Interview: Born Mad, Sister

Born Mad is a cutting-edge music theatre company run by director Rebecca Hanbury and composer Alex Groves. In 2014, their first show, Psyche, invited audience members to experience a one-on-one performance that was described as “disorientating and beautiful”. Now, following a sell out première at the Spitalfields Summer Music Festival, Born Mad return to London’s Ovalhouse with their latest work, Sister, a show that combines frank verbatim accounts with live electronic music and song.

“Sister is a show all about the relationships that we may take for granted,” explains Rebecca. “Whether it’s a parent, a sibling, a partner or just our friends, we’re all connected to our loved ones by some pretty unshakeable bonds. Sometimes it’s easy to neglect them or take them for granted, and I suppose part of the reason why we made this show was to celebrate these relationships – the ups and downs, the challenges we all face and the memories we make together.”

Sister, Born Mad, Ovalhouse (4)
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets

The show’s based on real accounts from women across the country, all with a common theme of sisterhood. “The topic of Sister was born out of a shared interest in family, the passing of time and the creation of memory. We also wanted to create work that had complex female characters at its core. We started by interviewing people that we knew, but the project quickly gained momentum when we started to put call-outs for participants via our social media outlets. We were soon overwhelmed with responses, and ended up speaking to nearly 50 women and girls. Three stories really stood out to us, so they form the core of the piece, woven into a tapestry of many other stories.

“In terms of the way that we told these stories, we were inspired by verbatim works such as London Road and John, and wanted to see what would happen if we coupled this super-naturalistic text with our brand of electroacoustic music.”

Rebecca and Alex have been working together for over four years, since meeting at university: “We were both interested in finding a more dynamic way of creating music theatre – bringing the composition of the work into the rehearsal room and playing around with music, text, design and staging all together before putting things down on paper. We’re also both interested in devised theatre – where the work is born out of a direct collaboration between artists as opposed to more traditional writer/director dynamic – so we brought the flexibility and energy involved in bringing together a devised work into a more musical world, and our style has been developing ever since.

“We want to tell contemporary stories in unusual ways, combining our love of music, technology and gripping narratives to bring to life very human stories on stage. Our work aims to combine fast-paced story-telling with a richly textured sound world of live vocals and electronic music, creating shows that appeal to both the head and the heart, and leaving our audience with a new outlook on the world around them.”

Sister, Born Mad, Ovalhouse (5)
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets

Born Mad are no strangers to Ovalhouse, and have fond memories of showing Sister there while the piece was still in development. “It feels really good to be back!” says Rebecca. “As an emerging company, we really appreciate the support of organisations like Ovalhouse as we wouldn’t be able to experiment and play and create truly boundary-pushing work without them.

“We had so much fun rehearsing the piece there back in May and the team were great, so we can’t wait to get the show back up and running. It’s come on quite a long way since then – most importantly, we’ve now got the beautiful designs of Georgia de Grey (set and costume) and Ben Jacobs (lighting), which bring the piece vividly to life. We also still had lots of questions about how we were going to end the piece in our last showing so, unless you saw the première back in June, there’s a few surprises waiting for you!”

The company hope that Sister will encourage audiences to reflect on their own relationships: “We hope people leave with an awareness of what they mean to those who love them and maybe even a desire to reach out and heal old wounds. Sister may shine a spotlight on a single type of relationship but we hope that everyone coming to the show will leave with a new perspective on their own lives.”

Book now for Sister at Ovalhouse from 6th-10th September.

Review: Bugsy Malone at the Orchard Theatre

The Summer Youth Project at Dartford’s Orchard Theatre brings together a 100-strong community cast of young people aged between 9 and 19, who’ve had just two weeks to rehearse a show before taking to the stage and performing for friends, family and the general public.

Now in its seventh year, previous SYP productions have included Fame, Annie and Footloose, with last year’s Oliver! described by reviewers as “West End standard”. Does this year’s choice, Bugsy Malone, live up to its predecessor? You’d better believe it.

Bugsy Malone

Bugsy is a great pick for a project of this kind, because besides being a family-friendly show with some irresistible tunes, it also has a huge amount of speaking parts; the list of characters in the programme is a page long. As a result, the Dartford audience gets to enjoy a true showcase of the vast amount of talent to be found on our doorstep. Many of the characters only have a few lines, but that doesn’t stop the actors making the most of their moment – like Thomas Gill, who has us eating out of his hand as Babyface (a.k.a. “the star of Dartford”), or Charlotte Whyte, who sparkles in her brief appearance as the spoilt diva Lena Marrelli.

Bugsy himself is played by Reece Eastgate, who owns the stage with cool confidence and charm; I’ve no doubt he’s got a great future ahead. Joseph Warrilow is great fun as Fat Sam, the incompetent gang boss and nightclub owner, while Calum Page’s slick, ruthless Dandy Dan wouldn’t look out of place in a remake of The Godfather.

There are some fantastic vocal performances too, most notably from Hollister Jacob as wannabe singer Blousey Brown, and Olivia Clark, who not only has a beautiful voice, but on Saturday afternoon also proved her professionalism as she powered through Fizzy’s solo number, Tomorrow, despite some distracting sound interference.

