Review: What a Carve Up! (online)

As an anxious, frustrated and oh so tired nation awaited yet another delayed Boris press conference last night, Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of What a Carve Up! – itself a 1994 novel by Jonathan Coe, inspired in part by a 1961 movie of the same name (got that?!) – felt like darkly appropriate viewing. At first glance a murder mystery presented in the form of a true crime investigation, Tamara Harvey’s digital production skilfully builds the suspense, while also systematically taking apart those in power who enjoy all the benefits of their position, while allowing the rest of us to take the hit – financially, emotionally, and physically.

Alfred Enoch in What a Carve Up!
Photo credit: Barn Theatre

One night thirty years ago, six members of the Winshaw family – an all-powerful British dynasty who have fingers in every possible pie, and who “make the Murdochs look like the Waltons” – were brutally slaughtered in a variety of unpleasantly creative ways. The prime suspect has always been a troubled writer, Michael Owen, who’d been commissioned to write a book about the family, and who was known to be obsessed with an old black and white movie that closely mirrors the circumstances of the murders. But was he really the killer? Three decades later, Owen’s son Raymond (Alfred Enoch) starts looking into what really happened that night, and shares his findings in a video broadcast.

Only three members of the production’s stellar cast (which includes the likes of Derek Jacobi, Celia Imrie, Stephen Fry and Sharon D. Clarke) actually appear on screen, while the rest lend their voices to the various witnesses and victims who feature in the investigation. The only one to speak directly to the audience, Alfred Enoch’s charm and wry humour quickly convince us of his father’s innocence – but his monologue is also infused with simmering anger as he uncovers the pain caused by the Winshaws, not only for his own family but for so many others.

This rage is fuelled further by clips from a televised interview with Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button), the only surviving member of the Winshaw family, a despicable self-styled common sense guru, who continues to benefit from her family connections and has clearly learned nothing from her relatives’ misfortune. Both Fiona Button and interviewer Tamzin Outhwaite are outstanding in these deliciously tense scenes, their body language and facial expressions saying everything they’re not willing or able to say out loud.

Tamzin Outhwaite and Fiona Button in What a Carve Up!
Photo credit: Barn Theatre

What a Carve Up! is an entertaining and polished fictional thriller, whose complexity and intrigue will undoubtedly appeal to fans of both classic murder mystery and true crime documentaries. But we don’t need the sly references to Meghan Markle, Dominic Cummings (for whom, interestingly, not even the Winshaws are willing to accept responsibility) or throwing protective rings around things to remind us that this story is rooted in an all too brutal reality. In another time, we might have called it far-fetched, and the characters too monstrous to be believed. But this is 2020, when truth has proven itself over and over again to be infinitely stranger than fiction, and the production’s final gut-wrenching scene is no longer the stuff of dystopian nightmares but a story lifted straight out of real life. The Winshaws may be fictional, but their impact on all our lives is not – and that’s something we should all be angry about.

Review: Macbeth (online) at Belfast International Arts Festival

Let’s face it, one of the few positives of lockdown has been the discovery of all the fun to be had with Zoom backgrounds – and this is an opportunity that’s exploited gleefully and to great effect in Zoe Seaton’s immersive digital adaptation of Macbeth, her fifth lockdown production since April. Five actors perform from their own homes across the country (with numbers made up where required by unsuspecting audience members) to produce a creative and deliciously creepy version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Audience members are encouraged to lock the doors, draw the curtains and dim the lights in preparation for the show, which opens not around a cauldron but at a government briefing to warn us about the pandemic of witchcraft sweeping the nation. Having established our setting – a modern and all too recognisable Britain – the story gets underway with a revelation that the three officials (Aonghus Og McAnally, Lucia McAnespie and Dharmesh Patel) may not in fact have everyone’s best interests at heart, as they leave the briefing to meet Macbeth and inform him of his future prospects. This ensures that from the start, there’s a feeling of unseen evil at work – the Macbeths are never the real villain, but merely a plaything for sinister forces beyond their control.

Lockdown imposes some obvious restrictions on the production; the Macbeths (Nicky Harley and Dennis Herdman) host King Duncan not in a castle but in their ordinary terraced house, and they have to work quite hard to establish intimacy and make their murderous plans, given that they’re never able to appear together on screen. In a way, though, these limitations work to the play’s advantage and enhance the horror movie feel – shaky handheld footage and extreme closeups are reminiscent of films like The Blair Witch Project, while hidden camera angles give a sense of the characters being watched. The death scenes are particularly well done, as Banquo and Lady MacDuff wrestle with unseen assailants before meeting their gory ends. There’s certainly no shortage of atmosphere (and a couple of jump scares), as Garth McConaghie’s haunting Celtic soundtrack and dramatic sound effects fully immerse us in the creepiness.

