Review: Love Lab at Tristan Bates Theatre

Love Island meets Big Brother meets Black Mirror in Sam Coulson’s Love Lab, which sees two singletons locked in a room together for 7 days in an attempt to make them fall in love. It’s the latest reality TV show, watched by millions – but that’s little comfort to Perry (Michael Rivers), who doesn’t even remember applying. And he’s definitely not okay with being kidnapped and forced to live on cold baked beans for a week with a total stranger, while a cheerful disembodied voice asks them increasingly personal questions.

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Livia (Harriet Barrow), on the other hand, is much more at ease. She’s watched the show before, which helps, but we also learn this isn’t her first time in front of the cameras. And she’s considerably more au fait with dating apps and social media than her selected match, who’d much rather meet up with his friends in person over a cuppa than follow them on Facebook. Livia’s even been allowed to keep her phone, whereas Perry’s is nowhere to be seen. She seems to have the upper hand, but then the mind games kick in and the balance of power begins to shift – until, in a final fiendish twist, the Love Lab pulls the rug from under both their feet.

Set in a perhaps not so distant future, Séan Aydon’s slick production embraces the technological theme with stark lighting and unsettling sound effects – and let’s not forget the frequent interruptions of friendly matchmaker Lucy, whose pleasant but mechanical enunciation begins to sound increasingly sinister as the play goes on. Actors Michael Rivers and Harriet Barrow have great chemistry as the mismatched pair, whether they’re engaging in rapid-fire banter or sharing a moment of genuine connection. In fact, despite some significant flaws both characters ultimately prove rather likeable, and by the end we’re almost rooting for them to run off into the sunset together.

My main complaint about Love Lab is actually a compliment in disguise: I wanted more. The premise is intriguing, and the play offers some fascinating (and slightly scary) insights about dating in the 21st century – but at only 50 minutes it feels too short, and as clever as the final twist is, it’s all a bit abrupt. Just as we feel like we’re starting to get to know the characters and what might have brought them here, it’s all over. I’d love to see a longer version of the play that lets us spend a bit more time in the Love Lab (and yes I appreciate the irony of that statement, given that Perry spends a significant amount of his time trying to get out).

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Witty and insightful, the play asks “what is love?” in a world where off-line connection is starting to feel like the exception rather than the rule. We may lament the fact that nobody meets in person any more, but Love Lab leaves us wondering if that’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy – are we all too glued to our dating apps to look up and see who’s right in front of us? The play doesn’t condemn online dating; even Perry acknowledges it’s a great idea in theory. But it still might make you stop and think twice the next time you swipe right.

Love Lab is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 18th August.

Review: Coelacanth at the Cockpit Theatre

The second production from Moonchild – following their debut last year with PLUTO – is the darkly comic Coelacanth. Written by Callum O’Brien, the play is set in a dystopian future where assisted suicide is not only legal but available at the touch of a button through a new app that lets you select your killer.

It’s not immediately obvious that Yvette (Lizzie Back) has invited a man to her flat to end her life; she’s spent hours getting ready and appears to have everything to live for. Nor does Morningstar (Jack Michael Stacey), on first encounter, look like a killer, though there’s clearly something odd about their meeting, which veers from cheekily flirtatious to deadly serious and back again before you can say Sylvia Plath. And yet as he begins his preparations, which include allowing an excited Yvette to choose how she wants to die, we can see the line between business and pleasure gradually begin to blur – not just for Morningstar but for the hundreds of eager followers watching via webcam.

Photo credit: Dave Bird

Everything’s going according to plan until the moment Yvette’s housemate Rachel (Rebecca Camilleri) bursts into the flat. Seemingly unperturbed by the presence of a strange man in her friend’s bedroom, and blissfully unaware of what she’s walked in on, she decides to keep the party going with an enthusiasm that borders on manic, and which begins to shake her friend’s resolve.

Quite apart from providing a good twist in the story, and some much-needed light relief and a change of pace just as things are getting particularly sinister, Rachel’s entrance is interesting because at first glance she appears much more likely to be suicidal than Yvette. She’s drunk, she’s obviously been crying, nobody turned up to her birthday party except the gay guy she once had sex with, and – for reasons that are unclear – she’s drinking rose out of a plastic bag. Seeing her, we get to marvel all over again at how calm and collected Yvette is, given what she’s about to do. It’s a powerful reminder that you can’t always tell what’s going on inside someone’s head, even if they look like they’re fine.

The story does get a bit muddled around the middle, though, and while we may accept that she’s not as fine as she looks, it’s never really explained what actually has brought Yvette to this point. There are signs that all is not well in the outside world, and a suggestion that the apocalypse may be near, but whether that’s real or only in Yvette’s head isn’t really made clear. It also seems odd, given the obvious affection between the two girls and Rachel’s disdain for the app and those who use it, that Yvette would choose her best friend’s birthday to kill herself, knowing that Rachel would almost certainly be the one to find her when she returned home. In an otherwise intriguing and very well performed plot, these unanswered questions about the central character’s motivation prove to be a significant stumbling block.

