Review: Devil’s Food Cake at Brighton Fringe (online)

Written, rehearsed and filmed in lockdown, Marcia Kelson’s Devil’s Food Cake sensitively shines a light on the impact of an eating disorder on one ordinary family. Seventeen-year-old Sophie (Eden Vansittart) is desperate to lose weight, even though to her mum Jenny (Lesley Ann Jones), dad Frank (David Jones) and sister Katie (Eliza Jones), she’s looking more dangerously thin every day. With the support of therapist Jasmine (Caroline Salter), each member of the family adopts a different strategy to try and convince her to eat – but with Sophie well and truly under the spell of the persuasive Ana (Catherine Allison), are they too late to pull her back from the edge?

The play throws us straight into the heart of the story, with Sophie already fully committed to her extreme dieting regime, and her family very much aware that something’s not right. The focus is never really on how they got to this point, but rather on where they go from here, and Kelson paints a moving picture of a loving family unit at risk of being pulled apart by a dangerous force they can’t see and don’t know how to defeat. Zoom productions come with some inevitable limitations, but in this case the format is used well, placing Sophie alone on one screen, while her mum, dad and sister sit together around the kitchen table on another, highlighting her isolation and the growing distance between them.

It’s unclear at what stage in the timeline of events the family reached out to a therapist, but the presence of Jasmine allows us to gain an insight into the psychology of eating disorders, not only for those directly affected, but also for their loved ones. In fact it often feels Jasmine is there more for the audience’s benefit than for the family’s; she spends much of her time directly addressing the camera, and her tenuous animal analogies, while helpful to explain the theory to an impartial observer, repeatedly fall flat with her clients. It’s only when she begins to engage on a more personal level that the family start to make some progress.

This isn’t the only point where the play purposefully sets out to educate. While the part social media plays in promoting unhealthy body image may be obvious to most, there’s also an interesting scene in which Katie explains to her dad the less obvious role of cookies (the computer kind), and the danger that in seeking help online, those affected by eating disorders may find themselves drawn into “support” groups of the wrong kind. This conversation feels a bit deliberate and does little to develop the story, but it does add value to the play in demonstrating how modern technology can simultaneously both help and harm in ways we might not have thought about.

Eden Vansittart gives a compelling performance as Sophie, a teenager caught between her affection for her family and her desperate fear of not living up to the ideal standards Ana demands from her daily. Ultimately this is her journey, and despite everyone’s efforts to help, she alone can decide which path she wants to follow. But that’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and Vansittart captures well the turmoil her character is experiencing, especially in a powerful final scene that takes the audience on an unexpected rollercoaster of emotion.

For those already familiar with the impact of eating disorders, Devil’s Food Cake may hit a bit close to home – it comes with a clear trigger warning for good reason. But for those of us who know less, but want to understand more, it’s a powerful and poignant portrait of the untold damage such conditions can cause to both health and relationships, and a fascinating (and depressing) insight into how the modern world we live in, even with all its medical and technological advances, may still only be making things worse.

Devil’s Food Cake is available to watch online as part of Brighton Fringe until 27th June.

Review: A Russian Doll at the Barn Theatre

How safe is your personal data? According to Masha (Rachel Redford), the central character in Cat Goscovitch’s A Russian Doll, you might be unpleasantly surprised by the answer. We all know about the dangers of sharing too much online, but this dark one-woman show reveals how even the most seemingly innocuous information can become a weapon if it falls into the wrong hands.

Photo credit: Eve Dunlop

Masha is a student of English Literature, living with her mother in a tiny apartment and working part-time at an internet research agency. But when she catches the eye of the boss, the unintelligent but well-connected Jay-Z, she’s drawn against her will into Russia’s efforts to derail the UK referendum. And it turns out Masha has a talent for trolling – but will her conscience or her longing for a better life win out?

Rachel Redford is extraordinary, instantly capturing the audience’s attention and easily holding it throughout the 70-minute show. Though we learn more than we might like about the methods used, the real story here is not so much about Russian trolls or their impact on the Brexit vote – something most people know about by now, even if some aren’t quite ready to acknowledge it. The story is Masha, and the emotional rollercoaster she finds herself on as the thrill of exploiting oblivious Brits battles with the knowledge that what she’s doing goes against all her moral and political beliefs. This turmoil comes through in Redford’s performance, as she transforms before our eyes from innocent student to merciless manipulator, justifying it all with the (not unreasonable) argument that her role only exists because we expose our data so willingly… and ultimately leaving us to question whether anything she’s just told us is actually true.

While there’s no faulting Redford’s delivery, Goscovitch’s script at times feels incomplete. The timeline of events moves very quickly, and there are aspects of the plot which are skimmed over as a result, leading us to wonder why they were introduced in the first place. What is clearly portrayed, however, is the ruthlessness of the people at the top of the food chain, who gain the most benefit from data exploitation but run the least personal risk. And the play is certainly a wakeup call for anyone who spends time online – which, let’s be honest, is most of us.

Photo credit: Eve Dunlop

Dark and atmospheric in both tone and appearance, A Russian Doll is a chilling reminder of the dangers of the internet. A functional set from Liz da Costa and efficient direction by Nicolas Kent place Rachel Redford quite literally at centre stage, and her outstanding performance is what really lifts the production to a higher level. And if Masha’s story makes you think seriously about deleting your Facebook account – well, maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing.

A Russian Doll is at the Barn Theatre until 12th June, followed by a run at the Arcola Theatre’s new outdoor space Arcola Outside in East London.

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.