Interview: Michelle Payne, Sad About The Cows

Michelle Payne is a playwright, director and performer whose work has been widely produced since 2015, when her debut play Orchid picked up two awards on its first outing. She’s also a founder of Caspa Arts, an acting school for young performers who can’t afford to go to drama school, and from tomorrow brings one-woman show Sad About The Cows to Tristan Bates Theatre for a week-long run.

The dark comedy explores the themes of female self-image through the story of Rachel, a young woman obsessed with consuming. “In the age of social media we are constantly bombarded with information and images, and it’s how her impressionable mind processes this,” explains Michelle. “I wanted to create a seemingly high-functioning character that happens to suffer with her mental health – it does not define who she is.”

Sad About The Cows at Tristan Bates Theatre

Though it’s not a directly autobiographical piece, Michelle did draw on her own experience to write Sad About The Cows. “I’ve seen a lot of theatre and TV about characters who face problems with their mental health, but hadn’t necessarily seen anything that resonated with my experiences,” she says. “I used my personal experience as a starting point for creating the play, but made sure that I adapted the plot so that Rachel is definitely a fictional character. This thought helps me to safeguard myself in the performance, to remember that I’m just telling an important story.”

Sad About The Cows transfers to Tristan Bates with a female creative team, after first being performed as part of the John Thaw Initiative Working Class Season with Actor Awareness earlier this year. “We stepped in for a gap in programming for the first full length showing as part of the John Thaw Initiative, which challenged me to finish writing the play,” says Michelle. “From this, the Tristan Bates offered us the week run. I was lucky enough to find a diverse female creative team who have shared slightly different views about body image and its relationship to mental health. Each creative in the team had something different to offer towards the piece, whether that be culturally different or from their life experiences so far! It’s been a great process with five different voices in the room.”

According to national charity BEAT, 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder – 75% of them female. Michelle hopes the play will break down barriers and start a conversation about the subject: “The main thing I’d like people to know about eating disorders is that it’s not necessarily that people who suffer want to be skinny, it’s often a way of keeping control. And also that people can function despite the illness. I’d like our audiences to be able to have an open discussion about mental health disorders. So often the stigma stops people from discussing this at all and people worry about what others might think if they admit they suffer.”

Catch Sad About The Cows at Tristan Bates Theatre from 21st-25th May.

Review: Summer Street at Waterloo East Theatre

The idea for Summer Street: The Hilarious Aussie Soap Opera Musical (to give it its full title) dates back to 2004, when writer and director Andrew Norris was inspired to pay homage to the Australian soaps of his youth, and the stars who dominated UK pop charts and panto line-ups for much of the 80s and 90s. The result is a well-meaning, nostalgic and unashamedly ridiculous comedy musical that’s probably best appreciated after a glass of wine or two.

Photo credit: Simon Snashall

The plot revolves around Bruce (Simon Snashall), Angie (Sarah-Louise Young), Paul (Myke Cotton) and Steph (Julie Clare), four former stars of popular musical “soapy”, Summer Street. All but one have failed to have any kind of acting career following their dramatic exits from the show, so they jump at the chance to reunite for an anniversary special – but all is not as it seems… While on camera one of the characters has to be rescued from an abandoned mine just before her wedding, life behind the scenes has its own share of drama as each of the four actors reflects on life post-Summer Street.

The show obviously takes great delight in sending up all the well-worn soapy tropes, from dramatic deaths to product placement. The on-screen characters are recognisable stereotypes – the doctor with an alcohol problem, the in-the-closet lesbian in love with her best friend, the nosey neighbour – and anyone who knows anything about Neighbours or Home and Away (or, to be fair, any of the UK soaps) will never fail to get the joke. It’s all enjoyably silly and there are some quite funny bits, often at the most unexpected moments – one character’s account of his wife’s tragic demise and the heroic actions of Pogo the neighbourhood dog are highlights.

The problem is that in trying to poke fun at the banality of the soap format, Summer Street ends up suffering a similar fate; the characters are under-developed, the story makes little sense, and several of the familiar jokes are repeated so often that they start to feel a bit tired. The same, unfortunately, goes for the musical numbers, which are for the most part catchy enough but tend to go on just a bit longer than seems necessary. (In Brighton only half of the songs were performed, which says quite a lot about their value within the production.)

The show may have its flaws but the cast enthusiastically make the best of it, and there are some strong vocal performances – particularly from Sarah-Louise Young, who steals the show in Act 2 with pop ballad Chains Around My Heart. The nature of the production calls for larger than life performances, and all four cast members seem more than happy to oblige, adopting suitably flamboyant Aussie accents, cheerfully reeling off lines of expositional dialogue – often at high speed – and throwing themselves without hesitation into Lauren Chinery’s comically stagey dance routines.