As for the audience participation: after an interactive opening sequence featuring a few randomly selected spectators, this becomes quite limited and at times feels more like an opportunity to show off the production’s technical capabilities than any particular addition to the plot. It’s good fun, though, and allows the audience to feel like we’re part of the performance, just as we would be if we were watching in a real theatre. So perhaps, after all, there are two positives to lockdown: the second being the creative ways in which theatre has adapted and found new ways to entertain audiences even when the doors are closed.

Big Telly Theatre’s Macbeth headlines the Belfast International Arts Festival until 17th October, then transfers to Oxford as a co-production with Creation Theatre until 31st October.

Review: Waiting For The Ship To Sail at Chickenshed (online)

When London’s theatres were forced to close last month, one of the many shows to be cut short was Chickenshed’s spring production, which was forced to end its run the day after press night. This was a disappointment not only for those of us hoping to see the show during its two-and-a-half week run, but also for the cast of 200 young people who had been working hard on the latest in a series of topical performances from the North London theatre company.

Photo credit: Chickenshed

It was welcome news, then, that the show would be released to view online, and in some ways even quite fitting for a theatre company whose focus is always on inclusivity and accessibility. While the recording undoubtedly lacks the immediacy of a live performance, it does allow anyone, anywhere, to enjoy the show, with the option to pause or rewind as needed, and subtitles to ensure as many people as possible can follow the production’s spoken dialogue and song lyrics. It’s not the same as being there, but in the absence of any other option it’s the next best thing, and perhaps this opportunity may even bring Chickenshed’s work and message to new audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be in a position to enjoy it.

Moving on, then, to the show itself, which this year takes on on the topical subject of global migration from a variety of perspectives. Combining music, dance and drama, the show charts the experience of migration through six phases, and poignantly evokes the sense of loss and isolation that comes with leaving behind the place you call home and starting a new life elsewhere, as well as the physical risk and trauma faced by so many as they flee persecution and attempt to reach safety.

It doesn’t do this through one central character, but instead tells multiple stories of people from different backgrounds, each of them with a unique perspective. We hear from a young girl who can’t understand why she’s been left behind by her father, a mother desperately seeking her young son, who’s vanished overnight in the middle of the Sahara, and – in a surprising but fascinating twist – the smugglers who justify their actions as merely responding to a demand that’s been created by others. We see heartless officials demanding proof of persecution, and traumatised refugees who survived their journey only to be faced with suspicion and paranoia from those they thought would keep them safe.

All this is performed by a cast of 200, who are on stage throughout – even when not actively involved in a scene, the ensemble acts as a silent witness to the events unfolding at centre stage. Taken as a whole, Lou Stein’s production is a visual spectacle, with lighting from Andrew Caddies that perfectly matches the tone of each phase, as well as vibrant choreography and mature performances from a young cast who demonstrate a real and commendable understanding of the show’s complex subject matter.

Photo credit: Chickenshed

While it’s inevitable that the show loses something in recorded format, the themes and stories that it explores still come through loud and clear, and the energy of the performance proves just as infectious in your living room as in a theatre. In addition to everything else, Waiting For The Ship To Sail is also a worthwhile reminder that while our minds and our media may currently be focused on one crisis, that doesn’t mean other, equally urgent, issues have gone away, or become any less deserving of our time and attention.

Watch Waiting For The Ship To Sail online now – it’s free, but donations to Chickenshed are welcome and hugely appreciated.

Review: Sticks and Stones at Tristan Bates Theatre

Written by Dameon Garnett in response to the ongoing debate around free speech, Sticks and Stones is a fascinating two-hander that explores how we talk about issues of race, class and privilege in 2020 Britain. In particular, the play asks where we draw the line between free speech and hate speech, and to what extent the opinions we share should be policed and punished by society.

Afua (Eva Fontaine) is a senior manager in a secondary school. Tina (Catherine Harvey) works in the kitchen. The two are friends, who socialise outside work and whose sons used to play together as children. When Afua is advised of offensive jokes shared by Tina on her public Facebook page, she has to take action – but what begins as a professional dispute soon turns personal, and escalates into a bitter conflict that brings to the surface previously unspoken resentments on both sides.

