Review: Scratches at Vault Festival

The subject of Aoife Kennan’s Scratches is a tough one for many reasons – one of which is that, for very good reasons, she can’t actually talk openly about it. And so a sort of code develops between performers and audience over the course of this courageous, devastating and yet simultaneously very funny one-hour show, in which any reference to its core topic is described only as “the Thing”.

Photo credit: Steve Gregson

If that sounds confusing or frustrating, it’s actually neither. Girl (Kennan) has been self-harming for years, ever since she was 20 when, in her own words, she “got sad”. It would be irresponsible to describe that behaviour in detail to an audience, at the risk of – even inadvertently – glorifying or encouraging it in others. Hence, the Thing. Fortunately, Aoife Kennan is an extremely good writer, capable of taking her personal experience and expressing Girl’s confused feelings and motivations without needing to get into the gory details. While not everyone in the audience will understand self-harm, most of us can relate to the emotions behind it: depression, anxiety, loneliness, loss, all of which are described by Kennan with eloquence and unflinching honesty.

Does that all sound a bit heavy-going? Well never fear, because Girl’s exceedingly fabulous Best Friend (Zak Ghazi-Torbati) is here – eventually – to provide light relief and much-needed moral support, whether that takes the form of a hug or a glitter-infused song and dance routine. Together, the pair take us through a series of events in Girl’s life, not necessarily in chronological order, and not all directly related to the play’s central topic. Through the ever versatile Best Friend, we meet Girl’s mum, dad, ex-boyfriend and others, and each event helps us piece together a little more of the story that brought her here.

Photo credit: Steve Gregson

I have no idea if they’re best friends in real life or not, but Aoife Kennan and Zak Ghazi-Torbati are a brilliant double act, to the point where it’s difficult to tell how much of their interaction is scripted and how much just sort of… happens. Best Friend’s character is written to be larger than life and scene-stealing, and Ghazi-Torbati absolutely smashes the brief – but in the end, his attention and ours always comes back to Kennan’s Girl, making sure she’s at centre stage to be heard and seen by everyone in the room. There’s genuine warmth and respect between the two, and as a result, though the show deals with some hard topics, it’s also a joyous celebration of the power of friendship; of having a shoulder to cry on, or a dance partner, or someone to join you on stage as you bare your soul to strangers. Ultimately you can’t help but leave Scratches feeling uplifted, and in awe of the courage it took to make it. Don’t be put off by the subject matter; this is a must-see.

Scratches continues at the Vault Festival until 5th February.

Review: Thirst at Vault Festival

You wouldn’t necessarily know until quite a long way into Callum Hughes’ one-man show Thirst that it’s a story about the time his frequent heavy drinking almost killed him. And that’s because it isn’t, really – far from dwelling on the negative impact of alcohol on his life, Callum chooses instead to celebrate everything he could have lost, but didn’t: his family, friends, career, music, and most of all, pubs. The result is a funny, uplifting hour of storytelling, interspersed with live songs – and while it’s certainly a bit of a cautionary tale, there’s no attempt to lecture anyone into sobriety. This is Callum’s story, and what we choose to do with it is up to us.

In fact alcohol doesn’t even get explicitly mentioned for half the show, though its involvement in many of the stories we hear is implied. Instead we learn about Callum’s parents, his sister, his best friends and his old boss, all of whom become familiar recurring characters throughout the show. We hear about the first time he performed for a live audience at his local pub in Oxfordshire, relive New Year’s Eve celebrations with friends, family and famous people, and join him in toasting the memory of award-winning director Bob Carlton. There’s a bit of audience participation too, but the atmosphere is so warm and welcoming and Callum such an engaging host that this never feels in any way threatening.

The same openness carries through when Callum begins to discuss his relationship with alcohol. Unlike many portrayals of addiction, his story isn’t a dramatic one, because alcohol never stopped him functioning. Instead he explains how it quietly became a habit, something to drown out the noise in his head, but never something he tried to hide or considered to be a problem until it was almost too late. He’s honest too about how several people tried to reach out to him about his drinking to no avail, and even when he reached crisis point, he acknowledges it was actually his sister who saved his life.

A likeable and talented performer, whose career credits go far beyond what he discusses in this show, Callum Hughes has created something special in Thirst. His story is both entertaining and highly relatable, tackling a serious topic with self-deprecating humour and concluding with an uplifting message about the joy of simply being alive. There’s no hint of self-pity or bitterness, no sense of having lost anything through giving up drinking, but rather a new appreciation for other aspects of his life alongside, despite everything, a continued fondness for the experiences that alcohol gave him. A fun but thought-provoking piece that’s definitely worth a watch – with or without a drink in your hand.

