Review: Sticks and Stones at Tristan Bates Theatre

Written by Dameon Garnett in response to the ongoing debate around free speech, Sticks and Stones is a fascinating two-hander that explores how we talk about issues of race, class and privilege in 2020 Britain. In particular, the play asks where we draw the line between free speech and hate speech, and to what extent the opinions we share should be policed and punished by society.

Afua (Eva Fontaine) is a senior manager in a secondary school. Tina (Catherine Harvey) works in the kitchen. The two are friends, who socialise outside work and whose sons used to play together as children. When Afua is advised of offensive jokes shared by Tina on her public Facebook page, she has to take action – but what begins as a professional dispute soon turns personal, and escalates into a bitter conflict that brings to the surface previously unspoken resentments on both sides.

The play is only an hour long, but that short time is full to bursting with persuasive, thought-provoking lines of argument, and the traverse staging by director Rasheka Christie-Carter means that the debate pings back and forth across Afua’s office like a tennis match (there’s even a change of ends halfway through). There’s a discussion about what privilege means, about what constitutes hate speech, and about why it’s acceptable for Afua to be pictured at a protest march in a controversial outfit, but not for Tina to share a few jokes with her friends online. And, crucially, though their clash ends with a clear victor, the behaviour of both parties during the discussion prevents the audience deriving much satisfaction from her triumph.

Garnett’s skilful writing is brought to life in two powerhouse performances from Eva Fontaine and Catherine Harvey; the bitter tension between the two women, particularly in the second half of the play, is so convincing it becomes impossible to look away. Garnett has created two diametrically opposed characters, but neither is so extreme in their views that we can’t relate to them or recognise in them people we know, either in real life or online. Consequently, it doesn’t take long for the audience to become completely engaged in their argument, whether we’re firmly on one side throughout or shifting back and forth as the play goes on.

Sticks and Stones plays out on a small stage a much bigger debate currently rumbling – and occasionally raging – throughout Britain. For those who’ve already picked a side in that debate, the play is unlikely to win any hearts and minds for the opposing team. But this compelling, provocative drama certainly asks some uncomfortable questions, which should at least challenge the views we hold, and make us aware of the potential damage such bitter division can cause.

Sticks and Stones is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 21st March.

Review: The Apologists at Omnibus Theatre

The public apology is far from a new phenomenon, but in the era of online news and social media, it’s becoming more and more of a common occurrence. In The Apologists, three stories are told – by the same performer and director (Gabrielle Scawthorn and Jane Moriarty respectively) but different writers – each exploring a different aspect of a topic that turns out to provide a surprising quantity of food for thought.

In Excuses by Iskandar Sharazuddin, the first female Chief Executive of the NHS goes head to head with a terrified mother who said something bad in the heat of the moment as she watched her young daughter fight for life. The only problem is, they’re the same woman. One knows she must apologise, and does so in the blandest, most corporate way possible, while the other argues her case in far more emotional terms. The seriousness of the incident, which appears to have racial undertones, is never denied – but as we watch the story unfold, the true question at the heart of this piece emerges: why does this woman have to choose to be either Sarah’s mum or NHS boss – and if that division is expected of her by society, how can we then justify judging one persona by the actions of the other?

In the second piece, Seven, The Sweetest Hour by Cordelia O’Neill, a social media influencer comes to terms with the fact that her work has caused real harm – and worse, it’s been doing so for some time. This piece is particularly topical given recent news headlines, and asks if the validation we may personally receive from a witty tweet or savagely worded review is ever worth the damage it could inflict on someone else’s mental health. The piece stops short, however, of simply slamming Holly for her actions, focusing instead on an examination of her own mental well-being, and delving into why it’s so important to her to get that validation, whatever it might cost.

Finally, in New Universe by Lucinda Burnett, a woman watches, appalled, as her male boss issues a meaningless public apology for horrific crimes committed on his watch as CEO of a global aid organisation. In his mind, the damage is already done and he didn’t personally inflict it, so saying sorry is little more than a duty he has to get through before lunch. To her, however, his failure to really take responsibility or engage with what’s happened is the ultimate betrayal, and leads her to consider a course of action she would never previously have thought possible. This piece is a particularly tough one to watch, as it touches on issues of sexual violence and victim blaming, through the eyes of a woman who knows all too well the trauma they can cause.

All three monologues are performed by Gabrielle Scawthorn, who proves extraordinarily adept at switching characters – not just between pieces but also within them. With only very minor wardrobe and set changes to visually distinguish one story from the next, all three women nonetheless feel distinct and well-developed. Scawthorn is also a very engaging performer, and it’s difficult not to be moved by the emotional turmoil she portrays.

For a society that’s grown accustomed to public figures issuing apologies, it’s easy to pass judgment, and dismiss what we see as insincerity or the frantic damage control efforts of an unseen PR machine. And sometimes, certainly, that verdict will be right on the money. But The Apologists asks us to look a little deeper, past the carefully worded statements or overblown displays of emotion, and to consider what might be going on behind the scenes, before we make that judgment. With strong writing and compelling performance, it’s definitely one to see this week.

The Apologists is at Omnibus Theatre until 8th March.

Review: Cracking at King’s Head Theatre

Written by Cally Hayes, co-director of Alright Mate?, Cracking is an eloquent, moving and informative portrayal of what it’s like to live with – and recover from – post-natal illness. What makes this production stand out, however, is that it gives the viewpoint of both mum and dad, with the particular aim of shining a light on the often forgotten subject of male mental health.

