Review: My Name is Cathy at The Chapel Playhouse

If you could have a conversation with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say? The eponymous protagonist in Andrew Sharpe’s My Name is Cathy has little in the way of good news to offer her younger self – she’s spending her 50th birthday alone, having lost her job, her marriage and her kids, partly but by no means entirely through her own fault. What she does have to share, however, is the reassurance that little by little, with persistence and courage, things can and will get better.

Photo credit: Origin8 Photography

Inspired by a real case from the writer’s days as a criminal lawyer, My Name is Cathy is a cleverly crafted drama that charts the downfall of a brilliant, successful and happily married teacher over the course of a few short years in the early 00s. It’s narrated by the older Cathy (Kat-Anne Rogers), a recovering alcoholic who only now has the hindsight and self-awareness to recognise the arrogance of her younger self (Sally Paffett) – and yet despite her best efforts she remains powerless to stop the bad choices, on both her own part and those of others, which will ultimately contribute to their ruin.

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the play’s second act, “The Trial”, in which Adam Bottomley’s classroom set is quickly and efficiently converted into a courtroom, presided over by the ironically named Judge Goode (Edwin Flay). Here Cathy is forced to relive all over again the nightmare day she fought to keep her children and lost – the difference being that this time she understands the subtext of what’s going on, and the multiple ways that the male-dominated legal system was always set up to work against her. Consequently the scene descends into a kind of dark farce, which despite moments of humour is ultimately quite heartbreaking to watch.

While it’s not always easy viewing, the performances given by all three actors are compelling and convincing throughout. Kat-Anne Rogers is a likeable narrator, opening with an AA-style monologue in which she acknowledges her own shortcomings. Edwin Flay and Sally Paffett each take on two very different roles with great success; in both cases the dynamic of the relationship between their characters is – at times, uncomfortably – well portrayed.

Photo credit: Origin8 Photography

Velenzia Spearpoint’s simply staged production charts the passing years with snippets of news reports and pop songs (the show’s playlist brings with it some great “haven’t heard it for ages” moments), which help to keep the audience engaged during scene and costume changes. This also combines well with the script’s commentary on the pressures and politics of the teaching profession – and yes, Michael Gove does make an appearance in that conversation.

My Name is Cathy is a moving and thoughtfully written play with a clever twist. The idea of older and younger Cathy being able to work through things together is undeniably poignant, but also adds a much-needed note of optimism to the play’s conclusion: after all, how much easier could certain moments in our lives have been if we’d known with absolute certainty that we would make it through and come out stronger on the other side? And on that reassuring thought… let’s hope this short run isn’t the last we’ve seen of Cathy.

My Name is Cathy was performed by KatAlyst Productions at the Chapel Playhouse on 16th-18th August. For news of future productions, visit katalystpro.com or follow @KatAlystpro.

Review: Before I Am Lost at Etcetera Theatre

If you look up Hilda Doolittle on Wikipedia, in the very first sentence you’ll learn that she was “associated with the early 20th century avant-garde Imagist group of poets, including Ezra Pound and Richard Aldington”. But Doolittle – or H.D. – was a poet and novelist in her own right, so why is it that most of us know her now more by the men she was linked to than by her own name, story or work?

Photo credit: Brendan Walker

This is a wrong that Beatrice Vincent sets out to correct in her new monologue, Before I Am Lost. The play introduces us to Hilda at her most vulnerable, trapped in both literal and metaphorical confinement as she prepares for the imminent birth of her daughter. Frightened and alone, but also angry and defiant, and with nothing else to occupy her, she opens up to her unborn child about their current circumstances and how they got here: her past and present relationships with both men and women, the devastating impact of World War I on what had until then been a loving marriage, and the subsequent affair that led to her pregnancy and abandonment. Slowly a picture emerges, of a passionate, intelligent woman at a pivotal moment – the moment she realises not just to what extent her life so far has been designed and directed by men, but also that it doesn’t necessarily have to continue that way, either for her or her daughter.

Beatrice Vincent gives a beautiful performance, walking a tightrope of emotion with captivating precision throughout the hour-long play. One moment she’s playful, the next bitterly sarcastic; she claims not to want her child and yet addresses her bump with obvious affection; after one furious outburst as she recalls her husband’s affair, she regains her composure with an apologetic, “Sorry, that was embarrassing”. The result is a portrayal that feels very authentic – despite her obvious respect for Doolittle as both a woman and a poet, Vincent avoids the temptation to paint her as wholly admirable, and in doing so makes her much more sympathetic and relatable than any gushing tribute could have done.

