Review: No One Wants A Pretty Girl at the Bread and Roses Theatre

At a time when the theatre is crying out for more female representation, Francesca Mepham and Femm Theatre are doing their best to oblige. No One Wants A Pretty Girl – written, directed and performed by women – is a collection of six monologues, which take us on a short but powerful rollercoaster ride through different aspects of female life, touching along the way on heartbreak, humour and even horror.

Though each one of the six can and does stand alone as an independent story, under Laura Clifford’s direction they also fit cohesively together as a collection, overlapping just enough to allow a brief moment of interaction between performers as they enter or exit the stage. This is a nice touch that gives the piece a feeling of collaboration, even though the individual stories are very different.

In the first, Should, Tayo Elesin has just watched the man she loves get married to someone else. A short but captivating piece, it’s full of pain and futile rage – not against the man in question, but against herself for having lost him in the first place. Things then take a decidedly more upbeat turn in Jade Jacket and Trousers, a story of success against the odds that almost feels like a motivational TED talk. Antonia Kleopa is funny and likeable, and not afraid to directly address members of the audience in order to get her point across. The same goes for Charlotte Hunt’s vain blonde in Side B*tch – except her intention is to make her chosen audience members uncomfortable, and she definitely doesn’t care if we like her. She’s pretty, after all…

Arguably the most powerful of the pieces is My Daddy is Mexican, heartbreakingly performed by Felicity Huxley-Miners. She plays a young blind American whose family has been devastated as a result of racism against her father. As horrific as the story is, particularly in light of recent events in the USA, the end is oddly touching, because despite everything she’s gone through, this young woman refuses to be beaten.

In No Shame, Naina Kohli reminisces about falling for her boyfriend’s sister – but somehow it’s the boyfriend who ends up dominating the narrative, by complaining that he feels ashamed of her new relationship – though she herself knows she’s done nothing wrong. Similarly, in Saturday Night, Farran Mitchell finds herself sitting at home alone watching Doctor Who, waiting for the boyfriend she just dumped to call and beg her to come back. She knows he will, because he’s done it before – and she’s too lonely to resist, even though she knows being with him won’t make her happy.

All six pieces are beautifully written, and resonate with warmth, humour and above all, authenticity; each of the women feels like someone you might actually meet – or maybe even already know. Some you’d want to go for a drink with; others not so much. Some have been defeated by their stories, while others refuse to give in. It’s not always pretty, but that’s exactly the point – women are more than just ornaments, and this enjoyable showcase of female talent does a great job of going beneath the surface to find the individuals underneath.

Follow @FemmTheatre on Twitter for news about future performances.

Review: The Castle at The Space

In Howard Barker’s rarely performed 1985 play The Castle, Stucley and his men return home from the Crusades to find the women have taken over and established their own tribal regime. Far from the hero’s welcome he was expecting, Stucley is horrified to discover his own wife in a relationship with a witch, and with no interest to returning to his bed – or giving him a child, despite having become famous in his absence for her abundant fertility.

Rather than try and work things out, Stucley decides to build a castle designed by Arab “genius” architect Krak, who’s returned home with him from the Holy Land. As construction gets underway, Stucley grows increasingly obsessed with making his castle bigger and more impressive than anybody else’s – but his plan to win back control ultimately only creates more chaos.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

It’s quite a strange play in many ways: a lot happens, not all of it very easy to understand and much of it entirely unexpected; it delves into everything from religion to gender politics; and though overwhelmingly dark in tone, there are several moments of surreal humour (at one point Stucley attempts to found a new church, anointing his chosen priest by putting a toolbag on his head in lieu of a hat; at another the witch Skinner, having confessed to murdering the castle’s chief builder, is sentenced to carry his corpse around wherever she goes, only to end up getting rather too attached). The language is also an odd blend of semi-classical and modern, which takes a good few minutes to get used to, particularly as the dialogue is very fast-moving from the start.

Having said all that, Adam Hemming’s new production at The Space is excellent and incredibly atmospheric, with a set from Jo Jones that makes great use of the converted church building to create a show that feels epic in scale. Andy Straw’s lighting design recreates the gloom of rainy middle England, giving us at times only just enough light to see what’s going on, while sound effects from Keri Chesser fill in – on one occasion in rather distressing detail – events unfolding off stage.

