It’s the golden rule of capitalism: to convince a customer that your product will make them happy, you have to first make them realise how very unhappy they are without it. Science fiction musical The Quentin Dentin Show by Henry Carpenter takes this concept to infinity and beyond; now directed by Adam Lenson, the show introduces us to bored (and boring) couple Nat and Keith, who become the unwitting subjects of the universe’s most bonkers marketing scheme when they find a mysterious golden microphone in their living room. At the helm is Quentin Dentin – or at least the synth currently in possession of that name – whose only job is to sign them up to The Programme and make them both happy forever (although what that actually means is removing their souls, but you know, same difference). Naturally, Quentin isn’t doing this for nothing; he’s in line for an upgrade if he can seal the deal, so is willing to do just about anything to sign his subjects up.
In case you were wondering, this is all absolutely as bizarre as it sounds. Luke Lane steals the show with a gloriously over-the-top portrayal of TV host/preacher/mentor Quentin, backed by his two robotic “friends”, creatively named Friend 1 and Friend 2 (Freya Tilly and Lottie-Daisy Francis). Behind their beaming smiles, cheery singalongs and energetic choreography, there’s a decidedly sinister undertone about this trio as they skilfully manipulate Keith and Nat into signing their lives – and more – away.
Shauna Riley and Max Panks do a good job with necessarily flimsy characters, whose bemusement quickly gives way to acceptance of their own unhappiness and rejection of the dreams they thought they had. It’s a bit hard to believe Nat and Keith would so readily succumb to a strange man who appeared out of their radio, and nor do we ever find out why they’ve been chosen as Quentin’s latest subjects – but by this point we’re so far through the looking glass anyway that it’s best to just go with it.
That said, there is still a nugget of harsh truth about humanity’s constant search for happiness to be found amidst the manic grins, talking microphones and inflatable fish (don’t ask) – and the show’s unexpectedly bleak ending leaves us to wonder rather despondently if finding the meaning of life through artificial means really is the best future we have to look forward to.
Though there are only a couple of songs that are particularly catchy – among them a Hey Jude-esque final chorus that I still can’t get out of my head – all the musical numbers are enthusiastically performed by band and singers, with sharp, synchronised choreography from Caldonia Walton. In fact, movement in general throughout the show is crisp, polished and perfectly timed, down to the simplest turn of a head at just the right moment.
The production does suffer from a few sound issues; with the band on stage throughout, there are a couple of numbers where it’s hard to make out all of the lyrics, and there’s also an odd disconnect between the intimacy of Nat and Keith’s living room and the fact that they’re talking to each other in it through radio mikes. The show would perhaps work better in a slightly larger space – it certainly has the larger than life personality required to fill a bigger stage.
The show’s been described as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the new millennium”, and the influence of Richard O’Brien’s show is obvious (ordinary couple stumble into the path of a charismatic but unhinged stranger, who makes them question everything they thought they knew about themselves). Whether Quentin will ever reach the same levels of cult fandom I couldn’t say, but there’s no denying the show makes for an entertaining – and slightly bewildering – evening out.
Paper Creatures is a new London-based theatre company founded by Jon Tozzi and Nathan Coenen. The company’s debut production, Flood, which opens at Tristan Bates Theatre on 31st July, is a comedy drama written by Tom Hartwell (known for recent hits You Tweet My Face Space and Contactless), which shines a light on the millennial generation while examining themes of grief, nostalgia and what it means to leave home – and come back again.
“The play centres around the day’s events in this village at two of the characters’ mother’s funeral, and friends coming back,” says Jon. “We have one character, Adam, who’s never left the hometown and everyone else has, so it looks at the effect that’s had on him and them. We were just fascinated with this idea of why everyone wants to move away from home, where does this come from? But it’s a comedy drama – we wouldn’t get Tom Hartnell on board if it wasn’t going to have its light moments!