I could name everyone… but we’d be here all week. Suffice to say, every single member of the cast gives it their absolute all, and knowing the short time they’ve had to prepare only makes the achievement all the more impressive.

Directed and choreographed by Richard Peakman, who’s worked on the last five SYP productions, with musical direction from Melanie Crouch, the show dazzles most in its big musical numbers, during which the entire cast fill the stage and auditorium with an irresistible energy and enthusiasm. The finale is particularly infectious, with neither cast nor audience wanting the show to end.

Unfortunately this review is coming towards the end of the three-day run (I was meant to be there for opening night but had a train disaster), but if you have time to grab a ticket for the final show tonight, I really recommend it. Colourful, energetic, funny and joyful (not to mention the most child-friendly gangster story ever written – imagine how much better the world would be if all guns just squirted cream instead of bullets), the production is a wonderful testament to the power of theatre to bring people together – and for those of us who are regulars, it’s a refreshing reminder of the pleasure it can bring to so many.

Bugsy Malone has its final performance tonight, 13th August, at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford.

Review: Ctrl+Alt+Delete at Camden People’s Theatre

Ctrl+Alt+Delete, written and performed by Emma Packer, is a solo show introducing us to Amy Jones, a bubbly, optimistic young woman who adores her granddad, loves the Spice Girls, and writes repeatedly to her idol Nelson Mandela, never once considering that he might not reply. But there’s a darker side to Amy’s story; she’s been mentally and physically abused by her manipulative, violent mother throughout her childhood and teenage years, for reasons that she’s never been able to understand.

Photo credit: David Packer
Photo credit: David Packer

The piece is beautifully written, reflecting Amy’s love of creative writing; the language evokes some stunning images and often sounds more like poetry than prose. At times, the show flows almost like a stream of consciousness, jumping back and forth in time as both Amy and her mum share their memories with the audience. Packer plays both women, keeping the two totally distinct in accent, tone of voice and even appearance; while Amy has a wide-eyed, earnest expression, her mother wears a constant snarl as she remembers the many people who’ve angered her – above all, her young daughter – and the cold, calculating way she’s taken her revenge. Even when she finally reveals her motivation, there’s very little redemption in store for this character.

Alone at the centre of a bare stage, with only a chair for company, Emma Packer’s compelling performance absolutely commands our attention. Whether she’s laughing with her friend about Simon Cowell’s trousers, or tearfully remembering the death of her grandad (an event hinted at but never fully explained), we’re with Amy all the way. It’s at the end of the show that things start to go slightly off course, as the focus suddenly switches from Amy’s personal journey to a broader political statement, in which parallels are drawn between the betrayal of an abusive parent and the lies of those in power that have led to everything from the London riots to Brexit. It’s not that the metaphor doesn’t make sense – it just happens very suddenly and, frustratingly, interrupts a story that isn’t quite over yet, and in which we’ve become increasingly absorbed.

Photo credit: David Packer
Photo credit: David Packer

As the story of a young girl struggling to understand why her mother – the one person who should love her unconditionally – seems to despise the very sight of her, Ctrl+Alt+Delete is a powerful show. As a political statement, though there’s no doubting Emma Packer’s passion, it feels slightly clumsy and a touch heavy-handed in its conclusion. That said, there’s a lot of food for thought in this story about abuse on many levels, and an important message in there if it could only be worked in a little more smoothly from the start of the show.

Ctrl+Alt+Delete is at Camden People’s Theatre until 16th August.

Interview: BAZ Productions, dreamplay

BAZ Productions was formed in 2009 with the goal of creating work that’s “alive and limitless… courageous and more than a little bit mischievous…” And if you think that sounds intriguing, wait until you hear director Sarah Bedi’s summary of the company’s latest production, dreamplay, which comes to The Vaults in September.

dreamplay is a dreamy-journey through underground tunnels, searching for the door which hides the answer to the meaning of life, pursued by a clown, a teacher and a set of lovers…

The play’s a modern re-working of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play, written in 1901, and tells the story of a young woman who arrives on earth from ‘above’ to discover the mysteries of humanity. For the uninitiated, Sarah explains, “Strindberg’s original A Dream Play is a massive, bonkers, labyrinthine play about the meaning of life and why we suffer – or at least that’s what I think it’s about. I was chatting to a well-respected theatre academic last week, who admitted he hadn’t the faintest clue what Strindberg was getting at with A Dream Play! He couldn’t pin it down. I love it because of that. I think it’s the most honest Strindberg is in any of his writing. It’s all about human expression and suffering and feeling lost. Like a dream, it’s to be felt.”

dreamplay, BAZ Productions

Like BAZ’s previous productions, dreamplay makes innovative use of an unusual space: “We’ve always loved spaces that weren’t designed to be theatres. That had a purpose and a life before we arrived, and so are bristling with their own energy. In some ways they become another character in our team of performers. We aim to work with what the space gives us for free – it’s not always a process of layering up a design, rather brushing away at the edges of the space until we stumble upon something special. Archaeology in a sense.