Directed by Ross McGregor, the production captures the intimacy of the scene between mother and unborn child, bringing in secondary characters only as voiceovers and thus ensuring that closeness is never interrupted. Just as Doolittle appears so often as little more than a footnote in the stories of others, here the tables are turned to show us these well-known literary figures through her eyes, and it’s a view that’s affectionate but not always flattering. Meanwhile her own writing career is generally more alluded to than openly discussed, through the script’s poetic use of language and literary quotes (of which I’m sure there are many more than I managed to pick up in a single sitting) and references to the classical heroines who featured so prominently in her writing.

Photo credit: Brendan Walker

You won’t learn everything about Hilda Doolittle’s life from watching Before I Am Lost – we don’t even find out if her fearful prediction that she’ll die in childbirth is accurate. But the play is an excellent first step towards (re)introducing the world to a writer and a woman who deserves to be known as more than a lover, or wife, or friend, of That Famous Man. Hilda Doolittle had her own story to tell, and if this brief snapshot is anything to go by, it’s one that’s well worth hearing.

Before I Am Lost is at Etcetera Theatre until 20th August.

Review: River in the Sky at The Hope Theatre

Peter Taylor’s River in the Sky was never going to be an easy watch. The story deals with a couple coming to terms with the death of their newborn baby, so it’s no surprise that the play ventures into some dark territory, or that it leaves its audience feeling somewhat fragile. Just as much as the emotional impact, though, it’s the unique and original approach to the subject matter that makes this debut production from Turn Point Theatre particularly memorable.

Ellie (Lindsey Cross) and Jack (Howard Horner) are planning their future, and grappling with an important question: should they have one baby, or two, or three (definitely not four)? In their excitement and optimism, it never occurs to them that the decision could be taken out of their hands. Some time later, Ellie’s fled to a caravan by the sea, Jack’s trying to get on with his life, and it’s obvious that neither of them is coping with the grief of losing their son. Instead, they take refuge in tea, biscuits and storytelling – but while the vivid tales they share start out as an escape from real life, increasingly they come to offer a kind of healing.

And it’s for this reason that while there are parts of the play that are heartbreakingly painful to watch, ultimately River in the Sky is a story of hope. By allowing us to meet Jack and Ellie – albeit briefly – before tragedy strikes, Taylor establishes how much both the individuals and their relationship have been changed by what’s happened in the intervening years. Where once there was playfulness and humour, now there’s awkward small talk and repressed anger. And yet even in the midst of their grief, there are glimpses of the couple we remember from that brief opening scene and the reassuring knowledge that those people, while they may be irrevocably changed, do somehow still exist.

If the storytelling aspect of the play is what makes it unique, it’s also where the production really comes alive. The set is simple – just some simple wooden blocks in the centre of the stage – but between Taylor’s evocative writing and direction, and vibrant performances from Lindsey Cross and Howard Horner, we find ourselves transported to a dangerous but beautiful world of monsters and magical creatures, where the key to survival is to be brave and fight, even if the struggle seems hopeless. By contrast, the couple’s reclusive real-world existence seems even more empty and colourless.

In the end, then, River in the Sky is not so much a story about grief as it is of a couple finding their own way out of it, and – perhaps – back to each other. Taylor doesn’t try to offer easy answers or neat conclusions; there’s no suggestion that Jack and Ellie’s journey is over by the end of the play, but we do feel that they’ve taken a step in the right direction. A thoughtful and quietly moving production, the play appears to set out on a well-worn path, but then strikes out on its own – and in doing so makes the powerful point that there is no one, or correct, way of dealing with tragedy.

River in the Sky is at The Hope Theatre until 24th August.

Review: Equus at Trafalgar Studios

Peter Shaffer’s Equus begins with a disturbing image: a seventeen-year-old boy, Alan Strang, has been referred to the care of renowned child psychiatrist Martin Dysart after blinding six horses at the local stables. And things don’t get much easier from there in this intense drama; Dr Dysart slowly pieces together what led the young man to commit such an act, but questions as he does so if treating Alan will actually help him, or only condemn him to a life as empty and meaningless as the doctor’s own. Touching on themes of religion, sexuality and more than one form of mental illness, the play asks some difficult questions and frequently makes for unsettling viewing, and yet Ned Bennett’s production remains utterly compelling from start to dramatic finish.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

The cast of eight are left completely exposed on Georgia Lowe’s barren, starkly lit stage (though don’t let its simplicity fool you – it still produces a few surprises later on). Fortunately, the performances of all involved are engrossing enough that the audience’s attention never wanders, despite more than one lengthy monologue. Ethan Kai and Zubin Varla take centre stage as patient and doctor – the former a picture of wild and confused defiance, the latter of quiet, building desperation – locked in a battle that both know neither can win. Though the play’s core plot is to solve the mystery of Alan’s crime, there’s just as much to unpick in Dysart’s surprising response to the latest in a seemingly endless line of troubled adolescents.