“Tom was in the year below me at drama school and I remember having a drink with him and I told him about the potential of this company and how we wanted to look at certain themes. And then he went on tour for a month to a place called Tenbury Wells, where every year it gets flooded and the government has deemed it too small a place to do anything about it. And he was really interested in how that affects the people living there, and especially the millennial demographic – so he wrote Flood.”
While Jon is “a London boy, born and bred”, Nathan knows all too well what it’s like to move away from home. “I’m from Perth, Western Australia – as south as you can get, almost! So there are definitely themes in the play that are very strong for me, and in the rare times I’m able to get home there are scenes that happen in this play, which Tom wrote of his own accord, that have exactly happened to me. I wanted to leave in order to achieve the things I wanted to do with my life – I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that in Perth – but it’s fascinating to me to think about identity and where you relate to. Would I call myself a Londoner now? I’ve only lived here five years. It’s an interesting question.”
The decision to focus on the millennial generation was made early on: “We’re very intrigued by this term,” explains Jon. “There’s almost this association now with the millennial generation that we’re addicted to phones, and disconnected from people because we’re so invested in the technologies that are around us. There’s a reason for that – because our lives are on phones and laptops and emailing – but at the end of the day we’re human beings and we still feel, and I think the way we’re portrayed sometimes in the media is that we don’t have those feelings. We wanted to dig deeper and prove that we still grieve, we still laugh, love, we still have secrets.
“But we didn’t want a gimmick with the company either. From the get go we believed that the story should be enough and you should take something away from it – regardless of what the play’s about, there’ll be a moment there. It’s all about the story for us; that’s our USP, I think. I reference theatre to history as well, and the reason we have history is to learn from it. Theatre’s the exact same thing – so we can with new writing tell these stories now so in the future people can look back and see what we were like.”
“I think we’re lucky to have access to so much amazing classical theatre, but I also think classical plays get put on all the time, and it’s incredibly important to continue to create a platform for new writers to come forward,” adds Nathan. “There are never enough new voices and we just wanted to not do anything special or different, but just provide another platform for new writers to have a voice and share their stories.”
Jon and Nathan met on a five-month tour of Much Ado About Nothing with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and bonded over a mutual love of the NBC show Friday Night Lights. “We absolutely adored the show because of the simple storytelling of these country people’s lives in Texas, where their whole lives revolved around their Friday night football game,” says Nathan. “To them it was the be all and end all. And we’d watch it and see a really honest portrayal of people caring about something so much. Then we’d chat about theatre, and when the tour finished we went and saw a lot of theatre together – Chekov, Yerma, Groundhog Day. We started going to some of the fringe theatres and we really got excited there.
“We’re really inspired by other new writing companies like Falling Pennies and Flux, and we wanted to create a place in which creatives and artists from all different aspects of the theatre community – lighting designers, actors, directors, writers, sound designers – could come together and invent. And particularly focusing that on the millennial generation; everyone we’re working with is a young, emerging artist, that’s really exciting for us.”
Jon adds, “And everyone helps each other out. We met up with so many people that we really admire – because we’re still learning every day, it’s not something you can get a degree in, you just have to crack on with it. We kept having these meetings and they were so helpful and honest with us so we could take what we wanted and put our spin on it. So we’re not just mimicking, we’re utilising what we’ve learnt.”
Even so, starting a theatre company is not without its challenges: “We’re trying our best to make it feel really professional,” says Jon. “It’s that feeling of making our team feel safe so they can just show up and enjoy themselves. And we’re learning about other elements of being in the theatre world like marketing, doing interviews – these are all new to us. I think it’s a really admirable thing when actors do decide to set their own companies up because you’re taking a massive risk.”
“I’ve been fascinated by the learning process of having to trust our own instincts about things,” agrees Nathan. “Things that I didn’t think I’d ever have to worry about as an actor, like designing posters, and then standing by your decisions. If you’re an actor in a play you have a director to guide you, but as the producers and the artistic directors we’re the ones calling the shots. It’s very rewarding but also you just have to click and hope – ‘I don’t know if this is right but let’s go for it’! And it’s been really gratifying to have to learn to trust our instincts on that.”
