Remember being a teenager, when the most important thing in the world was what other people thought of you? Yep, me too. And so does Manda (Zöe Grain), the protagonist in Alexander Knott’s Hedgehog; she’s living it right now, and it’s not going so well. She’s just lost her job at the local vet – over a hedgehog, of all things – and her parents are in the slow and painful process of splitting up. Her “friends” seem barely to even tolerate let alone like her, and every time she meets a nice guy, she thinks he’s the one… until she finds out he definitely isn’t.
The problem is that it’s the 90s, she’s a teenager, and nobody’s told her that it’s okay to not be okay. So Manda puts on a smile and gets dressed up for a night out she knows she won’t enjoy, at a club she’s too young to legally be in, where she’ll down shot after shot in a futile attempt to smother her fear, loneliness and insecurity, and – even if just for a moment – to try and make sure that someone actually sees her.
Though Hedgehog is essentially a monologue and has the feel of a one-woman show, Manda is not in fact alone on stage. She’s joined throughout by “Them” (Lucy Annable and Emily Costello), who not only take on the role of all the people in Manda’s life, but also become the little whispering voices in her head that tell her she’s not good enough, not cool enough, not lovable enough. This brings Manda’s turmoil and desperate need for validation out of her head and gives it a physical manifestation that’s perfectly embodied by Lucy Annable and Emily Costello. The two of them are a constant, vibrant and versatile presence on stage, but without ever distracting from Zöe Grain’s brilliant central performance.
What makes the story of Hedgehog so sad, and at the same time such an absorbing 70 minutes of theatre, is that Manda seems great. She’s funny, caring and refreshingly down to earth, she really does look amazing in her pink prom dress, and she does an awesome Spice Girls dance routine. Grain engages fearlessly with the audience from the moment the play begins, and we like her from the off – which is why it’s so hard to watch her chasing the approval of her awful “best friend” Claire, her absent mum or her latest crush, just to make herself feel better.
Set to a soundtrack that incorporates 90s classics alongside original composition from Sam Heron and James Demaine, Hedgehog is a fast-paced and often unpredictable ride. Timelines get tangled, scenes switch in the blink of an eye, and the audience is not so much carried as dragged along with Manda as she reaches the point that will either break her or give her the fresh start she so desperately needs. The emotional climax of Georgia Richardson’s production is particularly powerful, a poignantly simple and unexpected moment of human connection that anyone who’s ever felt alone or helpless can’t fail to be moved by. Insightful, relatable and beautifully performed, this play is a must-see – and let’s hope, unlike the eponymous hedgehog, it has a long life ahead.
Hedgehog is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 22nd June.
Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky could have come up with a more creative title for their acclaimed political comedy Brexit – but they didn’t really need to, given that actual Brexit has been a massive satire in and of itself for some time now. Nor did the writers have to stray very far from the facts; the play that was topical during its previous run at the King’s Head a few months ago is now, in the week that the horror show known as the Tory leadership contest officially gets underway, basically just mirroring reality.
It’s 2020, and Britain has a new prime minister – who’s somehow managed to get elected by Conservative party members despite having no policies, no backbone and, naturally, no clue how he’s supposed to deliver the impossible dream that is Brexit. Fully aware that whatever he does he’ll be crucified by one side or the other, Adam Masters (David Benson) opts for what he deems a foolproof strategy: do nothing, and hope it all goes away – much to the dismay of his campaign manager turned unofficial policy advisor Paul Connell (Adam Astill). It never occurs to the new PM, as he plays rival ministers Diana Purdy (Jessica Fostekew) and Simon Cavendish (Thom Tuck) off against each other, that they might just have plans of their own…
Much like its central character, the play doesn’t attempt to rehash the referendum, focusing instead on the thing we can all agree on: that British attempts to implement the Will of the People have, so far, been less than successful. Khan and Salinsky – who also directs – expose Leavers and Remainers alike as power-hungry and manipulative, and more than willing to cheerfully prioritise their own ambitions above the needs of the country they claim to serve. Meanwhile the EU’s Chief Negotiator Helena Brandt (Margaret Cabourn-Smith) is sitting back with a glass of wine and a (metaphorical) bucket of popcorn, waiting for the Brits to stop in-fighting and realise it’s all been a terrible mistake. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressingly on the money.
