Review: Flights at Omnibus Theatre

Flights by John O’Donovan, on paper, is a play about three men, who meet as they’ve done for years to mark the anniversary of their friend’s death. But it’s much more than that; this is a story about a time, and a place, and a generation of young Irish men who could have left, but somehow ended up not going anywhere. It’s a story about loss – of life, love, opportunity – but also about friendship and the bonds that can hold people together, for better or worse, against all odds and expectations.

Photo credit: Ste Murray

Liam was seventeen years old when he was killed in a tragic road accident on this night seventeen years ago. His old friends, Barry (Colin Campbell), Pa (Rhys Dunlop) and Cusack (Conor Madden), are disappointed to find they’re the only ones to turn up this year for his anniversary, but nonetheless decide to make the best of it – particularly since Barry is about to leave for London with his long-term girlfriend Roisin, and new dad Cusack is having his first night out in months. As they reminisce, it becomes clear that while the three men’s lives may have gone in different directions, the circles in which they move have changed very little. And though the cast consists of just three actors, and the action never leaves the run-down clubhouse where they meet, O’Donovan’s beautifully written script paints an intricate picture of a whole community that seems frozen in time.

This feeling intensifies all the more as each of the three steps forward at different moments to deliver a monologue in the voice of their dead friend. Through these, we can start to piece together what happened, and why, and feel afresh the tragedy of a young life wasted – but also to understand that it could have been any one of these men who was lost on the road that, or any, night. Back in the present moment, and none of them is completely satisfied with their lot: Barry is full of anxiety at the prospect of leaving town at last; Pa just found himself homeless and unemployed; and even Cusack, who seems to have it all, questions what he could possibly have done to deserve it.

Photo credit: Ste Murray

The play, directed by Thomas Martin, isn’t action-packed or fast-paced, but it doesn’t need to be. Instead it follows the evening almost in real time, allowing the story to unfold through the interactions of the increasingly inebriated friends. Some of these result in unexpectedly tender moments, particularly in Act 2, while others are exactly as you’d expect when three old school friends get together: drinking games, darts, drugs and banter are very much the order of the day. Colin Campbell, Rhys Dunlop and Conor Madden are universally outstanding, utterly compelling and convincing in every detail; their chemistry as an ensemble is spot on, and their individual performances spell-binding. And the production looks stunning, too – Naomi Faughnan’s set, lit by candles and littered with what we assume to be years worth of discarded cans, feels both literally and figuratively like a shrine to Liam’s fading memory.

A poignant and powerful piece of theatre, Flights will resonate most strongly with people – particularly men – who’ve experienced what it was like to grow up in a tight-knit rural community. For the rest of us, the play is an evocative portrayal of that experience, and much like its central character, it won’t soon be forgotten.

Flights is at the Omnibus Theatre until 29th February.

Review: Netflix and Chill at Drayton Arms Theatre

I first encountered Tom Stocks’ Netflix and Chill in 2015, when I caught a ten-minute extract from what was then a very new work at an Actor Awareness scratch night. At the time, I described the scene – depicting a disastrous date – as light relief following some pretty heavy material from other writers. So it’s interesting to see that although that scene remains a pivotal moment in the full-length play, the story that frames it has taken a considerably darker turn in the intervening years.

Photo credit: Cam Harle Photography

Ben (Tom Stocks) is a working class chef, who’s struggling. His estranged mum (Julie Binysh) has just come back into the picture after leaving an abusive relationship; he keeps getting stood up by his Tinder dates; and Sophie (Emily Ellis), the girl he’s fancied for years, just went home with his infinitely more confident and charming mate Ryan (Joseph Lindoe). Inspired by Stocks’ own family experience, the play explores male mental health, and in particular the fear that talking about how you feel can somehow make you less of a man.

The play, directed by Luke Adamson, is very much one of two halves. Act 1 sets the scene, introducing all the characters – who also include Jill (Charlotte Price), a waitress at the local cafe – and firmly establishing Ben as the beta to Ryan’s alpha male; the nice guy who seems destined to always finish last. It’s in Act 2, however, that it starts to become clear what the story is actually all about – and no, despite the title, it’s not (just) sex. As Ben protests, against all evidence to the contrary, that he’s fine and doesn’t need therapy, the play builds towards a powerful and unexpected conclusion that really makes us stop and think, not just about what’s gone before on stage, but about men we may know who possibly aren’t quite as fine as they let on.