One of the biggest hurdles proved to be deciding on the company’s name, and it took about a month to finally settle on Paper Creatures. “We used to sit and just crack names out; we wanted to make it personal to us,” Jon explains. “The idea behind the name is: the paper is the script, and the creatures are the characters that come from that, the storytelling, and theatre is where we show you that. So the more you think about it, the more it makes sense – instead of thinking about an origami tiger or a swan, it makes so much more sense if you think about story, characters and theatre – just in a more poetic way. So that’s how it came about, but not without a lot of trial and error!”
Finding the right cast and creatives to work on Flood was another new experience, but Jon and Nathan are thrilled with the team they’ve assembled. “Our lighting, sound designer and set designers we’d never met before, so we found them essentially by just talking to people. Georgie Staight is the director – I did a scratch night with her last year, and she was great, then she directed Dubailand at the Finborough and we saw that she really gets a lot out of her actors, so we approached her and she thankfully said yes because she liked the play.”
The cast of five, which includes Nathan, Jon and Tom, is completed by Emily Céline Thomson, who was at drama school with Nathan, and Molly McGeachin, who was introduced by another friend. “That’s a nice element as well, meeting new people – we’ve never met some of them before but already have a great relationship,” says Jon. “It’s quite nice now to let the creatives get on with things and trust that they’ll do a great job, which they will, and we can concentrate on learning our lines!
“We want this to go really well. We want to learn a lot from it and make sure we’re doing it right, so we’re taking our time with it and not rushing into things, we’re making careful decisions – which venue we go for, what time slot, what kind of show we want to put on, what ideas we want for the poster… We’re making sure it’s done in the right amount of time, because the last thing you want when you’re putting on your first show is for it to be stressful and horrible. We want it to be a great experience for everyone involved.”
Nathan adds: “We want it to be fun, not one of those really stressful fringe productions where everybody’s tearing their hair out. We want them to want to do another play with us and be a part of it – that’s the kind of atmosphere we want to create. And we adore people getting in touch with us – actors, all different creatives; we want to create a community, so get in touch with us!”
Finally, why should we come and see Flood? “It’s a world premiere!” says Jon. “I think that’s exciting. So it’s a new piece of writing full of heart and humour, set in a flooded Somerset village, from a new emerging writer and company – what else could you want?”
“I think that theatre is something that’s a bit of a mirror. We go to the theatre to see ourselves or see something new, and I think that Flood will have moments we can relate to, and you’ll learn new things about people you might know,” concludes Nathan. “There will 100% be at least one moment where everybody will sit back and smile and say ‘I totally get that’. And that’s why we go to the theatre.”
Book now for Flood at Tristan Bates Theatre from 31st July-5th August.
Pop-up Opera attempts to engage and give agency to audiences who would not normally attend the opera. To do this, Cimarosa’s 1792 comedy Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage) has been modernised to a 21st century setting, acting is exaggerated and the concept is at times ridiculous, playing on the comedic side of the narrative.
It is a comedy to be taken with a laugh and an open mind, it pushes many boundaries and manages to reach many people in meaningful ways. Most importantly the music and quality of the performers is of really high quality, and that is the strength of the company. If anyone thought the opera was boring, go and see this performance and you will not be disappointed – this one is definitely not boring!
The show was quick, did not bore the spectators and did receive laughs from the public. Although in Italian, large screens project short colloquially translated captions and satirical images accompany the story in a very easy to follow manner. The story commences with the secret marriage of Carolina (Chiara Vinci) to Paolino (Mark Bonney). However, Carolina’s father Geronimo (Joseph Kennedy), a rich and mean merchant, is Paolino’s master and would never approve their marriage. Around them is the classical comedic scene of that time – Elisetta (Emily Blanch), her sister, the English Count Robinson (Tom Asher) who wants to take Carolina’s hand and the rich widow, auntie Fidalma (Vivien Conacher), who also has a burning desire for Paolino. Conflict and tension are obviously present. Carolina’s father is determined to have his daughters married to respectable people and with the excitement of knowing that English Royalty is planning to take one of his daughters as a wife, stakes are raised high.