The play is only an hour long, but that short time is full to bursting with persuasive, thought-provoking lines of argument, and the traverse staging by director Rasheka Christie-Carter means that the debate pings back and forth across Afua’s office like a tennis match (there’s even a change of ends halfway through). There’s a discussion about what privilege means, about what constitutes hate speech, and about why it’s acceptable for Afua to be pictured at a protest march in a controversial outfit, but not for Tina to share a few jokes with her friends online. And, crucially, though their clash ends with a clear victor, the behaviour of both parties during the discussion prevents the audience deriving much satisfaction from her triumph.

Garnett’s skilful writing is brought to life in two powerhouse performances from Eva Fontaine and Catherine Harvey; the bitter tension between the two women, particularly in the second half of the play, is so convincing it becomes impossible to look away. Garnett has created two diametrically opposed characters, but neither is so extreme in their views that we can’t relate to them or recognise in them people we know, either in real life or online. Consequently, it doesn’t take long for the audience to become completely engaged in their argument, whether we’re firmly on one side throughout or shifting back and forth as the play goes on.

Sticks and Stones plays out on a small stage a much bigger debate currently rumbling – and occasionally raging – throughout Britain. For those who’ve already picked a side in that debate, the play is unlikely to win any hearts and minds for the opposing team. But this compelling, provocative drama certainly asks some uncomfortable questions, which should at least challenge the views we hold, and make us aware of the potential damage such bitter division can cause.

Sticks and Stones is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 21st March.

Review: The Apologists at Omnibus Theatre

The public apology is far from a new phenomenon, but in the era of online news and social media, it’s becoming more and more of a common occurrence. In The Apologists, three stories are told – by the same performer and director (Gabrielle Scawthorn and Jane Moriarty respectively) but different writers – each exploring a different aspect of a topic that turns out to provide a surprising quantity of food for thought.

In Excuses by Iskandar Sharazuddin, the first female Chief Executive of the NHS goes head to head with a terrified mother who said something bad in the heat of the moment as she watched her young daughter fight for life. The only problem is, they’re the same woman. One knows she must apologise, and does so in the blandest, most corporate way possible, while the other argues her case in far more emotional terms. The seriousness of the incident, which appears to have racial undertones, is never denied – but as we watch the story unfold, the true question at the heart of this piece emerges: why does this woman have to choose to be either Sarah’s mum or NHS boss – and if that division is expected of her by society, how can we then justify judging one persona by the actions of the other?

In the second piece, Seven, The Sweetest Hour by Cordelia O’Neill, a social media influencer comes to terms with the fact that her work has caused real harm – and worse, it’s been doing so for some time. This piece is particularly topical given recent news headlines, and asks if the validation we may personally receive from a witty tweet or savagely worded review is ever worth the damage it could inflict on someone else’s mental health. The piece stops short, however, of simply slamming Holly for her actions, focusing instead on an examination of her own mental well-being, and delving into why it’s so important to her to get that validation, whatever it might cost.

Finally, in New Universe by Lucinda Burnett, a woman watches, appalled, as her male boss issues a meaningless public apology for horrific crimes committed on his watch as CEO of a global aid organisation. In his mind, the damage is already done and he didn’t personally inflict it, so saying sorry is little more than a duty he has to get through before lunch. To her, however, his failure to really take responsibility or engage with what’s happened is the ultimate betrayal, and leads her to consider a course of action she would never previously have thought possible. This piece is a particularly tough one to watch, as it touches on issues of sexual violence and victim blaming, through the eyes of a woman who knows all too well the trauma they can cause.

All three monologues are performed by Gabrielle Scawthorn, who proves extraordinarily adept at switching characters – not just between pieces but also within them. With only very minor wardrobe and set changes to visually distinguish one story from the next, all three women nonetheless feel distinct and well-developed. Scawthorn is also a very engaging performer, and it’s difficult not to be moved by the emotional turmoil she portrays.

For a society that’s grown accustomed to public figures issuing apologies, it’s easy to pass judgment, and dismiss what we see as insincerity or the frantic damage control efforts of an unseen PR machine. And sometimes, certainly, that verdict will be right on the money. But The Apologists asks us to look a little deeper, past the carefully worded statements or overblown displays of emotion, and to consider what might be going on behind the scenes, before we make that judgment. With strong writing and compelling performance, it’s definitely one to see this week.

The Apologists is at Omnibus Theatre until 8th March.