Knowing that the play began with the date scene and grew from there makes a lot of sense, because it’s around this point that the play really begins to hit its stride, drawing the audience into the story in a way Act 1 never quite manages (possibly a result of the Inbetweeners style war stories exchanged by the lads, which are funny but – let’s be honest – pretty gross). The use of the inner monologue, played as a voiceover to give us an insight into what each character is really thinking, works very well during the ill-fated date, making both Ben and Sophie relatable for an audience torn throughout between laughter and embarrassment. The same can’t quite be said for the opening scene, in which Ben has an awkward encounter with his mum; the interjections from inside his head feel at this point a bit too much like a device, to fill in the back story neither character is willing to speak about out loud, and at times risk drowning out the actual dialogue.

Photo credit: Cam Harle Photography

There are parts of Netflix and Chill that still feel a bit underdeveloped, but it’s encouraging to see how the play has grown since that first ten-minute snippet four years ago, and the important message that now comes through loud and clear about male mental health and the responsibility we all have to encourage frank and open conversation. A powerful and thought-provoking piece of writing, with much to recommend it.

Netflix and Chill is at Drayton Arms Theatre until 29th February.

Review: Monolog 3 at Chickenshed

The third outing for Chickenshed’s annual celebration of the theatrical monologue is also the biggest yet. While most evenings during the two-week run will feature only a subset of the pieces selected for inclusion, on press night we were treated to all nine, representing a broad variety of voices from across the Chickenshed community.

This bumper edition, clocking in at close to three hours, proved to be something of a rollercoaster ride, through the likes of bereavement, loneliness, self-loathing, dementia and domestic violence. Looking back over that list of topics, perhaps it goes without saying that laughs are in fairly short supply – though they’re by no means absent altogether; Grace Wolstenholme sees to that in her self-performed piece, Why Can’t You See Me? in which she paints a vivid and very funny picture of her life as a normal teenager, who just happens to have cerebral palsy.

Taken as a collection, the nine plays – selected blind by a panel – demonstrate talent and diversity, as well as the potential impact that a well performed monologue can have, and the many creative ways in which the art form can be interpreted. To pick out a few examples: On the Out by Peter Hastings is a quietly moving piece about a man (Olivier LeClair) who’s just been released from prison. As he waits for his sister to pick him up, he reflects on the life ahead of him – and the one he’s left behind. In Cathy Jansen-Ridings’ Pickled Limes, Marion (Julie Wood) berates her emotionally distant husband for everything and nothing, before poignantly revealing the true reason she’s angry with him.

Navigating the Twilight by Sophie Sparham explores the experience of dementia through the use of blackout poetry; as a mother (Ingrid Cannon) reflects on the birth of her daughter, the same text is repeated with certain words redacted, transforming a story of joy and celebration into something much darker. And in I Am a Shield by Sebastian Ross, a young woman (Sabina Bisset) is forced, finally, to question if she’s really the superior being she always assumed herself to be – or is she just an asshole?

Arguably the strongest piece, both in terms of its emotional impact and its creative use of the form – actor Tom Harvey collaborated with no fewer than four directors, each of whom worked on different content – is Pete Dowse and Alex Bremer’s A:live B:reaved, in which a father tries to process the trauma of losing his young daughter. If I could see any of the pieces from Monolog 3 again, this would be the one I’d choose; it has a depth in its content and style that makes it less instantly accessible than the rest, but simultaneously hints at layers of meaning waiting to be unpicked and explored in greater detail. And from a purely practical point of view, its positioning as the final piece of nine meant that on press night, it perhaps didn’t get the full attention it deserved from a tired audience.

Seeing all nine pieces in one evening is a lot, particularly given some of the weighty topics under discussion. So while audiences attending only a subset on other evenings may miss out in terms of the full range of themes and styles, they will hopefully be able to enjoy and engage with those pieces they do see in greater depth. There’s certainly plenty of excellent material, powerful writing and strong performances there to be experienced.

