Review: Outlying Islands at the King’s Head Theatre

Following their triumphant revival last year of East by Steven Berkoff, Atticist return to the King’s Head – where they’re now an Associate Company – with a new production of David Greig’s 2002 play Outlying Islands. And just as in East, which captured so well the spirit of the East End, here again the setting is not just important to the story but sits right at the heart of the play.

Photo credit: Clive Barda

That setting is a remote Scottish island in 1939. As Britain prepares for war, ornithologists Robert (Tom Machell) and John (Jack McMillan) are sent from London by “the Ministry” to spend a month studying and documenting the local birds. The island – “a pagan place” uninhabited for a century – is owned by Kirk (Ken Drury), who accompanies the two men for their stay, along with his niece Ellen (Rose Wardlaw). Not very surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for a romantic entanglement to develop between the three young people, particularly after an unfortunate incident leaves them alone with no Kirk to get in the way. But will they follow their instincts and give in to nature, or will they be held back by the faint but persistent call of civilisation? And why exactly have the two men been sent to the island in the first place…?

I won’t lie; I wasn’t expecting a play about bird-watching to be so tense or so funny – yet Outlying Islands somehow manages to be both at different points, largely because it’s as much a study of people as it is of birds. Robert and John are clearly good friends, but they’re also as different as two men could possibly be. The former, played by Tom Machell, is charming, impulsive and shows very little care for anyone else’s feelings; the casual ease with which he separates a mother from her chick just to see what happens is soon revealed to be only the tip of the iceberg. Jack McMillan’s John is instantly more likeable – but he’s also a worrier, bound by politeness and a strict moral code that often prevents him doing anything at all. The only thing this odd couple seem to share is their love of birds and their admiration for Ellen’s quiet charms.

Photo credit: Clive Barda

Rose Wardlaw gives a standout performance as Ellen, whose repressed existence with her bullying uncle hasn’t stopped her seeing Way Out West 37 times and secretly lusting after Stan Laurel. When she unexpectedly gains her freedom – and control of the island – she wastes no time in spreading her wings, but does so without losing any of the innocence and wonder that make her so appealing to both men.

To really engage with the characters and their situation, the audience must feel the isolation of the setting – and we do, thanks to the exceptional design by Anna Lewis. In almost every sense, we’re transported to the old pagan chapel where the characters will set up home, with Christopher Preece’s sound design providing a frequent reminder of the wildness that lies in wait just beyond the rickety wooden door.

It’s quite a long play – Act 1 alone is 90 minutes – and in less competent hands there are some scenes that could feel unnecessarily drawn out. But such is the quality of every aspect of Jessica Lazar’s atmospheric and compelling production that the time flies by, and as the story concludes we’re almost sad to leave the bare little room (particularly now that we know what will become of it once we’re gone). A haunting exploration of human nature with a side helping of political intrigue, this is highly recommended for bird-watchers and people-watchers alike.

Outlying Islands is at the King’s Head Theatre until 2nd February.

Review: Gentleman Jack at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Following in the footsteps of last year’s historical drama The White Rose, the Female Firsts repertory season from Arrows & Traps sets out to tell the little-known stories of two different but equally remarkable women. The first of these, Anne Lister, was a 19th-century landowner and businesswoman from Yorkshire, who defied social expectations by refusing to take a husband and openly acknowledging her sexual relationships with other women – an act of rebellion that’s earned her the title of “the first modern lesbian”.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Opening with the discovery of Anne’s coded diaries by her descendant John Lister (Alex Stevens) some 50 years after her death, the play takes us back to two key moments in her life: her tempestuous relationships as a young woman with Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe (Laurel Marks) and Mariana Belcombe (Beatrice Vincent), and several years later, her growing bond with heiress Ann Walker (Hannah Victory), who would go on to become her partner in both business and life. Meanwhile we also see the impact of her diaries on John Lister, who was himself secretly gay, but whose political ambitions held him back from following Anne’s example. (In the end, he hid the diaries for a future generation to find, and they were only finally published in 1988.)

Importantly, writer and director Ross McGregor wears no rose-tinted spectacles in his portrayal; the play is respectful of Anne’s intelligence and courage in the face of extreme prejudice, but at the same time doesn’t shy away from the less savoury aspects of her character. As a young woman, played by Lucy Ioannou, she’s charming and witty, but also manipulative, impatient and cruel, particularly to the devoted Tib. Cornelia Baumann’s older Anne has matured considerably, and her blossoming relationship with Ann Walker is both believable and engaging – but her tongue remains as sharp as ever, and her refusal to give in to the scare tactics of local businessman Christopher Rawson (Toby Wynn-Davies) often leads her to gamble far more than she can afford to lose. This willingness to see both sides, far from detracting from Anne’s story, brings her all the more vividly to life.