The cast of ten give passionate performances, particularly Anthony Cozens as Stucley and Kate Tulloch as Skinner, each driven to the brink of madness by their desire to win. Chris Kyriacou’s Krak looks quietly – and comically – dismayed at first by the chaos he’s stumbled into, but ultimately reveals his own hidden demons, and the same goes for Shelley Davenport’s Ann, whose firm resolve as the play opens soon begins to fall away.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

With all these strong personalities fighting for supremacy, the play does get a bit shouty (not to mention sweary) at times – but there’s welcome light relief from the likes of Holiday (Matthew Lyon), who’s spent so much time constructing tall buildings he can’t stop looking up and who, ironically, is petrified of heights, and Hush (John Sears), an old man who’s been making himself useful over the last seven years by obligingly getting all the women pregnant.

Despite the quality of the production, I’m not sure enjoyable is the right word for The Castle – which would probably quite please its writer, who in 2012 was quoted as saying, “A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I’m not interested in entertainment.” All in all, this is the kind of play that leaves you feeling a bit bewildered and more than a little uncomfortable. Those who like to come away from the theatre understanding everything that just happened might want to steer clear; Barker doesn’t give us any easy answers, instead leaving it to the individual to interpret what we’ve seen in our own way. On the other hand, if you enjoy watching committed, compelling performances in a play that’s dramatic and darkly humorous, and which provides more than enough food for thought to keep you going for a good long while, this might just be the show for you.

The Castle is at The Space until 28th October.

Review: Reunion and Dark Pony at the John Harvard Library

Baseless Fabric are known for bringing theatre to unique settings; their last production was a pop-up opera that took place across the high streets of Merton. For their latest project, they’ve turned their attention to libraries – and in keeping with the venue bring us two quietly moving portrayals of the relationship between father and daughter, both written by David Mamet and performed by David Schaal and Siu-see Hung.

In the first, Reunion, ex-alcoholic Bernie meets his estranged daughter Carol for the first time in years. She’s gone to considerable effort to track him down, but now they’re back together the tension is palpable, and the play frequently feels more like a monologue as David Schaal’s Bernie rambles on, telling meticulously detailed stories about his life during their missing years. He repeats himself often, seemingly desperate to fill the silence and keep Carol close by. She, on the other hand, seems constantly ready to flee, perched on the edge of her chair and with her handbag always within easy reach.

Photo credit: Baseless Fabric

Their relationship is tentative and sometimes misjudged, and it would be difficult to understand why Carol’s even come, but for quick flashes of insight – like the moment she suddenly blurts out a revelation about her sex life (watching Bernie fumble for an appropriate response is both amusing and poignant) – and the play ends on a cautiously uplifting note as the two finally begin to find some common ground.

The two actors slip unseen into the space before the play begins, then move among the audience, increasing the intimacy as they draw us into their story. We then follow them along a path of feathers, to the children’s section for the second part of the show: Dark Pony, a much shorter but distinctly more upbeat piece in which a father tells his young daughter a story to pass the time on a long journey home. Siu-see Hung is particularly great to watch here as she transforms from a tense, unhappy young woman to a carefree and energetic little girl. Her enthusiasm is infectious; she obviously knows the story well and can join in with many of the words, yet constantly reacts – with fear, sadness, joy – like it’s the very first time.

Photo credit: Baseless Fabric

Dark Pony is a lovely testament to the power of stories (and particularly appropriate in the library setting), but it also serves as a perfect counterpoint to Reunion by offering a glimpse of what Bernie and Carol missed out on. Having seen the after effects of their estrangement, we’re better able to appreciate the value of the close father-daughter relationship that follows.

This is a rare opportunity to see two early works from David Mamet in a very special venue. It’s no secret that libraries have been struggling to hold their position in a world of Amazon and Kindle books; this Libraries Week it’s lovely to see them getting the appreciation they deserve.

Catch Reunion and Dark Pony at a library near you until 15th October.

Review: Flashdance at the Orchard Theatre

80s kids rejoice – another classic movie from our youth is back on stage. Flashdance, as most of us know, is the heartwarming tale of feisty young welder Alex, who longs to be a dancer, and finally achieves her dream after an iconic audition routine (if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably at least seen that bit). Naturally, she also meets a nice man, and after a few bumps along the way, in the end everything works out fine.

Unsurprisingly, the show is a feast of 80s cheese, with leg warmers and leotards aplenty. And while Robbie Roth’s original songs are enjoyable but not particularly memorable, the score is lifted by several classic hits that guarantee a feel-good finale. The story could use a bit more pace at times, and there’s a side plot involving Alex’s friend that seems to directly contradict the show’s message about believing in your dreams – but let’s face it, how many people are really there for the plot?