Thirst has its final performance at Vault Festival tonight (29th January) before continuing on tour.

Review: Dirty Dancing at the Dominion Theatre

Back in the West End following a record-breaking run in 2022, Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage has clearly lost none of its appeal. In short: if you love the movie, you’ll love the show. The stage production is almost an exact replica, from script to costumes, music to – of course – dance routines. The show’s creative team know not to mess with a winning formula, so while the show contains a few added scenes designed to give context to those who want it, the core story of Johnny and Baby has wisely been left untouched, much to the appreciation of an enthusiastic audience.

It’s the summer of 1963, and Frances “Baby” Houseman (Kira Malou) arrives at Catskills holiday resort Kellerman’s with her parents and older sister. Before long, and much to the disapproval of her dad, she’s got involved with the “dance people” and fallen for instructor Johnny Castle (Michael O’Reilly). Will love conquer all? Of course it will – though naturally there are more than a few bumps on the way to the famous finale.

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Like the movie, the show – also written by Eleanor Bergstein – is great fun, and more than a little bit cheesy, though not without straying into a few dark areas (there’s a whole side plot related to abortion, for instance), and even the most cynical of viewers would find it hard not to cheer as Johnny runs down the aisle to interrupt the Kellerman’s end-of-season talent show. Famous lines are greeted with wild cheers, as is any scene where Michael O’Reilly’s Johnny takes his shirt off, and the iconic lift is correctly rewarded with rapturous applause.

Kira Malou and Michael O’Reilly reprise their starring roles from the 2022 West End cast, and are joined by several other returning cast members, including Charlotte Gooch as Penny, Lynden Edwards as Jake Houseman, Jackie Morrison as his wife Marge and Colin Charles as Tito Suarez, who’s a much more significant – and energetic – character here than in the movie. The cast also benefits from some fantastic new additions, notably Danny Colligan and Lydia Sterling, who provide show-stealing vocals on several of the musical numbers.

Visually, the show also looks great, Federico Bellone’s set and Valerio Tiberi’s lighting coming together to bring the ostensibly perfect world of Kellerman’s vibrantly to life. The show understands its limitations and leans into them – it’s not possible, for example, to have a lake on stage, but leaving out the famous lake scene was never an option, so a creative solution has been found which gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening (rivalled only by Georgina Castle’s magnificently terrible rendition of Lisa’s Hula).

Photo credit: Mark Senior

Finally, a note about the dancing (choreography by Austin Wilks), which is unsurprisingly fantastic. If you were ever to wonder why it was necessary to put “the classic story on stage” when the original works perfectly well as it is – the dancing is why; on stage it has an energy and immediacy you can never get through a cinema or TV screen, not to mention an element of risk in “that lift”.

In summary, Dirty Dancing is the kind of show where you could pretty much ignore all of this review after the first two lines (please don’t, though). If you’re a fan of the movie, the show can do no wrong – it has all the fun, energy and romance of the original, and going in you know exactly what you’re going to get. Unlike Baby, it’s not going to change the world, but it’s a great night out and – yes, I’m going to say it – maybe even the time of your life.

Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage is at the Dominion Theatre, currently booking until 29th April 2023.

Review: Salt-Water Moon at Finborough Theatre

Though it’s considered to be a Canadian classic, it’s somehow taken nearly 40 years for David French’s Salt-Water Moon to reach the UK, directed by Peter Kavanagh at the Finborough. Part of the semi-autobiographical “Mercer series”, this gentle two-hander introduces us to Jacob (Joseph Potter), newly returned to his Newfoundland home after a year in Toronto, and Mary (Bryony Miller), the sweetheart he’s come to win back. But while it’s first and foremost a story about the rekindling of lost love, the play has a surprising depth to it as it explores the complex reasons behind both characters’ actions, both past and present.

