Review: The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me at King’s Head Theatre

What do you do when you’re young, single – and literally the only gay in the village? Written and performed by Rob Ward, one-man show The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me introduces us to Dom, a train-loving wannabe InstaGay who lives in a small northern town. Struggling with panic attacks and fed up of coming home to find his mum listening to Simply Red and popping “Aunty Mandy” (her fond nickname for MDMA), Dom longs for the excitement of the city. When he goes to petition his MP to save the local train station from closure, a new world of opportunity suddenly opens up – but at what cost?

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Exploring the issue of consent and grooming in the gay male community, this is a timely and troubling play that’s also, at times, very funny. Dom is an engaging and likeable central character, with a naive vulnerability that instantly makes us want to protect him from the danger we see coming long before he does. He’s clearly proud of but still learning about his sexuality, and to see that innocence exploited and turned against him is heartbreaking. Dom is often hilariously blunt about his life as a gay man, but he’s equally open about his feelings of sexual obligation towards an older man we know to be a threat, and that’s particularly difficult to watch.

Directed by Clive Judd, the action takes place amid a lighting setup that implies a photo shoot or – perhaps – a revelatory video, Dom’s status as a fledgling influencer offering the faint hope that his abuser’s actions might one day be made public. Rob Ward easily holds our attention and displays an impressive versatility as he portrays a number of other characters: Dom’s mum, his friend Alan, love interest Joey and the MP, Peter, among other minor cameos. A slight shift of body position or accent always makes it clear who we’re looking at, even during some extremely rapid-fire back and forth conversations; ironically the only time this clarity breaks down just slightly is in a scene where, under the influence of Aunty Mandy, everything slows to a crawl and it takes a moment to re-adjust to the sudden change of pace.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Powerful use is made during scenes like this one of lighting and sound design (Will Monks and Iain Armstrong respectively), which combine to create a feeling of disconnection between character and audience that’s far removed from the intimacy built up during the first part of the play. Similarly, Dom’s panic attacks are accompanied by gradually building effects that intensify the sensation of growing peril and allow us to share – to some degree – in his distress. This intelligent design works incredibly well and lifts an already high quality production to another level.

As we’ve seen as recently as yesterday, with the publication of an article about 18-year-old footballer Jake Daniels and his 46-year-old partner, the debate about grooming of young gay men is a complex one. The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me addresses the issue head on, exploring both why this happens and its impact on victims. Despite the unsettling topic, this is a very enjoyable and well executed play, which keeps us gripped until its final moments, and leaves us with plenty to think about.

The MP, Aunty Mandy and Me is at King’s Head Theatre until 4th June.

Review: Kitty in the Lane at Jack Studio Theatre

Written and performed by Áine Ryan, Kitty in the Lane is almost mesmerising in its intensity. In her isolated family home in the Irish countryside, accessible only by a two-mile lane, Kitty is waiting for her father to die. Though she’s baked him a birthday cake, there’s clearly no love lost between the two, and what Kitty really wants to do tonight is go to the local beauty pageant to cheer on her friend. But her boyfriend Robert is late to collect her, and as the evening slips away, we learn more about the events that have brought her to this moment. And there’s a twist in this tale, which – like all good twists – ultimately leaves us thinking back and questioning everything that’s gone before.

Photo credit: Eamonn B. Shanahan of Capture With Pride

The production, directed by Jack Reardon, is powerfully atmospheric from the start, with Alex Forey’s lighting design creating a strong sense of foreboding and Constance Comparot’s rustic and sparsely furnished set emphasising Kitty’s rural isolation. The pace is steady but not rushed, allowing Ryan’s lyrical text to breathe and giving the audience time to digest each new development as the story unfolds (perhaps this is why the running time, advertised as 70 minutes, ends up closer to 90).

Áine Ryan’s writing is beautifully evocative, painting an extraordinarily detailed picture of Kitty’s life and community; though we never leave the house or meet the story’s other characters, it feels like we have. And while neither Kitty nor the audience ever make it to the critical pageant, through her words we can picture the proceedings, and understand the importance of such an event in a village where nothing ever happens. This only deepens the ongoing mystery of where Robert could be, and what’s making him so late to take his girlfriend to an event that means so much to her.

Photo credit: Eamonn B. Shanahan of Capture With Pride

As for Ryan’s performance, it’s difficult to fault. From the moment she walks on to the stage in her blue dress that’s so at odds with the play’s rural setting, there’s no looking away from her portrayal of this damaged, desperate young woman. Kitty is not a particularly likeable character – as the play begins she’s taunting her dying father with a bottle of whisky, and her relationships with everyone seem fraught with tension – and there’s a spikiness in Ryan’s performance that emphasises this perfectly. But from time to time, that harshness subsides, and we glimpse the grief and vulnerability that lies beneath her tough exterior, long before we understand where that stems from.