Photo credit: Dave Bird

That said, what the play does do extremely well is to keep us on edge. This is partly because we’re waiting to see how this bizarre and unsettling chain of events will end; director Liz Bacon skilfully builds the tension as the story builds towards its dramatic climax. But it’s also in no small part because O’Brien forces us to confront some issues we’d perhaps rather not face up to: like how well we know our friends, our obsession with technology, our macabre fascination with tragedy, and the fact that just because something’s legal (and easy), that doesn’t make it right.

By the way, in case you were wondering, a Coelacanth is a rare type of fish that was thought to have died out 66 million years ago, but was rediscovered in the early 20th century off the coast of South Africa. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait quite that long for a revival of this play.

Coelacanth was performed at the Cockpit Theatre on 10th and 11th August. For details of future productions, visit moonchildtheatre.co.uk or follow @MoonchildTheatr.

Review: Getting Over Everest at Tristan Bates Theatre

Getting over a break-up is never easy. But when you’ve spent ten years – a third of your life – building a future with the man who’s just unceremoniously dumped you, recovery can feel like an impossible task. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the ex in Natasha Santos’ new play is called Rob Everest, and that main character Libby is struggling to get over him. She’s not eating; she’s been spotted crying into a stolen pair of Rob’s pants at work (when she’s not listening to Sinead O’Connor on repeat, that is); and she’s started recording her farts – just because she can.

Needless to say, Getting Over Everest is a comedy, in which Libby (Natasha Santos) confesses all the crazy things she’s doing to try and get over her ex. When we first meet her, she’s leaving him yet another voicemail – in this case, a heartfelt rendition of I Will Always Love You. Later, encouraged by her friend Steph (Grace Dunne), she goes clubbing and ends up having an ill-advised sexual encounter with a floppy-haired random (George Vafakis) whose name she never bothers to find out.

It’s all very funny, and the cast of three play the outrageous material for every well-deserved laugh, with Grace Dunne and George Vafakis providing strong support as a variety of comic characters alongside Natasha Santos’ wry, self-deprecating Libby. But there’s a lot more going on here than just a newly single woman going a bit mad for a while, and it’s in its quieter moments that the play really touches a nerve. We never meet Rob (although we hear his voicemail message a lot), and there’s a reason for that – though he might have sparked it, Libby’s panic is never about him but about what he represents. She’s hurt and heartbroken by his rejection, but more than that she’s terrified of what the future holds for an almost-30-year-old whose entire life has been defined for a decade by her relationship status.

And you don’t need to have recently come out of a long-term relationship to identify with that feeling – anyone who’s ever gone through a bereavement, or lost a job, or simply woken up one day and realised their life isn’t going the way they’d hoped will be able to recognise a little of themselves in what Libby’s going through. (Though it’s likely – I hope – that most of us haven’t yet resorted to recording our farts.) In reality, this play isn’t so much about a breakup as it is about the importance of being able to talk about our fears and emotions; it’s only when Libby finally opens up and shares how she’s feeling with a kindly stranger that she’s finally set on the road to recovery. As funny as the rest of the play is, I wish we could have seen a bit more of Libby’s emotional journey instead of just the first steps, even at the expense of some of the earlier comedy.

Laugh-out-loud funny, at times unashamedly filthy and at others unexpectedly poignant, Getting Over Everest is an entertaining and relatable hour of theatre that touches on some very topical issues – and above all reminds us (repeatedly) that “it’s okay to not be okay”.

Getting Over Everest is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 11th August.

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Review: Sacrifice at Soho Theatre

What would you be prepared to give up in order to live your dreams? In Andrew Muir’s Sacrifice, seven drama school graduates have followed their dream to London, only to find that the streets are paved in anything but gold. And when they wake one morning to find a strange man followed them home last night, they’re forced to face up to some harsh truths, both about their chosen profession and about themselves.

Sacrifice at Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Douet

This is not a random choice of topic for the Ardent8, a year-long scheme established by Andrew Muir and Mark Sands to provide emerging actors from outside the M25 with opportunities they might otherwise never be able to afford. And you get the sense that the cast of recent graduates understand all too well what their characters – who are all, with one exception, named after them – are going through, both as actors and as young people. (“I’m 24,” says Nathan incredulously, when Sam, the stranger, asks him if he owns his own home. That, it seems, is answer enough.)