The quality of the writing is matched by that of the production; though simply staged, and perhaps more understated than some of their previous work, it still retains the distinctive Arrows style and is, as always, acted with complete conviction by the cast. As a director, Ross McGregor has an incredible eye for talent and while every performance is excellent, I have to make special mention of Laurel Marks, who deftly balances humour and pathos as she makes an impressive stage debut in the role of Anne’s young lover, Tib.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Gentleman Jack shines a light not only on Anne Lister’s life and legacy as both a woman and a lesbian, but also on the rigid 19th century attitudes that she set out to challenge. Watching the play, you can’t help but be struck not just by how much our society has progressed, but also by how far we still have to go on multiple fronts. A fascinating story brought to life with sensitivity and more than a little humour, it makes for an evening that’s as enlightening as it is entertaining.

Gentleman Jack is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 16th February, performed in rep alongside Taro, the story of Gerda Taro.


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Review: Sam. The Good Person at The Bunker Theatre

Everyone wants to be liked; it’s a natural human instinct. Some of us worry about it more than others, true, but we all want to belong somewhere – and if we’re really honest, we’ve probably all told a little white lie or exaggerated a bit at some point to impress someone we admire. But what happens when that need for other people’s approval gets out of hand, and how far can you bend the truth before it snaps completely?

Photo credit: William Alder

Sam. The Good Person is set at a support group meeting, where regular attendee Sam has finally been persuaded to open up about his big problem: he’s so obsessed with what other people think of him that he’ll say and do literally anything, however detached from reality, to fit in. At first it’s funny, but a few panicked fibs in the heat of the moment soon begin to turn into active manipulation, and we’re ultimately left looking back and wondering if we too have fallen victim to his lies.

Writer and performer Declan Perring is a master storyteller with excellent comic timing. He switches moods, accents and characters in the blink of an eye, and engages very comfortably with the members of his support group, who are “played” by members of the audience seated in a circle around him. His story might sound extreme – is it really possible to have a five-year relationship based entirely on a fiction? – and yet the fact is despite Sam’s early and frank admission that he’s a compulsive liar, we nonetheless do immediately like and trust him. He’s funny, and endearingly self-conscious, and he seems to genuinely worry – albeit to an unhealthy degree – about how his actions affect other people, even if it’s something as innocuous as waiting for a kettle to boil in a quiet room. At first, he seems like someone we can all relate to.

Even later (once we’ve established he definitely isn’t someone we relate to) when we hear about – and see with devastating clarity, despite there being nothing to look at; a testament to the power of Perring’s physical performance – the horrific event that’s ultimately brought him to this group, we can’t help but feel bad for him and everything he’s gone through. And that only makes the play’s final twist all the more unsettling.

Photo credit: William Alder

Ironically in light of the subject matter, Stephanie Withers’ production has a feeling of great authenticity throughout, enhanced by the seating of members of the audience on stage. Though none of them is called on to say a word, their presence means that we don’t go in feeling that we’re watching an actor give a performance – a point that becomes increasingly key as the play goes on. There’s stellar work too from lighting and sound designers Will Alder and Nick Clinch, who perfectly keep pace with Sam’s mood in all its ups and downs. Just like his story, their work often makes for a deeply uncomfortable audience experience, which is reflected too in Perring’s spellbinding performance.

What’s most striking about Sam. The Good Person is the way it takes a perfectly normal, even admirable, sentiment – the desire to be a good person, someone others admire and want to be around – and twists it into something genuinely disturbing. Because we recognise ourselves in Sam early on, the play suddenly makes you feel you’re only one step away from following him down that dark path… This is a cleverly written, darkly humorous and exquisitely performed piece of theatre that will make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself and the people you love. It’s also a lot more fun than I just made it sound, so let’s hope this short run – which ends on Saturday – isn’t the last we’ve seen of Sam.

Sam. The Good Person is at The Bunker Theatre until 19th January.

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Review: Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre

This week, a teenage girl in the States crashed her car whilst attempting the Bird Box Challenge, prompting the local police to issue a statement begging people not to drive whilst blindfolded. The seventeen-year-old probably thought she would post the video online and bask in the admiration of her followers. Instead, her (unquestionably foolish) actions have made her the target of ridicule and vitriol from total strangers across the globe, the vast majority questioning her right to drive, to reproduce, and even to exist.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

I was reminded of this story whilst watching Rose Heiney’s Original Death Rabbit, directed by Hannah Joss, in which a young woman (Kimberley Nixon) inadvertently becomes an Internet meme – the Death Rabbit – after being photographed in the background of a child’s funeral procession wearing a pink bunny onesie. Seeking an escape from her own insecurities and the trauma of her father’s recently diagnosed schizophrenia, she throws herself headlong into the world of the Original Death Rabbit, eventually becoming so consumed by her online persona that she begins to lose any sense of her real identity. Now, on the eve of her 32nd birthday, she looks back over her decade of Internet “fame” and reflects on how it’s affected her life, relationships and mental health. More importantly, she sets out to do what the Internet so often fails to do – provide context to explain how she’s ended up where she is.