Alongside the two excellent leads, there are strong performances across the board, with Ira Mandela Siobhan particularly mesmerising as Alan’s favourite horse, Nugget. The detail, power and physicality in his portrayal, combined with Shelley Maxwell’s exquisite choreography, is such that there’s no need for any masks or costumes to convince us we’re looking at a magnificent stallion – and by dispensing with these, Bennett further blurs the lines surrounding Alan’s confused sexual desires.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Though the play at times leans towards becoming text-heavy, with Dysart in particular reflecting at increasing length on his own misery, in fact the production strikes a good balance that prevents it ever becoming dry or losing its energy. More than once a character’s monologue is punctuated by light and sound effects that have obviously been designed (by Jessica Hung Han Yun and Giles Thomas respectively) to unsettle our minds and, occasionally, our nerves. The tension creeps up as we draw closer to the play’s climax, and although the actual blinding of the horses is enacted without a trace of gore, the moment of impact still hits powerfully home, both on and off stage.

And besides – it’s not such a trauma to listen to Shaffer’s words, especially when they include such hauntingly evocative gems as, “A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave… Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles.” Lines like this one, a potent reminder of how easily and arbitrarily mental illness can strike, ensure that despite being close to 50 years old, Equus continues to have plenty to say.

Equus is at Trafalgar Studios until 7th September.


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Review: Katheryn Howard at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

When it comes to Henry VIII’s wives, the key fact that most people learn at school is how he disposed of them. In the case of Katheryn Howard, his fifth wife, this was at the executioner’s block, after she was accused of adultery with one of the king’s favourite courtiers.

Written by Catherine Hiscock, the debut production from Goose Bite Theatre picks up the story of Queen Katheryn close to the end, as an all-female cast portray a court filling with rumours – not just regarding her reported liaisons with Thomas Culpepper whilst married, but also previous sexual relationships with her music teacher Henry Mannox and secretary to the Dowager Duchess, Francis Dereham. Once these well-documented facts have been established, the play takes us back to the start to give us Katheryn’s account of these events, and a very different picture emerges.

Photo credit: Georgia Harris

The first piece of information I don’t remember learning in primary school is that Katheryn Howard was only a teenager at the time of both her marriage and her death, and each of the men with whom she was reported to have been involved – including her husband – were more than twice her age. The second little-known fact is that she could have saved herself by confessing that her relationship with Dereham was consensual, and yet despite the possibility of salvation, she continued to insist that he had raped her. The Katheryn we meet in this production (Catherine Hiscock) is not the adulteress we know from the history books, but a naive, terrified teenager who’s repeatedly found herself flattered and seduced into unwanted sexual relationships with predatory men. Seen through fresh eyes, and particularly from a 21st century perspective, her story is not just tragic but horrifying.

Surrounding Katheryn are her friends and ladies-in-waiting: Joan Bulmer (Francesca Anderson), Katheryn Tilney (Emmanuela Lia), Isabelle Baynton (Srabani Sen) and Jane Boleyn (Natalie Harper) – Anne Boleyn’s former sister-in-law, who allegedly aided and abetted Katheryn’s adultery and was executed immediately after her. The interactions between these characters paints a picture of life both at Lambeth, where Katheryn spent her childhood and early teenage years, and at court, where everyone’s number one concern is to protect their own position. Though it covers a relatively brief time period, the production captures very well the stark contrast between the giggling girls of Lambeth, for whom it’s common practice and seemingly harmless fun to welcome young men into their sleeping quarters, and the anxious ladies of court, who quickly realise that the queen’s downfall could also spell their own doom. This atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion and political manoeuvring is portrayed by the cast in the form of a chorus, who pace the stage with hands to their mouths as if whispering secrets.

Photo credit: Georgia Harris

You perhaps need to know a little bit more of Katheryn’s back-story than simply “beheaded” to follow everything in the text, but on the whole the play does a good job of untangling a complicated story in which many of the characters have the same name (to the point where it becomes something of a running joke) and/or are related to each other. And Catherine Hiscock gives a great performance as the young queen; her pleas for mercy and forgiveness as the play comes to an end are heartfelt and deeply poignant. It’s no surprise that women were second-rate citizens in Henry’s court, but it’s frustrating that even now we still only really know Katheryn by the manner of her death. This play sets out to right that wrong, and the result is a strong debut production that’s both historically interesting and emotionally impactful.

Katheryn Howard was performed at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 30th July to 3rd August. For more details about Goose Bite Theatre, follow them @GooseBiteTC.