Intense and dramatic, Kitty in the Lane keeps you hooked from the beginning. Áine Ryan is an excellent writer and performer, who clearly understands how to craft stories that draw the audience in. The ever-present tension continues to creep upwards throughout the play, eventually reaching a visceral climax that evokes an audible audience reaction. This is quality theatre, with a performance that’s guaranteed to stay with you.

Kitty in the Lane is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 13th May.

Review: It’s a Motherf**king Pleasure at Soho Theatre

After a surprisingly (to them) successful stint at this year’s Vault Festival, disability-led FlawBored Theatre return with It’s a Motherf**king Pleasure, their razor-sharp satire on all things ableism. And yes, it is indeed a pleasure – although obviously I would say that, because I’m a white, non-disabled, straight woman who’s fully aware of and mortified by my own privilege, and it would be thoroughly ableist of me to say anything else.

But also, this show is really good and you should buy tickets immediately.

Ross, played by Aarian Mehrabani, sitting next to a TV presenter played by Chloe Palmer, as she holds up his book, entitled We Should All Be Blind
Photo credit: Alex Brenner. Photo description: Ross, played by Aarian Mehrabani, sitting next to a TV presenter played by Chloe Palmer, as she holds up his book, entitled We Should All Be Blind.

After one of their influencers “does an ableism”, PR firm Rize (with a z) need some damage control… and this presents employee Tim (Samuel Brewer), who’s blind, with a golden opportunity. Teaming up with Ross (Aarian Mehrabani), a wannabe influencer who also happens to be blind, and supported by extremely able-anxious HR rep Helen (Chloe Palmer), Tim sets out to take full advantage of non-disabled people’s discomfort and fascination around disability. His lucrative scheme, while cynical, is arguably not unreasonable or even that far-fetched; there’s a reason (albeit not necessarily a good one) why experiences like dining in the dark are so popular. But when it comes to celebrating disability, how far is too far? And who gets to decide where that line is?

While the central narrative is certainly engaging and thought-provoking, what lifts the show to another level is the way the story is framed. Opening with an absurd, and therefore hilarious, introduction to the social model of disability, the trio take us through all the many ways they’ve tried to make the show accessible to all. These range from the standard (a caption screen at the back of the stage) to the ridiculous (a touch tour that invites the entire front row to get to grips with one of the actors). Throughout the show, the actors repeatedly break the fourth wall, bringing the audience – at times quite literally – into the action and gleefully poking fun at everyone, including themselves. Nobody is safe… which in an odd way, means that everyone is equally safe.

Tim, played by Samuel Brewer, giving a presentation in front of a screen that says ReVision. Because when the lights go out. We're all blind
Photo credit: Alex Brenner. Photo description: Tim, played by Samuel Brewer, giving a presentation in front of a screen that says ReVision. Because when the lights go out. We’re all blind.

All this is not to say there isn’t a serious point, or that the show doesn’t venture into some extremely dark territory (both metaphorically and literally). By exploring all the different ways of providing accessibility, FlawBored shine a light (again, both metaphorically and literally… you get the idea, this is a very clever show) on the frequent absence of that accessibility out in the world. And by taking the glorification of difference – in this case through disability – to extremes, they ask some genuinely uncomfortable questions of disabled and non-disabled audience members alike. Except they do it not by lecturing but by making us laugh like hyenas, which is almost certainly a much more effective tactic.

FlawBored close the show by listing all the accolades they’ve received in the last few months, the implication being that’s more because of who they are than what they’ve done. I’d argue it’s probably a bit of both; they may be a new company, but if It’s a Motherf**king Pleasure is their first show, I can’t wait to see* what they do next.

*Experience. I meant experience. Not see. Sorry.

It’s a Motherf**king Pleasure is at Soho Theatre until 13th May.