The performance is full of comedic over the top tableaux. Auntie Fidalma’s passion is exaggerated into a blazing sexual need – as she presents the audience with her book Sex and Joy and reproduces orgasms on stage – it is so ridiculous that it cannot be found funny! The sisters fight with boxing gloves and the English count is disturbingly but realistically extremely sexual.
However, as an opera native and lover it was very difficult to watch the performance the entire way through. The musicality of the performance was lovely to listen to, but unfortunately modern satirical references, costumes and acting would override the music and in my opinion destroyed the magical poetics of the opera. Having said this, for non-opera goers this might be a very interesting beginning to engage in the art form.
Pop-up Opera’s Il Matrimonio Segreto is on tour until 30th July – check the website for dates and venues.
Stephanie Silver is a London-based actor and producer at Actor Awareness, a campaign fighting for equality and diversity within the arts set up by Tom Stocks in 2015. The campaign’s come a long way since then, and the team are now preparing for their second New Writing Festival, a showcase of original work taking place from July 17th-22nd at London’s Barons Court Theatre.
“Actor Awareness is about trying to create a level playing field,” explains Stephanie. “‘All the world’s, a stage and all the men and women players’, right? Well, it doesn’t seem like it in the acting world. We have a long way to come on many levels, but fundamentally Actor Awareness is a campaign to make a fairer industry, so on stage and screen there is a diversity in roles as well as the actual stories being told to audiences.
“As we’re a small campaign with minimal financial resources, we do what we can. We started out with scratch nights – as an actor it’s more important to be the driver behind your career and to create opportunities, a massive ethos here at Actor Awareness, so the scratch nights were a natural step. Our first few scratch nights we got like four submissions and even sometimes had to write the odd play to fill in the spaces! Now we get nearly 100 submissions; we get more and more every call out.
“We’re now sponsored by Spotlight for the scratch nights and we are the only scratch in London that pays – we’re pretty proud of that. The event also adds a credit to any actor’s CV, which helps their Spotlight submission, and it’s also in the heart of the West End, a casting melting pot so an ideal place for agents or CDs to come. We’ve had quite a few people signed from the events, we had producers come down to check out plays and many people have gone on to write more of their show and take it elsewhere. It’s also just a great night to meet like-minded people and have a pint.
“We started film nights at Spotlight, where we choose short films and do a screening. This is a new venture and one we hope to continue. Tom also works extensively behind the scenes doing loads of admin stuff and talking with Equity, Spotlight, Labour MPs and other industry professionals. Now Actor Awareness are the patron of a new drama school, North 8 – a school designed to help people who can’t afford the ‘typical’ three-year £40,000 BAs! So we’re taking steps in the right direction.”
Stephanie got involved with Actor Awareness in 2015 after responding to a request for someone to do a blog. “And then because I’m a busy body I started helping out more as the campaign grew,” she adds. “Tom and I are good friends now, we get on – he’s hilarious and we trust each other. When the campaign grew Tom asked me to take on the scratch nights; new writing is something I have a real passion for so I jumped at the chance and I’ve been doing them for a for a while now!
“I love reading everyone’s submissions. It’s something I really look forward to and it’s helped me grow as a writer myself, constantly reading plays makes you sharpen your own tools, so it’s a win win. I always remember plays too, so sometimes I might message someone if I remember a play and want them to re-submit, or I think it has potential so I’ll email them to ask if they have more. Other times if I have the time I’ll provide some feedback, which they can take or leave, no offence taken. I’m also producing the New Writing Festival in July; I can’t wait. I like to organise, so just call me Tom’s organiser!!”