And this is where Brexit hits a bit of a snag; when truth is even more ridiculous than fiction, it takes a bit of the joy out of laughing at it. The priggish new Trade Secretary Simon Cavendish is a brilliant piece of comedy acting from Thom Tuck – but somehow, stunningly, this character still ends up feeling like a watered down version of real-life caricature Jacob Rees Mogg. And while it’s fun to watch David Benson’s Adam scurry back and forth trying to keep all his plates spinning, we’ve been watching Theresa May do the same with increasing desperation for two years now, so it’s no particular surprise when it doesn’t end well.
But maybe I’m being a misery (thinking about Brexit does tend to have that effect, after all). For all that it can’t live up to the absurdity of real life, the play is very funny, with a polished cast expertly delivering such zingers as “You can’t continue to govern over Schrodinger’s Britain”, and the particularly well received “that bearded Labour Gandalf driving his motor-home up Downing Street”. For fans of political satire, Brexit (the event – if you can call something that never actually happens an event) has already provided countless hours of entertainment, and Brexit (the play) continues to prove that sometimes, there really is nothing left to do but laugh.
Brexit is at the King’s Head Theatre until 6th July.
The publicist’s office in which Ollie George Clark’s Cuttings is set has a sign prominently displayed that reads, “It’s PR, not ER.” Which is true, obviously – but you could still be forgiven for thinking the crisis Gracelyn (Joan Potter), Ruchi (Natasha Patel) and Danica (Maisie Preston) are facing this Monday morning is one of life and death. Their client, YouTuber turned actor Arthur Moses, caused outrage at last night’s Olivier Awards with an expletive-strewn acceptance speech, and now his PR team are left to pick up the pieces in any way they can.
And so they do, with ruthless, cold-blooded efficiency, not caring what angle they have to use or who they have to throw under the bus to protect their client’s – and by extension, their own – reputation. Cuttings goes behind the scenes of a scenario we’ve seen play out in the media countless times, exposing some very questionable morals and reminding us all over again how superficial a world showbiz can be. Arthur himself, meanwhile, plays zero part in his own salvation, only rocking up right at the end to record the “heartfelt” apology video his publicists have spent the last hour meticulously scripting for him – and to be fair to him, he’s very convincing.
The play is a pretty brutal takedown of the world of 21st century PR, and there are a lot of laughs to be had at the expense of the three central characters as they scrabble desperately for the best strategy in a world where social media now rules all. At the same time, though, you do have to admire the skill with which they build their case, like a team of defence lawyers looking for that one piece of evidence that will mean their client goes free. And then of course, there’s the inconvenient truth that these characters wouldn’t be able to use such morally dubious means if we the public weren’t quite so gullible…
Not surprisingly given the state of crisis, Rob Ellis’ production starts at a run – the phones are already ringing off the hook before the play even begins – and rarely pauses for breath during the 75 minutes that follow. The same goes for the actors, and Joan Potter, Natasha Patel and Maisie Preston never miss a beat as the three women hilariously brainstorm and bicker their way in real time through a hectic Monday morning. Each character has their specific role within the story – Danica the naïve new girl, Ruchi the ambitious protegée, and Gracelyn the hardened veteran – but they’re all well-rounded, interesting and, dare I say it, likeable enough that we can’t simply write them off as terrible people. They all know their chosen strategy is a moral minefield, but they also have a job to do – and as Danica quickly learns, in this business there’s no time or space for consciences.
Not all the jokes completely stick the landing – there’s a running gag about Gracelyn’s interrupted smoking habit, for instance, that starts promisingly but then doesn’t really go anywhere – and others get a bit lost in the unstoppable whirlwind of one-liners and put-downs. But Cuttings is still a sharp, witty and hugely enjoyable play about an industry we all know exists, but somehow seem to forget every time we watch an emotional YouTube apology or read a remorseful statement from a disgraced celebrity. Let’s hear it for the unsung heroes of PR: if nothing else, they’re great entertainment.
Over the last five years, thirteen-time Offie-nominated Arrows & Traps have become a regular fixture both on the London fringe scene and on this blog. And the good news is they’re not going anywhere; the future looks bright as they prepare to launch their Renegade season with a new comedy, One Giant Leap, opening next month at the Brockley Jack, followed later this year by a national tour of The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde.