Review: little scratch at New Diorama Theatre

Following sell-out performances at Hampstead Theatre in 2021, little scratch, Miriam Battye’s adaptation of the novel by Rebecca Watson, returns for a short run at the New Diorama – and this astonishing production has lost none of the brilliance that earned Katie Mitchell a nomination for Best Director in the 2022 Evening Standard Awards. Following the life of an unnamed woman across the course of a regular Friday, the play explores how the protagonist’s life, relationships and health have been – and continue to be – impacted by a sexual assault in the workplace.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

This one character is played by four actors (Eleanor Henderson, Rebekah Murrell, Eve Ponsonby and Ragevan Vasan), whose voices overlap and intermingle in an eerily realistic portrayal of the woman’s inner monologue. Parts of this are easily relatable and even raise a laugh – the brief excitement of seeing a dog on the train, the irritation at her boyfriend’s ability to fall asleep almost instantly while she lies awake, her mind still whirling. But others begin to hint at something much darker – her persistent need throughout day and night to scratch at her skin, and her obvious, far beyond what we might consider “normal”, reluctance to arrive at the office and sit down at her “dreaded desk”. Long before she allows herself to think about it in explicit terms, we understand that something devastating has happened to her. But that doesn’t in any way lessen the impact when we hear the words said aloud – not least because as the play goes on, it becomes clear that inside her head is the only place she can verbalise her experience.

Much like its protagonist, Katie Mitchell’s production is much more complex than it initially appears to be. The actors each stand at a microphone against a plain set, each lit from above by a hanging lamp (with exquisitely subtle lighting design by Bethany Gupwell). And then they begin to speak, and not only the stage but the entire space comes alive as the main character’s internal and external worlds come together in a wall of sound that at times verges on overwhelming. In addition to the actors’ voices, Melanie Wilson’s sound design allows us to hear everyday life going on – traffic noise, the background hum of a working office – and also more intimate sounds, created by the actors through the use of on-stage props, like the brushing of teeth or the scratching of skin. It’s such a complete soundscape that the audience loses nothing at all by not seeing the action unfold; we have everything we need to each conjure up our own mind’s eye image.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

Let’s be clear about one thing; little scratch is a brutal piece of theatre to sit through. The content warnings are well-founded, particularly in the latter stages of the play as the references to sexual assault become much more frequent and explicit. But it’s an important story that unfortunately far too many people will be able to relate to in some way, and the quality of the writing and genius of the production are undeniable. And if you step back a moment from the tough subject matter, it’s an exciting example of how theatre can create an entire world within one small room. A difficult watch, but – for those who are able to – definitely worth it.

little scratch continues at New Diorama Theatre until 13th May.

Review: Sap at Soho Theatre

It doesn’t take long to understand why Rafaella Marcus’ debut play Sap garnered so many rave reviews at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. The quality of the writing and its exceptional delivery under Jessica Lazar’s direction make an instant impression, even before the complexity of the play and its themes fully comes to light. Part love story, part thriller, part reimagined Greek myth, the 70-minute two-hander explores bisexuality through the eyes of its protagonist (Jessica Clark), a woman in her 30s who’s named in the script – but not on stage – as Daphne.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

When she meets the woman of her dreams (Rebecca Banatvala), for a short time everything in Daphne’s life is perfect – until the day she neglects to mention to her new girlfriend that she also likes men. With the lie of omission already hanging over their relationship, things go from bad to worse when the last man Daphne slept with (also Rebecca Banatvala) re-enters her life in an unexpected and decidedly inconvenient way. Suddenly she’s caught in an unwelcome and increasingly dark triangle, between the partner she wants, who’s turned off by the very idea of bisexuality, and the one she doesn’t, who’s far too turned on by it.

Sap is an incredible debut from Rafaella Marcus, combining a compelling plot, driven by an engaging and relatable central character, with an eye-opening portrayal of the challenges, prejudices and outright dangers faced by bisexual women. Out in the straight world – or “the world” as Daphne wryly describes it – this is something that isn’t talked about enough, and for that reason alone, Sap is essential viewing. However it’s also beautifully written; Marcus’ use of language is second to none, particularly in the hugely evocative scenes inspired by Greek myth that describe the protagonist’s futile attempts at self-preservation.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

The performances of both actors are outstanding. Jessica Clark is utterly magnetic as Daphne from the moment she opens her mouth, bringing us love, fear, rage, desperation and self-loathing all at once, and connecting with the audience on both sides of the traverse stage with absolute ease. Her comic timing is perfect, her movement is exquisite, and when she begins to fall apart the pain she projects is almost visceral. Rebecca Banatvala is equally excellent as all the other characters, and particularly as both Daphne’s girlfriend (referred to throughout as simply “her” or occasionally “Wonder Woman”) and her male one night stand. In more than one way, the two characters are flip sides of the same coin, and Banatvala skilfully manages these simultaneously mirroring and contrasting portrayals.

Over the course of 70 minutes, Sap takes the audience on quite a ride, with joyous highs and devastating lows, psychological mind games and unrestrained passion. Perhaps some prior knowledge of the Greek myth that inspired parts of the story would help to make sense of those scenes, but I’m nitpicking. This is a captivating piece of writing and acting that more than deserves a long life after Edinburgh.

Sap is at Soho Theatre until 22nd April and then continues on tour.