Stephanie’s passion for the campaign and its goals is clear to see. “I truly believe in it, because it gave me a real sense of purpose and drive to really make something happen, for myself and helping others,” she says. “The message of equality is one that should be shared in every walk of life, not just theatre. I think art is inherently important for growth on a human and social level, therefore no matter what your class or finances you should have access to it. We get a lot of people come to us disheartened and sometimes bitter with the industry, and it’s nice to give people an energy and focus and watch them do something they love and remember, ah yeah, I actually love doing this, finding that spark and passion to go out there and be noticed. We’re giving people confidence in themselves or the knowledge of where to go, who to speak to, what grants to look at or theatre to talk to, and enabling people to make some sort of pathway or step towards their next goal.”
Among many favourite moments, the scratch nights stand out as particular highlights: “To be honest every scratch night just gets better and better, the talent just seems to blow us away every time! There’s a few shows that have really grabbed both me and Tom. There was Injuries of Class by Paul McMahon which was stellar, and I got to show a short play of mine called Our Father, it got a standing ovation which really made my entire life!
“I also enjoyed our workshop in Manchester, that felt really good moving outside of London and reaching people out of the London hub. I’d love to do workshops like that all over the country. We got teams together and people who didn’t even think they could write had short plays by the end of the workshop. That felt very good.”
Next month’s New Writing Festival follows a successful first event last August at Theatre N16 in Balham. “We invited six of our most popular shows that had come through our scratch nights and asked them to write one hour of material to showcase,” Stephanie explains. “They all rose to the challenge and it was a success. One of the plays – The Staffroom by Michelle Payne – is going to Edinburgh this year and is also having a run at Queens Hornchurch Theatre. The new writing weeks are a chance for us to invite back really promising plays to get audience feedback. This year I want to make it bigger and better, so I’ve invented the ‘Press Pass’, a magical pass for any industry professionals, artistic directors, producers and reviewers to have access to all shows all week, to try and get more feedback for our artists.”
And it sounds like there’s plenty for us to look forward to. “Ah we have so much! I’m so excited for everyone. We have a real mix of comedy and drama and real contemporary issues and some proper working class themes. I selected them on their writing merit first and foremost. I chose pieces that I’d seen and knew went down well on the scratch nights – we normally have a pint at the pub after scratch nights and you get a good buzz about what plays really went down a storm. I also, like any night or event I do, try and create a varied programme.
“Worsooz is a play that was shortlisted for the Papatango award in 2016, very excited about this one. C’est La Vie won an international open submission in Australia and was produced out there after being one of Actor Awareness’ first ever scratch pieces way back in 2015, so pretty excited about that too. 2022 is a hard hitting contemporary piece about a Muslim ban, this is set to be fab. Submission is a spoken word piece that had Tom welling up at the last scratch, about being gay and Muslim. We have several fab comedies: Come Die with Me, which British Theatre rated 5 stars, and Speciman.
“I’m really excited about Walk of Shame, which is a very brave play about consent. It showcased at our women’s scratch night; I was asked to direct it and I just fell in love with the story and the character. After working on it as a director I got my writing hat twitching and went away and wrote some material which I presented to the original writer of the piece. We then decided to write the play together and I’m stoked to show people what we have hashed together in such a short space of time! We also have The Staffroom returning to perform their Ed fringe preview at the end of the week!”
Looking further ahead, there’s plenty more to come from Actor Awareness: “Firstly we have open submissions for our next scratch night, which is on a political theme – submissions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have the Actor Awareness documentary coming out soon! It has many actors – people such as Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh – talking about the class ceiling in the acting industry. It’s a real eye opener and something Actor Awareness has been working on for a while.”
Finally, what can the rest of us do to support Actor Awareness in their campaign? “The shows are a great place to mingle and Spotlight members go FREE so it’s a pretty sweet deal,” says Stephanie. “But you can also connect with us via social media. We do a lot of this as it’s a free tool and reaches widely – we’re on Facebook and Twitter (@actorawareness) which is where we post all castings and any upcoming events. We keep it this basic so anyone can join in, hear about us, and no one pays anything either – actors have enough to pay for! We sometimes join up with companies like CCP and do competitions. We’re pretty chilled, you can write to us anytime and we can chat. Tom and I are pretty open, so just holla.”