Kimberley Nixon gives an outstanding performance, commanding our attention and sympathy throughout as she engagingly delivers Rose Heiney’s insightful and witty script. For someone like the Original Death Rabbit, who’s always judged herself on how others perceive her (she was once wracked with guilt after being told by a friend that her favourite poet Philip Larkin was a racist and misogynist, and that by liking him she was aligning herself with his views) the Internet was always going to be a dangerous place, and her obsessive reaction to it is inevitable but also very relatable – whether or not we like to admit it. Anyone who’s ever been active on social media knows the little thrill of seeing a post liked or shared, and the sense of rejection – or worse – when something we’ve said or done online fails to land as we intended. The Original Death Rabbit’s need to be validated by the approval of strangers might be extreme, but it’s also very understandable.

But that’s not all we can relate to. The minute I walked in and saw Louie Whitemore’s set – a cluttered, neglected living room in which the only pristine items are the Richard Curtis movie posters adorning the walls – I had a feeling the play was going to be right up my street, and I wasn’t wrong. The Original Death Rabbit might be flawed but she’s not unlikeable, and our 90 minutes with her are easily as entertaining as they are disturbing. She has a passionate – bordering on aggressive – love for Richard Curtis movies, which gets some of the biggest laughs of the night, along with her sardonic impressions of her whiney younger sister and patronising leftie friend. And her story, though dark, is also enjoyably quirky (let’s be honest, anything involving a pink bunny suit would struggle to be too deadly serious).

Photo credit: Robert Workman

Funny, sad, brilliantly performed and with a cautionary message that feels more necessary by the day, Original Death Rabbit kicks off Jermyn Street Theatre’s 25th anniversary year in triumphant style. Highly recommended.

Original Death Rabbit is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 9th February.

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Review: Anomaly at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Liv Warden’s Anomaly begins with an image that’s all too familiar: world-famous movie producer, Phillip Preston, has been arrested for assaulting his wife. With the man himself in custody, as the news breaks across the globe all eyes turn instead on his three daughters. Piper (Natasha Cowley), the clever one, has been destined from a young age to inherit the family business; Penny (Katherine Samuelson), the pretty one, has grown up to become a successful movie actress. And then there’s Polly (Alice Handoll), the problematic one, who’s just discharged herself from the Priory after another stint in rehab.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

What follows over the next 70 minutes is a gripping and troubling family drama that takes a scenario we know and invites us to see it from a perspective that’s often overlooked. Phillip Preston never appears; nor does his wife Fiona. The only people we see on stage are the three sisters, as each deals in her own way with the fallout from their father’s actions.

What’s interesting about Anomaly is that there’s never a moment of doubt from anyone that Phillip Preston did assault his wife. In fact the sisters have always known what kind of man he is: a violent, unfaithful bully, and perhaps guilty of something even worse. And herein lies the question at the heart of the play: are they victims of his behaviour, or has their silence made them complicit? Even after the scandal breaks, instead of seeing a chance to break free, as Polly does, Penny and Piper’s chief concern is protecting the family brand – but can we really blame them, when their own fortunes are so closely entwined with that of their father that defending themselves inevitably means defending him too?

Adam Small’s production sees all the sisters on stage throughout, despite the three of them never actually being in the same place. At a time when you’d expect any other family to be pulling together, Penny and Piper communicate with each other only in rushed phone calls; Polly, estranged from her sisters, is alone throughout and so the audience become her confidantes. There are also a number of peripheral characters in the play – reporters, partners, friends, board members – but they’re present only as disembodied voices, a clever way to ensure that like the rest of the world, all our attention stays focused relentlessly on the three women.

Fortunately the performances from Natasha Cowley, Katherine Samuelson and Alice Handoll more than stand up to such intense scrutiny. All are totally convincing in their roles, pasting on bright, media-friendly smiles while their eyes and body language tell a very different story. Their interaction with the ongoing barrage of recorded voices is also very natural, to the point that it’s sometimes easy to forget they’re talking to thin air. In fact they’re so compelling to watch that when the play reaches its shock twist ending – a clever and brilliantly staged piece of misdirection – it catches everyone completely off guard.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

Though generally well written and certainly packing a punch, the play is not without some flaws. The fragmented structure, which jumps from one sister and location to another and back again, can make the timeline of events on occasion a bit hard to follow. There are also a couple of big revelations that, though serious enough to have a devastating impact on the family’s financial fortunes, never seem to get followed up by any of the characters on or off stage.

It’s so easy to assume that when someone like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey or the fictional Phillip Preston is finally accused and held to account, that it’s the end of the story; the truth is out, justice has been served at last. But men of such wealth and power never fall alone. Anomaly speaks for those caught up in the wreckage, in a topical and important story that needs to be told and deserves to be heard.

Anomaly is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd February.

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