Sam (Tom Bowdler) and Rachel (Georgia Robinson) are a young couple with a two-year-old son. It’s been a year since Rachel recovered from the post-natal illness she suffered following Tommy’s birth, but something still isn’t right. Sam doesn’t want to talk about it, but is encouraged through counselling to open up and share some of the fears and anxieties that continue to haunt him – even though, on paper, everything should be “back to normal”.

The couple’s different approaches to talking about their problems is explored very well in the short but powerful play, which combines spoken dialogue with physical movement sequences. Rachel is very open, describing her pain in intensely visceral terms and constantly seeking reassurance from her partner that everything will be okay. Sam, on the other hand, deflects awkward topics of conversation by either joking around or getting angry. He can’t talk to his friends because that would mean admitting something’s wrong – and so he internalises all the pressure and worry, focusing on the day-to-day practicalities of supporting Rachel through her own illness and neglecting his own mental health in the process.

What becomes clear as we’re watching the play is that while post-natal depression in mothers is a defined, diagnosable condition, the impact it has on fathers is much more difficult to label, and as such it often goes unacknowledged. The moment in which Sam finally breaks down and admits he’s struggling is heartbreaking to watch but also feels like a breakthrough, when both he and we begin to realise just how traumatic the experience has been for him.

Tom Bowdler and Georgia Robinson give great performances, portraying very convincingly not just the hurt and bewilderment of the present day – as they each struggle to understand why things haven’t gone back to how they were – but also the joy of their early relationship, and the fear and despair of the months following their baby’s birth. Director Kevin Johnson’s use of movement and space is also important, evoking particularly effectively the isolation both characters feel, even when they’re sitting right next to each other, and their impotence in the face of a crisis they need to identify before they can begin to fight it.

The play is one of a variety of projects organised by Alright Mate?, a community interest company that aims to normalise conversations about male mental health. Much of Cally Hayes’ script is based on verbatim testimony from parents who’ve recovered from post-natal illness, so it’s no surprise that even the most shocking details have a ring of absolute truth to them. Cracking is a sad story, but it’s a story that needs to be told – to parents who may recognise their own experience and seek help, but also to friends and family who need to understand what their loved ones are facing before they can offer support, and to the wider public to promote greater understanding of this complex issue.

Cracking can next be seen at The Old Library in Bodmin – and you can also visit the Alright Mate? website for future dates and information about the organisation and its projects.

Quick Q&A: Red Peter

Where and when: VAULT Festival / 6 – 8 March at 6 pm/ 8th March at 3 pm

What it’s all about… A stage adaptation of the short story A Report to An Academy by Franz Kafka, is a monologue from a captured West African ape who has “become” European.

An African ape has been captured in the jungles of West Africa and brought back to ‘civilization’ by his European captors. To escape a life of incarceration, he ‘evolves’ into a human being. Red Peter mimics human habits from the crew of the ship upon which he is imprisoned, masters human speech and eventually decides to embrace human society rather than languish in a zoo as an ape. He presents to an academy to give a report about his former life.

You’ll like it if…

  • Audience members with a multicultural background and those who are interested in changing cultural norms in society.
  • Animal lovers and those interested in animal rights.
  • Lovers of physical theatre, Franz Kafka, and original stories.

You should see it because… the audience will be engaged from the moment they sit down not only by the theme of the play but also by its interest in how this humanised ape will appear on stage and what it will say to them.

Anything else we should know…: Critics’ Choice of Best Shows 2019 – London Pub Theatre Magazine
Nominated / Finalist for Off West End Fringe Festival Award
★★★★★ “An outstanding performance” -Broadway World
★★★★★ “A thought provoking piece”, “Barnes is excellent as the gifted ape” -The Upcoming ★★★★ ½ “Superbly acted and directed”, “A well thought out production” -London Pub Theatre Magazine

Where to follow:
Twitter: @chrisyy67
Instagram: @gridtheatre
Facebook: @GridTheatre

Book here: https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/red-peter/

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Quick Q&A: She Is A Place Called Home

Where and when: 3rd – 8th March, 6.20pm (matinee: 8th March – 3.20pm). VAULT Festival

What it’s all about… The show follows two British Nigerian sisters as they navigate their Dad’s decision to get another wife (as in, in addition to their Mum), and what this means for their faith, family and future. It explores several difficult topics including clashes between culture and faith, the experience of eating disorders by black women and non-physical forms of domestic violence.

You’ll like it if… you’re a fan of afro beats, traditional Nigerian dance and a show with more plot twists than a Nollywood movie.

On a more serious note, sisterhood is at the heart of this show, so if you have a sister or close female friends, it really explores that relationship and how it endures in the face of tragedy.

You should see it because… when was the last time you saw a play about bigamy?

Anything else we should know…: The play was developed as part of the VAULT Festival New Writers Programme 2019, led by award-winning writer Camilla Whitehill (Freeman, Where Do Little Birds Go?), and showcased during VAULT Festival 2019 in a sold-out show. It was also shortlisted for the Untapped Award, a partnership between New Diorama Theatre, Underbelly and Oberon Books.

We’re also partnering with Solace Women’s Aid, an innovative and grass roots charity that supports women and children who have experienced domestic and sexual violence to build safe and strong lives. At the end of each show, we will be collecting both monetary donations and donations of toiletries to support their work.

Where to follow:
Twitter: @sheisaplace
Instagram: @sheisaplaceplay
#sheisaplace

Book here: https://vaultfestival.com/whats-on/she-is-a-place-called-home/

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