The tour marks a new chapter for the company, and there’s a lot to talk about – but first, here’s what Arrows Artistic Director Ross McGregor had to say about where it all began…
What was your vision when you established Arrows and Traps and how has that evolved over the years?
Originally, back in 2014, I was contacted by Simon James Collier, a writer/producer/director who was then based at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre, to produce a season of six Shakespeare shows over two years. Unfortunately we only got to perform two of these – Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale – before there was a management change at the L&U, which left me with a half-finished set of ideas and four more plays that I was expecting to do, but then suddenly wasn’t. So rather than give up and go back to my day job with a sour taste in my mouth, I decided to take the rest of the season on as an independent venture. Thus Arrows & Traps was born, and this is also why in the first two years our focus was on Shakespeare – as we went on to do Taming of the Shrew, Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Othello, which completed the set I had planned, and then opened the door to that big question: “What next?”
Right from the beginning of the venture, even before Much Ado, even before we were called “Arrows & Traps”, I knew I wanted to work with Will Pinchin, our resident movement director, as we’d worked together before and I really appreciate what he brings to the room, and how devoted he is to taking my big ideas and making them a reality. One particular moment always sticks with me, that during the tech for Winter’s Tale, I brought in some fabric and some sticks and told him “Right so yeah, we need to build an airship” – and in six hours’ time Will had made one! This is such an over-used phrase in this industry, but Will is genuinely the kindest, most generous person I’ve ever met, and it’s been an honour to have him work with me on so many shows – and it’s such a privilege to have him now acting on stage in our current season of shows, after his Offie-nominated turn as the Creature in Frankenstein, and playing Hans Scholl in The White Rose.
As well as moving away from Shakespeare (for now), we’ve taken on more literary adaptation work, with Frankenstein, Dracula, Crime & Punishment and Anna Karenina – and started to make a series of historical new writing that has been female-led in terms of narratives, about the lives of Sophie Scholl, Anne Lister, and Gerda Taro. It is with these two strains in mind that we move into our new Renegade season.
As the various phases of company cast configurations have come and gone, we now have a full creative team in place that work on each show, and last year we were appointed as the official associate company of the Brockley Jack Theatre, which was a great honour. In terms of the dynamic and company ethos and staging approach, I think our style has remained constant throughout, although perhaps we’ve consolidated it over the years, and since 2017 I’ve been the lead writer for all productions, which has helped us to zone in on precisely what kind of theatre we want to make, what kind of stories we want to tell.
If you could do it all again would you do anything differently?
I’d think twice before working with a certain well-known theatre corporation again, that’s for certain. I’m sure they’re very good with their large spaces but with their studios, they’re all about the hire fees, and not at all about supporting or caring for the shows that they get into their spaces. On the other side of the spectrum, the Brockley Jack is run by Kate Bannister and Karl Swinyard, two creatives who care greatly about every show that’s on at the Jack, they go out of the way to help you and make you feel welcome. Having been at the Jack now since 2016, I can safely say they put some other venue managers to shame, they’re incredibly skilled at their jobs, know their audience and their space, there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for you, so we’re really happy there and feel like it’s a theatrical home for us. But that kind of relationship we have with them is rare, and we certainly kissed a few frogs before that, venue-wise.
Other than that, there’s been a few difficult moments, and at times I think I took on too much, or had too many projects on in too short a space of time, and there’s a couple of moments that I look back on and wish I’d been able to see the good from the bad, focused on the strengths of the work, and not dwelt on the stresses, and tiredness, and anxieties that go with self-producing your own fringe theatre work, but it’s often really hard to do that when you’re in the throes of a production.
I’m very proud of the work we’ve made, and the recognition that it’s got, particularly recently, and I do believe that most failures contain a lesson if you look hard enough. I’ve certainly made a fair few mistakes since I started in 2014, but I feel like I’ve learned from each of them, and am looking forward to what the future holds.
Oh, and I wouldn’t do Titus Andronicus again. That show was probably our weakest for many, many reasons, and I think Shakespeare has got better options in the canon. I think I was lured by the fun of the violence and madness and darkness, but lacked the resources to do it properly. But I think that’s the only production I would retract, if I had my time again.
