out of control; she knows she needs help. But somehow, she can’t stop. This piece is the only one to be performed with no set or props – just Lisa talking direct to camera – and could arguably be edited slightly to pack a greater punch, but nonetheless, what it lacks in physical movement, it more than makes up for in narrative twists and turns.

In a programme dominated by female voices, Whatever Happened to Abigail Winters? by Sophie White is another strong piece. Performed by Anna Constantinides, it’s the story of Abigail, a shy seventeen-year-old who seeks fame and fortune as a way to finally feel seen. But celebrity isn’t the solution she hoped it would be, and a very public breakdown ensues. This is a very topical piece following the recent release of the Britney Spears documentary and the death last year of Caroline Flack, and brings home with powerful emphasis the ways in which the cruelty of strangers can shatter an already vulnerable mind.

Public scrutiny plays an equally important role in The State of the Artist by Sebastian Ross. Owen, played by Daryl Bullock, enters an amateur art competition, but the response to his submission is far beyond his wildest expectations. Soon everyone wants to know what inspires him – how can he tell them there is no deep meaning behind his picture, that he just painted something he thought looked good? This piece is an interesting take on art, and questions why we feel the need to look for significance even where none exists, but like Abigail Winters, it also explores the ways in which a person’s life and work can be taken completely out of their control once it enters the public domain.

The last year has certainly been tough for everyone, but as we’ve heard in the news this week, one group which is often forgotten about is children. In The Sleep Stealers by Hannah Smith, we get to see the anxiety caused by the pandemic through the eyes of the eleven-year-old protagonist, played by Lucy-Mae Beacock. She knows her mum and her neighbour Juno and everyone on their estate is struggling, but doesn’t fully appreciate why – so when Juno offers her both a reason and a solution, she’s desperate to help, and is crushed when her efforts only seem to make things worse. It’s not easy to watch a child grappling with some very adult concerns – but at the same time, her optimism and willingness to believe that things will get better means the piece ends on a surprisingly uplifting note.

Finally, Neighbourhood Watch by Matthew Patenall and Gill Patenall explores the dangers of prejudice and jumping to conclusions – again, a hugely topical subject in the current climate. While out on his nightly run, James, played by Adam Cross, sees what he thinks is a suspicious transaction between his neighbour and a homeless man. Convinced he knows what’s going on, he decides to take matters into his own hands, with disastrous consequences. While this piece certainly poses some uncomfortable questions, the conclusion feels a little too open-ended; just as Come Closer could have been shorter, this story feels like it still has more to say.

There’s a reason Monolog is now in its fourth year, and it’s great to see that while Covid may have changed many things, the quality of both the writing and the performances at Chickenshed remains undiminished. Hopefully it won’t be another year before we’re back enjoying them live.

Monolog 4 ended on 20th February, but other shows are still available to watch online – visit Chickenshed’s website for more details.

Review: The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington (online review)

Since 2014, comedy trio The Sleeping Trees have shown us they know how to put on a great family panto. This year, they’ve gone one further and proved they don’t even need a stage. The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington is a witty, fast-paced musical adventure that’s full of surprises and will have audiences of all ages joining in from (and possibly on, behind or under) their sofas.

Dick Whittington’s celebrating his first Christmas as London’s Mayor when the unthinkable happens: a huge white whale swims up the Thames and swallows Santa Claus. Now Dick and his cat must enlist the help of marine biologist Dr Jessica Ahab (and Pinocchio, because – well, why not) and take to the high seas to find Moby Dick and save Christmas. But with a vengeful King Rat hot on their tail, can they bring Santa home safely?

Photo credit: Shaun Reynolds

This year, like everyone, The Sleeping Trees have had to adapt to a new set of circumstances, and they’ve risen to the challenge in their own inimitable style. Audiences are stuck at home, so James Dunnell-Smith, Joshua George Smith and John Woodburn have produced a Christmas living room adventure we can all participate in, with the help of just a few everyday household objects. And like all good comedy, though it’s aimed primarily at younger audience members – who will no doubt love the opportunity to build a ship in the middle of their living room – the 50-minute show has more than enough going on to keep the grown-ups entertained too (which is probably just as well in light of the aforementioned ship building).

Under Kerry Frampton’s slick and ingenious direction, no corner of the house goes unused on this madcap adventure across the ocean. Even knowing that the action’s taking place on screen instead of stage, it’s hard not to be impressed by the seemingly endless number of characters three performers can play at the same time. Said performers, meanwhile, juggle their various roles, costumes, accents and props with ease, and are clearly having just as much fun as the audience along the way.

Photo credit: Shaun Reynolds

The story – co-written with Ben Hales – is quite bonkers, but anyone familiar with The Sleeping Trees’ previous offerings (which include Cinderella and the Beanstalk and Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves) would be disappointed if it wasn’t. For parents looking for a way to entertain the kids this Christmas, look no further than this fantastic feel-good family show, which reminds even the Scroogiest of Scrooges that there’s adventure to be found anywhere if we just put our minds to it. Even if we’re stuck at home with nothing but some kitchen utensils, a few loo rolls and a bed sheet to work with.

The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington is online until 5th January.