A funny, fast-moving script sees multiple conversations – about poverty, racism, turning vegan, family dramas and much more – criss-crossing over each other as each of the seven roommates fixates on his or her own issues. Witty one-liners aside, the unwelcome presence of Sam as the “outsider” who’s not afraid to ask awkward questions, brings to the fore the fact that perhaps these friends don’t actually have a lot in common besides their choice of career. It’s possible, in fact, that they don’t even know or like each other that much – but they continue to stick together, out of financial necessity and a shared conviction that the phone is always about to ring with someone’s big break.

The cast (Sophie Coulter, Angela Crispim, Clare Hawkins, Henry Holmes, Nathan Linsdell, Jamie Parker, Garry Skimins and Sam Weston) work well as an ensemble to deliver an hour of theatre that’s both entertaining and relatable for a millennial audience – whether or not we’re trying to break into the acting profession. Their struggles are not only financial; along the way, like most of us, they also suffer crises of confidence, and of identity, and ultimately end up wondering if the career they’ve studied so hard for is ever going to be worth all the effort. There’s also an extra twist of intrigue to the play in Sam’s story, and our need to understand what motivates him to act as he does: he might not face the daily struggle for survival that the others do, but does that really mean he’s happy?

Sacrifice at Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Douet

The Ardent8 began as an idea to open doors that might otherwise have remained forever closed. In Sacrifice, eight talented young actors prove they more than deserve to take their place on the London stage. Funny and challenging, the play makes us consider what’s really important, and the price we’re willing to pay – both financial and otherwise – to get our hands on it.

Sacrifice is at Soho Theatre until 4th August.

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Review: Mr Stink at Chickenshed

Chickenshed is an inclusive theatre company that celebrates diversity in all its forms. Mr Stink is a story about a homeless man who’s befriended by a 12-year-old girl – the only person who ever bothers to stop and talk to him. Put the two together, and it’s pretty much a perfect fit.

The second novel from best-selling children’s author David Walliams is a heartwarming tale of friendship, loneliness and the social responsibility we all have to look out for our fellow human beings… even if they really, really stink. Adapted as a musical by director Lou Stein, it’s a colourful, funny and thought-provoking show for all ages, with songs that are so catchy you may well find yourself still singing them the next day, whether you want to or not (trust me on this, I speak from experience). And really, how can you not fall in love with a show that opens Act 2 with a musical number about sausages?

Mr Stink at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer for Chickenshed

Mr Stink (Bradley Davis) is an old “vagabond”, to use his word, who arrives in town one day and takes up residence on a bench. He and his dog are ostracised by the local community because they smell so bad, until one day Chloe Crumb (Lydia Stables) stops to say hello. Chloe has a nice house and a family; she goes to a posh school and always has enough to eat. But she’s also lonely and feels unloved by her exhaustingly perfect sister Annabelle (Maddie Kavanagh) and above all by her mother (Belinda McGuirk), a determined social climber running for election as a local MP. One of her campaign promises is to get “soap-dodgers” off the streets, and so to protect her new friend, Chloe moves him into the garden shed – but he doesn’t stay hidden for long…

Chickenshed never fail to impress with the quality of their productions, and Mr Stink is no exception, showcasing some excellent performances from the whole cast, and in particular Bradley Davis and Lydia Stables (sharing the role with Lucy-Mae Beacock) as Mr Stink and Chloe. Their blossoming friendship is a joy to watch, with each of them helping the other in ways they could never have predicted. Alongside them, Belinda McGuirk and Maddie Kavanagh (sharing her role with Courtney Dayes) are enjoyably loathsome as Mrs Crumb and Annabelle, while Ashley Driver plays the hapless Mr Crumb – who spends most of his time hiding from his wife – to great comic effect.

There’s also a delightful appearance by Goutham Rohan as Raj, the local shopkeeper, who’s always on hand with some helpful advice or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stationery set. Oh, and did I mention Mr Stink marks the professional acting debut of a certain Jeremy Vine, who appears in a pre-recorded video segment as Sir Dave, the host of TV show Politics Today.

Mr Stink at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer for Chickenshed

The show looks amazing, too, with colourful and exceptionally detailed set and costumes designed by Keith Dunne, all of which are beautifully lit by Andrew Caddies. The musical numbers, written by Lou Stein and Dave Carey, may not add much to the story but they do provide a visual treat, and allow for the inclusion in the show of a small chorus ensemble, who execute Dina Williams’ choreography in the group numbers with flair and the boundless enthusiasm that’s such an irresistible feature of Chickenshed performances.

Like all good family shows, there’s something for everyone in Mr Stink; it’s a lot of fun and occasionally very silly, with humour that will tickle kids and adults alike. But it also makes a powerful point; while I don’t for a minute believe David Walliams wants us all to go out and find a homeless man to hide in the garden shed, what his story does show us is the importance of reaching out to help others, without making judgments about who they are or what they do. And that, I think, is a lesson we can all benefit from – whether we’re 8 or 80.

Mr Stink is at Chickenshed until 5th August.


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