What have been the biggest highlights and challenges – for you as a director and writer, and for the company as a whole? Any favourite productions?
In terms of highlights, both as a director and writer, it would have to be The White Rose. That was the first original piece I wrote, that didn’t have a novel or source text behind it. Being based on a true story, I knew what characters I had to use, what the remit of the story was that I wanted to tell, and where it would ultimately end up – but the beats, scenes and characterisations were all original and written from scratch, which was quite challenging. I was really proud of that show and what it accomplished. To choose a story that not many people in England knew about (Scholl is incredibly well-known in Germany), and to produce it in a summer period (a natural low point in the year for most theatres), and to get 8 five-star reviews, and 4 four-star reviews, as well as an Off West End Award Nomination for Best Production and sell out 96% of the run – it was an incredible experience, and so gratifying. The cast for that one was phenomenal as well, absolutely no weak links, everyone was on their top game and cared so much about telling the story as best we could, and honouring the memories of the real people they were portraying.
Other favourite productions for me have to be Anna Karenina – that was so beautiful, such a good script by Helen Edmundson – and I enjoyed the scale, challenge and detail of Three Sisters, I loved the style and poetry of TARO, and the ferocity and scope of Frankenstein. A personal highlight for me was to get an Off West End Award Nomination for Best New Play, and another for Best Director, both for Gentleman Jack, which I wrote and directed. That was so lovely to hear, I was so honoured, as I’ve sort of fallen into writing plays almost by accident, mainly because I struggled so much with getting the rights to the things I wanted to direct, or found a distinct lack of scripts available on the subjects I wanted to focus on. I just started writing as a sort of solution to the problem of producing the work, not really thinking about what that meant, and how that sort of made me a writer. I sometimes struggle to consider myself as a playwright – but really – I’ve written six now, and nothing’s been dreadful yet, so maybe I should work on changing my self-perception a little.
In terms of challenges, one of the biggest recently was writing Gentleman Jack and TARO both at the same time in six weeks. That was a nightmare. Such a stupid amount of time pressure. I mean, I usually like time pressure, in moderation. I have an odd process for writing as I usually book the slot first, design the posters, write the copy, put the show on sale, then write the script. I know that’s probably sounding like an insane way to do it, but I have a problem with self-discipline, so if I know there’s a date by which I have to get the script done by, no excuses, otherwise I’m going to let my company and the venue down, then that forces me to write it in time. And once I get going, it’s normally quite a quick process, as the characters start to find their voices relatively early on. It’s normally just a case of getting a first draft done in a few weeks, realising where it’s overwritten, and then taking four or five runs at it to edit it down. Most of my stuff has the framework of an adaptation or a true story, so there’s always a narrative structure preset for me. It becomes largely about working out how to tell the story, rather than working out what the story is. So yes, that seems to work normally, but having to do two plays at once for our recent Female Firsts season was an absolute nightmare of a task, and not one I’d volunteer for again any time soon. You may have wondered why those two plays were a little shorter than our usual fare, it’s because there was literally no more time to add any more pages.
In recent years Arrows have won critical acclaim for your portrayals of female figures from history. As an AD what made you decide to take the company in that direction, and why is it important to you to tell these stories?
Yes, I suppose it has worked out like that. For the most part, it was unintentional or based primarily on practical concerns. I always felt actresses got short shrift when it comes to drama, particularly in classical texts, which seems maddening to me, particularly when you consider the ratio of women to men working in the acting field is about ten to one. I’d done Frankenstein and Dracula, two novels largely about men, or where the women were sidelined to supporting roles, and whilst I did what I could to minimise that – making Renfield and De Lacey female or giving Mina, Elizabeth and Lucy a bit more agency, etc – I thought it was time to even the balance and make a season of shows that had female characters as the central focus.