Review: What a Carve Up! (online)

As an anxious, frustrated and oh so tired nation awaited yet another delayed Boris press conference last night, Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of What a Carve Up! – itself a 1994 novel by Jonathan Coe, inspired in part by a 1961 movie of the same name (got that?!) – felt like darkly appropriate viewing. At first glance a murder mystery presented in the form of a true crime investigation, Tamara Harvey’s digital production skilfully builds the suspense, while also systematically taking apart those in power who enjoy all the benefits of their position, while allowing the rest of us to take the hit – financially, emotionally, and physically.

Alfred Enoch in What a Carve Up!
Photo credit: Barn Theatre

One night thirty years ago, six members of the Winshaw family – an all-powerful British dynasty who have fingers in every possible pie, and who “make the Murdochs look like the Waltons” – were brutally slaughtered in a variety of unpleasantly creative ways. The prime suspect has always been a troubled writer, Michael Owen, who’d been commissioned to write a book about the family, and who was known to be obsessed with an old black and white movie that closely mirrors the circumstances of the murders. But was he really the killer? Three decades later, Owen’s son Raymond (Alfred Enoch) starts looking into what really happened that night, and shares his findings in a video broadcast.

Only three members of the production’s stellar cast (which includes the likes of Derek Jacobi, Celia Imrie, Stephen Fry and Sharon D. Clarke) actually appear on screen, while the rest lend their voices to the various witnesses and victims who feature in the investigation. The only one to speak directly to the audience, Alfred Enoch’s charm and wry humour quickly convince us of his father’s innocence – but his monologue is also infused with simmering anger as he uncovers the pain caused by the Winshaws, not only for his own family but for so many others.

This rage is fuelled further by clips from a televised interview with Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button), the only surviving member of the Winshaw family, a despicable self-styled common sense guru, who continues to benefit from her family connections and has clearly learned nothing from her relatives’ misfortune. Both Fiona Button and interviewer Tamzin Outhwaite are outstanding in these deliciously tense scenes, their body language and facial expressions saying everything they’re not willing or able to say out loud.

Tamzin Outhwaite and Fiona Button in What a Carve Up!
Photo credit: Barn Theatre

What a Carve Up! is an entertaining and polished fictional thriller, whose complexity and intrigue will undoubtedly appeal to fans of both classic murder mystery and true crime documentaries. But we don’t need the sly references to Meghan Markle, Dominic Cummings (for whom, interestingly, not even the Winshaws are willing to accept responsibility) or throwing protective rings around things to remind us that this story is rooted in an all too brutal reality. In another time, we might have called it far-fetched, and the characters too monstrous to be believed. But this is 2020, when truth has proven itself over and over again to be infinitely stranger than fiction, and the production’s final gut-wrenching scene is no longer the stuff of dystopian nightmares but a story lifted straight out of real life. The Winshaws may be fictional, but their impact on all our lives is not – and that’s something we should all be angry about.

Review: Macbeth (online) at Belfast International Arts Festival

Let’s face it, one of the few positives of lockdown has been the discovery of all the fun to be had with Zoom backgrounds – and this is an opportunity that’s exploited gleefully and to great effect in Zoe Seaton’s immersive digital adaptation of Macbeth, her fifth lockdown production since April. Five actors perform from their own homes across the country (with numbers made up where required by unsuspecting audience members) to produce a creative and deliciously creepy version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Audience members are encouraged to lock the doors, draw the curtains and dim the lights in preparation for the show, which opens not around a cauldron but at a government briefing to warn us about the pandemic of witchcraft sweeping the nation. Having established our setting – a modern and all too recognisable Britain – the story gets underway with a revelation that the three officials (Aonghus Og McAnally, Lucia McAnespie and Dharmesh Patel) may not in fact have everyone’s best interests at heart, as they leave the briefing to meet Macbeth and inform him of his future prospects. This ensures that from the start, there’s a feeling of unseen evil at work – the Macbeths are never the real villain, but merely a plaything for sinister forces beyond their control.

Lockdown imposes some obvious restrictions on the production; the Macbeths (Nicky Harley and Dennis Herdman) host King Duncan not in a castle but in their ordinary terraced house, and they have to work quite hard to establish intimacy and make their murderous plans, given that they’re never able to appear together on screen. In a way, though, these limitations work to the play’s advantage and enhance the horror movie feel – shaky handheld footage and extreme closeups are reminiscent of films like The Blair Witch Project, while hidden camera angles give a sense of the characters being watched. The death scenes are particularly well done, as Banquo and Lady MacDuff wrestle with unseen assailants before meeting their gory ends. There’s certainly no shortage of atmosphere (and a couple of jump scares), as Garth McConaghie’s haunting Celtic soundtrack and dramatic sound effects fully immerse us in the creepiness.

As for the audience participation: after an interactive opening sequence featuring a few randomly selected spectators, this becomes quite limited and at times feels more like an opportunity to show off the production’s technical capabilities than any particular addition to the plot. It’s good fun, though, and allows the audience to feel like we’re part of the performance, just as we would be if we were watching in a real theatre. So perhaps, after all, there are two positives to lockdown: the second being the creative ways in which theatre has adapted and found new ways to entertain audiences even when the doors are closed.

Big Telly Theatre’s Macbeth headlines the Belfast International Arts Festival until 17th October, then transfers to Oxford as a co-production with Creation Theatre until 31st October.