Photo credit: Simon Snashall

To give credit where it’s due, Summer Street never pretends to be anything other than what it is: a spoof comedy musical that takes an already over-the-top TV format and takes it up another notch or three. In that sense, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Could it have been done with a bit more finesse? Yes, probably. But as it stands the show is harmless fun, and you can’t say fairer than that.

Summer Street is at Waterloo East Theatre until 2nd June.

Review: Mycorrhiza at The Space

The second of four plays to feature in The Space’s Foreword Festival – an annual project supporting first-time writers in bringing their work to the stage – the darkly humorous Mycorrhiza marks a strong writing debut from Luke Stapleton. Directed by Sepi Baghaei, the two-hander flits between past and present as thirteen-year-old school friends Dean (Scott Afton) and Alicia (Corrina Buchan) spend the night hiding out on a remote Scottish island, and then return six years later – in somewhat odd circumstances – as very different people. In both cases, secrets are shared and support offered, with the play particularly highlighting the way gender expectations shape each character’s way of dealing with their own trauma.

The play takes its unusual name from a symbiotic association between fungi and plants which, quietly and without fuss, ensures both have what they need to survive. This becomes a metaphor for friendship, and the reasonable expectation that even when we feel most alone, someone will be there to offer the help and support we need. The relationship between Dean and Alicia is well developed; unglamorous, often immature, and littered with mistakes, it nonetheless always feels believable. Much of the credit for this must go to two excellent performances from Corrina Buchan and Scott Afton, who confidently negotiate the script’s many twists and turns, and somehow make these two very different characters feel like a natural fit.

Ultimately, the friends are united by the pain caused by deep personal trauma – but while Alicia sees nothing wrong in reaching out to her friend for help, Dean can’t bring himself to do the same when the tables are turned, despite having gone to extreme lengths to have her there. Suddenly, all the earlier “harmless” jokes about his manhood and slim stature take on a much darker significance as he struggles to open up, even to the person he trusts the most. (Nor does it help that each time he tries to assert his masculinity, he’s easily overpowered – both physically and intellectually – by his more dominant friend.)

Taking us back and forth in time works well as a narrative device, teasing out the story a little at a time, but it proves to be a bit of an issue when it comes to staging. The need to visually differentiate between past and present results in several lengthy blackouts while the actors hastily clear the stage – tent and all – and set up for the next scene. This is all very efficiently done, but it does mean regular significant interruptions to the flow of a play that otherwise holds the audience’s attention with ease. That said, the production does successfully capture the wildness and isolation of the island, with Vanessa Morton’s lighting design particularly effective as it follows the passing hours, and day becomes night becomes day again.

Mycorrhiza takes a little-known natural phenomenon and applies it to a situation we can all relate to. As thirteen-year-olds, Dean and Alicia struggle to get their heads around the strange word their teacher mentioned in class, or to fully grasp the scientific details – but they instinctively understand that it’s a perfect metaphor for their own imperfect but enduring connection. The play ventures into some dark territory, but ultimately the feeling of connection it leaves you with is both reassuring and uplifting. This compelling drama is a promising debut, and promises good things to come from Luke Stapleton.

Mycorrhiza is at The Space until 18th May.

For more details about the Foreword Festival or to support the project, visit their Kickstarter.

Review: Hair at the Orchard Theatre

When it was first performed 50 years ago, Hair caused quite a stir with its profanity, depictions of drug use and full frontal nudity. These days it’s far less shocking, but still raises an eyebrow or two with its extensive list of pre-show warnings (it’s the first – and quite possibly last – time I’ve ever seen a notice on the door alerting me to “a 20-minute UV sequence”) and even in these more liberal times, it’s still not a show I’d recommend if you’re easily offended. But there’s no question that this 50th anniversary tour is a very strong production, which explodes on to the Orchard stage in a psychedelic showcase of spectacular vocal and visual talent. And songs. A lot of songs.

Hair at the Orchard Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado with music by Galt MacDermot, Hair is set in 1960s New York and invites us into the world of “the tribe”, a group of long-haired, peace-loving hippies who take a lot of drugs, have a lot of sex, and ultimately take to the streets in protest against the war in Vietnam. One of their number, Claude (Paul Wilkins), becomes torn between staying true to the pacifist views he shares with his friends and burning his draft card in protest, and the expectation of society and his conservative parents that he go and fight for his country.