Photo credit: Lucy Hayes

One year ago, Jacob left home abruptly without saying goodbye. In his absence, desperate to make a home for herself and her younger sister, Mary’s accepted the marriage proposal of a wealthy neighbour. It’s a match that will ensure her future, but when Jacob swaggers back into her life one moonlit night a few weeks before the wedding, all her plans are thrown up in the air. Bryony Miller’s Mary has a fragile dignity throughout, resolutely gazing into the middle distance as Jacob tries every weapon in his arsenal – charm, reproach, comedy, emotional blackmail – to break down her defences. Though Joseph Potter’s portrayal is undeniably charming, this dogged approach is not always comfortable to watch, and while the pair’s eventual reconciliation always feels inevitable, it’s by no means clear that taking him back is the wisest decision. It also feels, as the play concludes, like much is still left unsaid about the reasons for his departure; while Mary clearly remembers the events that indirectly prompted his decision, the audience is given only sketchy details, and even Mary gets little explanation as to how or why one led to the other. This is all the more stark considering the way other stories are told over the course of the play, with a level of detail that can at times feel a little awkward, like it’s more for the audience’s benefit than it is for Mary’s.

Photo credit: Lucy Hayes

The structure of the play is on paper very simple, consisting of one single 75-minute dialogue between the two former lovers, during which it’s made clear that nobody’s going anywhere until the question of Jacob and Mary is resolved once and for all. Mim Houghton’s set, a gorgeous recreation of the night sky above, also gives little away – and yet there’s a whole world that surrounds the characters, and while we may not see the Newfoundland shoreline or encounter any other members of the small-town community, they all come vividly to life through David French’s evocative, often lyrical text. For those of us whose only knowledge of Newfoundland is from watching Come From Away, it’s a fascinating – if brief – insight into a land with a culture, history, and yes, accent that’s all its own.

Though only a short play, Salt-Water Moon, anchored by two excellent performances and the intimacy of the Finborough, succeeds in drawing us in to Jacob and Mary’s story so that we become invested (one way or another) in the outcome. Some questions are left unanswered as the actors take their well-deserved bows, but the story has enough of a resolution that it doesn’t feel unsatisfying – instead we’re left wanting more, and that’s never a bad thing.

Salt-Water Moon continues at the Finborough Theatre until 28th January.

Review: A Christmas Carol at the Jack Studio Theatre

It’s perhaps no surprise that this year we seem to have even more productions of A Christmas Carol in London’s theatres than usual – times being what they are, Dickens’ story continues to hit home almost two centuries after it was written. This particular adaptation by Ross McGregor takes place somewhere in the middle, on Christmas Eve 1914, as enemy soldiers put down their guns and prepare to meet for a game of football. British medic Jim (Tice Oakfield) isn’t playing in the match; he’s inside, entertaining wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge – a story, we discover later, which has particular significance for him.

Photo credit: Davor @The Ocular Creative

Firstly, if you think you need more than one actor to put on a production of A Christmas Carol, director Kate Bannister and the Jack Studio team are about to prove you wrong. Through a combination of stage magic, video projection, non-threatening audience participation, and an exceptional display of versatility from actor Tice Oakfield, the story is brought to fully three-dimensional life – though not without a couple of tongue-in-cheek nods to the fact this is, at the end of the day, a medic armed with little more than a dressing up box and a few crowd-pleasing magic tricks.

The script remains largely true to Dickens’ original, though anyone familiar with Ross McGregor’s work will recognise his trademark wit occasionally breaking through. What makes this version of the story unique is the WW1 framing, which brings a new perspective – on this most poignant of nights, the past, present and future are more clearly distinct than ever, and the impact each of us can have on our fellow human beings has never been so important. Watching the show in 2022, our immediate circumstances might be different, but that message of kindness and personal responsibility remains just as potent.

Photo credit: Davor @The Ocular Creative

In keeping with that message, Jim offers us the only thing he has – his talents as a storyteller – and that gift is worth more than any high-budget production. The show is full of creativity and surprises, with seamless interaction between audio, video and live action elements (the appearance of the first two ghosts is particularly well done by video designer Douglas Baker). Tice Oakfield is exceptional as Jim, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the performance with the joyful abandon of a man who doesn’t know if he’ll live to see another Christmas. There are even a couple of musical numbers, which serve no particular narrative purpose other than to put a smile on our faces, and the big emotional payoff – Scrooge’s redemption – is suitably exuberant, although maybe a little rushed.

As already observed, this is far from the only option for anyone wanting to see A Christmas Carol in London this year – but if you’re looking for a performance that’s intimate, funny, inventive and a little bit different, this year’s festive offering from the Jack surely has to be a tough one to beat.

A Christmas Carol continues at the Jack Studio Theatre until 30th December.