I recently reviewed a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and while the play was excellent, I was reminded, not for the first time, of how much its conclusion bothers me. Hero, who’s just been publicly shamed on her wedding day, cheerfully takes back her fiancé and forgives everyone for doubting her, despite not a word of apology ever being offered. The audience’s attention returns to the more colourful characters of Benedick and Beatrice, and Hero – having served her purpose – is instantly forgotten.
David Fairs of GOLEM! is having none of that. His dark rearrangement of the text of Much Ado places Hero at the centre of the story – in more ways than one. Using only Shakespeare’s text, he’s created an entirely new story in which Hero’s dead and Beatrice (Sarah Lambie), Benedick (David Fairs) and Claudio (Conor O’Kane) meet in the chapel on the night before her funeral. In an attempt to ease his guilt over his treatment of her, Claudio decides to bring the warring Beatrice and Benedick together, with predictably amusing results. But there’s no escaping Hero this time, because her coffin dominates the room – many of the conversations take place quite literally over her dead body, and the shocking circumstances of her untimely death must eventually be dealt with.
Whether you know Much Ado or not doesn’t really matter. I Know You Of Old stands confidently on its own two feet as an original plot that in many ways is even more compelling – and certainly more intriguing – than its source material. Placing these three pivotal characters in Hero’s story into a pressure-cooker situation, where there’s nowhere to hide (though Benedick gives it a try), allows us to examine the dysfunctional relationships between them in a whole new light. And one thing’s for sure; while the play’s conclusion is rather open-ended, it’s far from unsatisfying.
Shakespeare lovers need not fear, though – by taking apart the text, GOLEM! aren’t being disrespectful, but instead demonstrating the astonishing versatility and enduring relevance of the words written so many centuries ago. In keeping with this, director Anna Marsland brings the story bang up to date; this is Shakespeare with iPads, motorcycle helmets, teddy bears and even Cher – suffice to say it isn’t your standard pre-funeral vigil. And yet somehow the 400-year-old text describes perfectly everything we can see, a reminder that while the world around us may change, human behaviour and emotions remain as messed up as they’ve ever been.
The play’s casting could hardly be more perfect. Conor O’Kane is every inch the heartbroken bridegroom, but with an appealing childlike quality that makes it easy to see how he could have been tricked into believing Hero’s guilt. All three actors are skilled comedians, and succeed in getting a laugh out of a single word or the simplest look or gesture; the verbal sparring between Sarah Lambie and David Fairs – who also starred together in Golem!’s previous production, the excellent Macbeths – is a comic delight (the layout of the theatre is such that watching their exchanges begins to feel like being on Centre Court at Wimbledon). But with Beatrice grieving for her cousin, their flirting takes on a darker edge that eventually spills over into something altogether more disturbing.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Anna Marsland’s production is its extraordinary attention to detail. There are real candles burning, a smell of incense in the air, and sombre music playing as we enter the dark chapel, and the stiflingly hot weather – however uncomfortable – conveniently helps to complete the claustrophobic effect. The use of modern technology isn’t just for show, either; the letter that Benedick reads out can be clearly seen on the iPad screen, as can the incriminating video he later views on his phone.
I Know You Of Old is an astonishing achievement, and a brave choice to take apart a play so many people know so well. David Fairs has succeeded because he’s used the opportunity to tackle some of the unfinished business in Shakespeare’s work – like the appalling, unpunished treatment of Hero, and what makes Beatrice and Benedick behave the way they do. Consequently it’s clear that this is not a gratuitous ripping up of a classic, but rather a fitting and respectful complement to the original, a gripping new tale which can be enjoyed by Shakespeare fans and newbies alike.