A large proportion of Act 1 is taken up by introducing the characters and their way of life; it’s not so much a plot as a picture, which forms piece by piece as each member of the group has their moment in the spotlight. Among them are Berger (Jake Quickenden), who within minutes is running around in the audience wearing a very skimpy loin cloth and not a lot else; Sheila (Daisy Wood Davis), the group’s most outspoken political protester; Jeanie (Alison Arnopp), who’s pregnant and in love with Claude; Woof (Bradley Judge), who’s in love with Mick Jagger… Everyone has their part to play – and although in Act 2 Claude emerges as the story’s central character, the show is performed throughout by a well-honed and seamless ensemble.

While the almost total absence of a coherent plot won’t be to everyone’s taste, one thing that can’t be denied is the quality of the performances. The vocally demanding score – which features an unusually large number of songs, including timeless favourites I Got Life, Aquarius and Let The Sunshine In – proves no match for either Gareth Bretherton’s on-stage band or the fourteen-strong cast. The latter in particular seem utterly unfazed by the high notes, the tongue-twisting lyrics or the fact that they often have to tackle both whilst jumping up and down, lying on the floor, or stark naked (although in fairness, that only happens once and you don’t really see anything).

Hair at the Orchard Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

As we were leaving, my friend said that she thought Hair was “of its time” – but I’m not sure I agree. While the set, costumes and characters are very obviously from the 60s and the story speaks about a specific moment in American history and culture, the idea of a nation divided and the responsibility we all have to speak out against injustice and toxic nationalism is, depressingly, as topical now as it’s ever been. So maybe what’s most shocking about Hair isn’t the nudity or the drugs, but the fact that 50 years have passed and nothing’s really changed.

Hair is at the Orchard Theatre until 18th May, then continues on tour.

Review: Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Barons Court Theatre

I briefly considered writing a 140-word review of Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, but quickly decided against it. For one thing, if the play proves anything it’s that working with such a limited quota is difficult. Also, I just wasted five on the title.

So, in significantly more than 140 words: what’s it all about? Well, it’s a dystopian drama in which the British government – for reasons that are never really made clear – has just imposed a new law that limits everyone to 140 words of communication a day. The political and personal ramifications of this play out through the eyes of a young couple, Bernadette (Jemima Murphy) and Oliver (Charlie Suff), who only realise once every word counts how much they’ve so far left unsaid.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Barons Court Theatre
Photo credit: Maximilian Clarke

The plot has many frustrating gaps in it (why the ban was imposed, what types of communication it covers, how it’s monitored, what happens if you go over the limit, or if it’s even possible to do so…) but nonetheless the play does raise some fascinating questions about how we communicate with each other and the way we use language. Oliver, a musician and staunch opponent of the ban, points out the social and economic value of words; 140 words means a lot more to someone who has to go out and find work than it does to someone who’s already financially stable – like, for instance, his lawyer girlfriend. Then there’s the way words become a symbol of how much each values the relationship, as Bernadette repeatedly arrives home each evening having saved fewer words than Oliver has, and how the ban forces them to be creative and come up with their own private “couple’s code”. It’s particularly interesting to note that in some ways the two of them actually communicate more after the ban, revealing truths that were always avoided before, when it was easy to change the subject or “talk about it later”.

Unsurprisingly given the subject matter, the spaces between words carry just as much weight as the words themselves, and this comes across very effectively in director Hamish Clayton’s production. The play’s script is made up of a dizzying number of very short scenes, some of them merely seconds long, and every action that takes place in between – even something as simple as moving a chair or getting into bed – feels carefully considered to ensure that not a single moment of the 80-minute run time is wasted. The performances given by Jemima Murphy and Charlie Suff are similarly meticulous, the two of them saying just as much with their movements, gestures and facial expressions as they do with their dialogue. Meanwhile Gareth Rowntree’s set differentiates with admirable simplicity between the play’s different timelines; post-ban, a light is illuminated for each character, which goes from white to red when they hit zero.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Barons Court Theatre
Photo credit: Maximilian Clarke

Though written in 2015, the play’s parallels with Brexit are plain to see: the debate over the ban splits the nation, nobody really expects it to go through, and when it does there are a host of unforeseen consequences, most of which affect the poorest in society. The programme acknowledges this relevance, but there’s more than enough going on here to ensure that the play stands on its own, and that even those who are sick of hearing about Brexit (which is, let’s face it, most of us) shouldn’t be put off. A polished and carefully directed production, Lemons is the kind of thought-provoking play that keeps giving, with plenty of material to ensure an excellent debate in the bar afterwards.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons is at Barons Court Theatre until 26th May.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