Because whilst I appreciate those productions which take something like Richard II or Henry V and turn it all female – those sort of things just always seem like experiments to me, and always jar a little. Gender is wound into the writing for me, King Lear and Prospero react like fathers with daughters, not mothers with sons, Benedick and Mercutio’s immaturity seems inherently male, as does Othello’s jealousy, and Lord of the Flies is a depiction of what happens to a group of boys, not girls. Changing the gender would change the characters, and most likely alter the plotlines – if a plane of school girls crashed on an island and were left for an extended period of time unsupervised, of course there would be conflict and shocking behaviour and extreme actions, but not in the same way that it occurs with the boys in the novel. So I preferred to write all new original roles that favoured female casting. Sophie Scholl, Anne Lister and Gerda Taro took centre stage, and in the case of the latter, we even divided the roles between younger and older, present and past, to further the opportunities for casting more women, giving more opportunities.
I don’t necessarily see the fact that these heroines were female as a reason to tell their stories, in and of itself. I chose to tell these stories because they’re great stories. If they happen to be about women, then great, but that in and of itself isn’t a validation of their need to be told. Certainly in terms of their time periods (1942, 1810 and 1935), the fact that the protagonists were female and trying to do something not readily expected of them raises the conflict and drama of the narratives, but what interested me more about Scholl, Lister and Taro was their strengths, their mistakes, their vulnerability, their stubbornness, their kindness, their sense of self, their passion, their ambitions, their cruelty, their moments of realisation. That’s the reason I told their stories.
Check back soon to hear more from Ross about what the future has in store for Arrows & Traps… but in the meantime, tickets are on sale now for One Giant Leap (2nd-27th July) and The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde (from 3rd September – check the website for full dates and venues).
A short play with a lot to talk about, Madeleine George’s Precious Little places language and communication under the microscope. Brodie (Jenny Delisle) is a linguistics researcher who’s expecting her first child, but when the amniocentesis test reveals there might be a problem, she’s faced with a difficult choice. Her much younger girlfriend Dre (Jessica Kinsey) – who can’t understand why Brodie, now 42, wants a baby in the first place – offers little comfort, so Brodie looks for answers from two unlikely sources: Cleva, an elderly research subject whose language is on the verge of dying out, and the Ape, a famous talking gorilla at the local zoo (both Deborah Maclaren).
The various elements of the story at first don’t seem to quite knit together and the end comes as a bit of a surprise, offering the audience little in the way of closure. But when you look back on it, language is the constant in every encounter within the play – whether it’s the gabbling tourists from whom 100 words carry less value than the Ape’s dignified silence, or the unfortunate choice of language from Brodie’s well-meaning doctor, which immediately put her on the defensive. Cleva’s revival of a language she hasn’t spoken for years brings back memories of another life, to the alarm of her overprotective daughter, and Brodie’s choice boils down to a simple question: can she live with a child who might not have the ability to communicate?
Under the direction of Kate Bannister, all three actors give excellent performances. As Brodie, Jenny Delisle succeeds in the difficult job of turning a woman who often seems cold, scientific and verging on arrogant into a sympathetic character whose dilemma the audience can sympathise with. Jessica Kinsey gives a masterclass in multi-roling, playing no less than five characters (many more if you count each of the zoogoers separately), each of them with a lot of lines – if not always a huge amount to say. This abundance of roles means she’s on stage for pretty much the whole play, with little time for significant costume changes, and yet every character she plays is completely distinct from the rest. Deborah Maclaren, in contrast, has relatively few lines, but makes every single one of them count. As the Ape she gives a meticulously observed physical performance; it really is like watching a gorilla at the zoo. Hearing her inner monologue means we can’t help but feel sympathy for this dignified, intelligent creature who’s expected to perform day in day out for the entertainment of impatient and insensitive humans.
The production’s set and lighting design (Karl Swinyard and Ben Jacobs) skilfully contrast the clinical surroundings of Brodie’s office and various medical appointments with the artificial natural environment of the Ape’s zoo enclosure. Despite frequently involving a change of costume and setting the scene changes never feel overly long, due largely to Julian Starr’s increasingly urgent music, which helps maintain the pace and atmosphere of the production throughout.
At one point in the play, Brodie is offended when her doctor tactlessly suggests that linguistics isn’t a science – but it’s an easy mistake to make. We don’t tend to give the words we use every day as much thought as we should, and this play highlights how crucial language is not only in our interactions but also in our identities. It may be called Precious Little, but this thought-provoking play has plenty to say.
Precious Little is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 15th June.