“Unusual venues are also fun in terms of playing with audience expectations. There’s always lots of talk around about theatre ‘subverting’ audience expectations. However, I think we want to go further. It’s about removing expectations completely. You rock up outside a Crypt in the centre of London and you don’t know what to expect, so as an audience member you arrive empty. You find your way to an artgallery down a graffitied alley in Shoreditch and again you’re open to something new. You have to be. Because this doesn’t look like a theatre in the traditional sense, so all the usual rituals go out the window – along with all expectations and preconceptions. You can be present with us, here and now.

“The Vaults is another great space to play in – it’s still connected to Waterloo station, we are right below the platforms so every few minutes a train passes overhead and its vibrations permeate the space. It feels alive. And very dream-like: the tunnels and spaces range in size, from intimate and claustrophobic to gaping and cavernous, space leading onto space in a maze of interconnected rooms. We’re imagining it’s the giant sub-conscious of London. Alive but in the shadows, pulsing away down there and holding all our fears and dreams.”

dreamplay also features original music from alternative singer-cellist Laura Moody. “Laura started working with us a few years ago, and her work has become central to the piece. At that time, we’d been developing a very playful set of rehearsal ‘rules’ and it was fun to introduce Laura and see how ‘normal’ impro would work if you made one character cello music. So I’m sat arguing with my Mum, but my Mum is this weird set of noises Laura’s making. So Laura isn’t playing my Mum, the music is. It was instantly dream-like. Her music is not so much soundtrack as another performer in the play.”

It’s becoming increasingly clear that dreamplay isn’t your ‘traditional’ night at the theatre… starting with the seating arrangements – or lack of. “I guess an obvious difference is that the audience will be on their feet, moving through the space: rather than observing the play, you will be inside it. Narratively, though, I hope it’ll feel like we’re offering you a bunch of dots and it’s for you to join them to create whatever shape you think you see. I think it’s a show that literally cannot exist without the audience’s imagination.

“I guess what the audience take away from the piece is very open, I don’t think I’d want to dictate what that should be. I hope they feel like they’ve been inside a dream of their very own, and are left with the collection of feelings and thoughts that arise from that.”

Catch dreamplay at The Vaults from 10th September-1st October.

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at Palace Theatre

It’s not been an easy few weeks. Ever since I was lucky enough to be at a preview performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, friends have been asking questions – some blatant, others a bit more subtle – to try and find out what happens.

Unfortunately for them, I was handed a yellow #KeeptheSecrets badge on my way out of the Palace Theatre. And this is something I take extremely seriously, so my lips have remained firmly sealed – and this review will be no exception. No spoilers here, I’m afraid.

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But here’s what I can say about the eighth Harry Potter story: it’s awesome. Created by the dream team of J.K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, Cursed Child is funny, sad, scary, dramatic, magical and jaw-dropping, with all the suspense and excitement of a new story, but also the comforting familiarity of stepping back into a world we thought we’d seen the last of. This means that while it stands independently as a new chapter, if you’re not up to speed on the events of the books, I’d recommend doing a bit of research before you go – if only so you can join in the universal audience reactions to certain events. (There’s something pretty special about hearing 1,400 people gasp in perfect unison.)

The production also boasts a fabulous cast, led by Jamie Parker, Paul Thornley and Noma Dumezweni, who are spot on as Harry, Ron and Hermione. The trio are just as we remember them – Hermione the high achiever, Harry the unwilling legend, and Ron… who’s just Ron, and still my favourite – but now grappling with grown-up problems and emotions. Meanwhile the children are, naturally, having adventures of their own (well it is Hogwarts, after all), and Sam Clemmett and Anthony Boyle step effortlessly into the new roles of Harry’s son Albus and Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius, two characters living in the shadow of their fathers’ past. While some cast members may have more lines than others, though, this show is very much a team effort, with many actors doubling or even tripling up on parts (several of them instantly recognisable from the books and movies), and not one of them disappoints.

Oh right, and there’s magic. Any fears that the magic might have been a bit lame without the benefit of CGI were laid to rest within minutes, and the main question anyone was asking by the interval of Part One was “But… but how?!” Things happen on that stage that literally can’t be explained by Muggles like me – so I won’t even try.

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Perhaps what’s most impressive about Cursed Child is that in many ways, despite the big cast and the amazing effects, it doesn’t feel like a huge-scale production. Some scenes are actually incredibly simple, encouraging us to use our imaginations to flesh them out – and even for those of us sitting way up in the gods, there’s a certain intimacy about the play that shows director John Tiffany really understands how attached his audience are to the characters and story. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s almost like everyone in the theatre is part of a big family, all there to catch up with mutual friends. The show is an experience that begins the moment we step inside and receive a warm welcome (and later, welcome back) from the staff, and the theatre itself even feels a bit like Hogwarts, with its twisty stone staircases and slightly creepy sculptures. I’m actually not surprised everybody kept the secrets during the show’s previews – by the time you leave and receive your badge, you’re well and truly a member of the club.

Now that the script’s been published, no doubt spoilers will start to leak out, but my advice, if you’re planning to see the show, is to avoid them. Don’t read the script; don’t ask questions. Just wait until you can experience Cursed Child in all its spectacular brilliance… and thank me later.