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Where the show does come up trumps is in its performances – particularly from leading lady and reigning Strictly Come Dancing champ, Joanne Clifton. It might have been her brother who did Flashdance on last year’s series, but here she claims it firmly for her own with a show-stealing turn as Alex. We knew she could dance, but now we know she can act and sing too, and – maybe most impressive – apparently do it all without breaking a sweat.

She’s joined by Ben Adams, whose former boy band credentials (he was in A1 back in the day) stand him in good stead as the charming Nick Hurley. While his vocals may not always be quite as strong as his co-stars’, and he obviously has a pretty limited repertoire of dance moves, his acting is good – and he certainly looks the part of Alex’s handsome love interest.

In fact it’s a particularly fit (in every sense) cast all round, with more than enough visual talent to keep the whole audience happy, and some astonishingly acrobatic dance moves that you wish you could pause and watch again in slow motion. Several of the musical numbers serve little purpose in terms of plot development, but give this talented cast a multitude of opportunities to show what they can do.

Photo credit: Brian Hartley

Not altogether surprisingly, there’s a lot more dancing than welding in the show – but a versatile steel set designed by Takis helps to keep the Pittsburgh setting in mind throughout, and strikes a nice contrast against the colour and vivacity of the show.

It might not be highbrow, but Flashdance is certainly high energy – and ultimately wins everyone over with the sheer joy shown by everyone on stage. With some great performances and a heartwarming message about believing in yourself against all odds, the show is a definite crowd pleaser, and its standing ovation well deserved.

Flashdance is at the Orchard Theatre until 14th October.

Review: Turkey at The Hope Theatre

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but it’s been difficult to avoid the five-star hype surrounding Frankie Meredith’s debut play Turkey – so to say I went in with high expectations is a bit of an understatement. Fortunately, those expectations were more than met by this heartbreaking story of a young woman so desperate for a child she’s willing to risk everything – and everyone – to get it. Instantly gripping, a brilliant script, talented cast and skilful direction by Niall Phillips draw us into the lives of all three characters, and the play feels much shorter than its one-hour running time.

Madeline wants to have a baby with her girlfriend Toni – but first, they need to locate the necessary, ahem, ingredients. After an attempt to ask Toni’s brothers ends in disaster, Maddie has another candidate in mind: her dead ex-boyfriend’s dad, Michael. Shrugging off Toni’s concerns about her motives, she pays him a visit – and in doing so sets in motion a chain of events that might give her the one thing she always wanted… but at what cost?

Although the play, which was inspired by real events, is about a gay couple and sheds light on the challenges they face in their mission to become parents – challenges most heterosexual couples will never have to even think about – ultimately Turkey is so successful because there’s a lot more to all the characters than just their sexuality. Everyday dilemmas like which veg to buy, what to wear for a job interview and the struggle to get over the loss of a loved one mean all three are easy to relate to, and while we may not be able to like or support the things they do, we can at least understand where they’re coming from.

This is particularly true in the case of Madeline, largely thanks to Pevyand Sadeghian’s devastating performance. By rights, we should hate her, and while she undoubtedly causes much of her own – and others’ – suffering, she’s also totally convincing in both her love for Toni and her confusion over who she really is; it’s obvious that none of the damage she causes is intentional, but merely a byproduct of her personal turmoil.

At the other end of the scale, Harriet Green is instantly likeable as Toni. Bright, funny and devoted to both her job as a teacher and her domestic life with Madeline, she’s not particularly fussed about having a baby, but is willing to go along with it because she knows how much it means to her partner – a compromise that ultimately leaves her wide open to getting hurt. And finally, there’s Michael, played by Cameron Robertson, a “not quite yet ‘old’ older man”, who’s still broken by the loss of his son twelve years earlier. His obvious joy at having Madeline back in his life, however unexpectedly, is heartbreakingly poignant, even though we can see the warning signs of what’s about to happen a mile away.

Director Niall Phillips keeps the action moving along at a rapid pace, with short, sharp bursts of rock music separating each scene from the next. The cast all remain on stage throughout, their constant presence mere inches from the audience helping to compound the sense of impending doom, as events spiral out of Madeline’s control and her two lives come ever closer to collision.

Turkey may be Frankie Meredith’s first full length play, but let’s hope it’s not the last. A beautifully drawn study of human desperation, it’s a triumph on just about every level; I only wish it hadn’t ended so soon.

Turkey is at The Hope Theatre until 14th October.