Monolog 3 is at Chickenshed until 22nd February. Those who do wish to see all nine pieces can do so on the last night.

Review: Chaplin: Birth of a Tramp at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Having started out with Shakespeare, then moved into other classic literary adaptations, and even dabbled a couple of times in comedy, Arrows & Traps have proved over the last few years there’s little they can’t do. But it’s arguably in the bringing to life of lesser known historical figures that the company and writer/director Ross McGregor have truly found their spiritual home.

Of course it doesn’t feel quite accurate to describe Charlie Chaplin – subject of their latest piece – as a lesser known figure; there can’t be many people who don’t know his name. I will admit, however, that going in I knew very little about the man behind the tramp… and now I really want to know more.

Photo credit: Davor@OcularCreative

Raised in Kennington in the late 19th century by an alcoholic father and a devoted mother, both themselves veterans of the stage, Chaplin was a precocious child who always seemed destined to be a performer. But even after achieving worldwide stardom in Hollywood, he remained troubled – caught between the boy he once was, the actor he wished to be, and the beloved character the world saw.

This struggle is portrayed exquisitely in the production through the trademark Arrows use of different timelines, but also, uniquely, in the splitting of Chaplin’s character into two roles. Conor Moss plays Charlie the man, fighting to retain his identity in the all-consuming wake of Lucy Ioannou’s silent Chaplin the tramp. The tension builds slowly; initially the two work seamlessly as a unit, with Moss providing the voice to Ioannou’s actions as she transforms little by little into a role we all recognise. It’s only in Act 2 that they begin to move in different directions, culminating in a stunning sequence in which Moss battles desperately to free himself of Chaplin’s trademark hat. (Hat tip at this point to Clown Director Stephen Sobal.)

Always a wonderfully expressive performer, in this production Lucy Ioannou steps it up a gear, capturing not only every Chaplin mannerism, but also the audience’s undivided attention any time she steps on stage… and like Chaplin himself, she does it all without saying a single word. It’s a brilliant performance, but by no means overshadows the rest of the ensemble, who all excel – though I must give a special mention to Clare Aster, who broke my heart numerous times as Charlie’s mother Hannah. Abandoned by her husband, mourning the loss of her singing career, and struggling to raise her son on a pittance, she’s the true sad clown of the story.

Photo credit: Davor@OcularCreative

The movement sequences that Arrows fans have come to know and love are very much front and centre in this production, and if anything take on even greater significance given the silent movie theme. These scenes are not just there as filler; they’re as integral to the storytelling as any other scene – and as always, they’re beautifully choreographed and performed, with a modern twist in the choices of music that brings them bang up to date.

The play is – as ever – incredibly well written, skilfully weaving timelines and plot threads together, but in Chaplin, fittingly, it’s not so much the words as the performances that lift the show to a whole new level. If you’ve ever wondered how this particular legend was born, this play offers a fascinating, entertaining and surprisingly poignant way to find out.

Chaplin is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 22nd February.

Review: For the Sake of Argument at Bridewell Theatre

As 31st January looms and the Brexit debate continues to rage on, Harry Darell’s timely new play considers the ways in which language can be used for both better and worse, and asks what happens when those who wield their pen so passionately are forced to face the real-world consequences of their own arguments.

Photo credit: Charles Flint

The play is set in the mid 2000s, as journalist Eleanor Hickock (Ashleigh Cole) is approached by Maria (Paula Cassina), the grieving mother of a young soldier killed in Iraq. Having discovered that Eleanor’s writings in favour of the invasion strongly influenced her son’s decision to enlist, Maria reaches out to her for reconciliation – but not everyone in her family is so forgiving.

The idea behind the play (which was inspired by a real incident involving the late writer Christopher Hitchens) is an interesting one, and certainly relevant as a divided nation gears up to face the as yet largely unknown consequences of the Brexit vote. However, what could have been a powerful and thought-provoking drama gets bogged down in trying to tackle too many issues, with a daunting number of characters and – ironically, given the subject matter – just a bit too much talking.

This is particularly true in Act 1, where Eleanor’s friends spend a considerable amount of time enthusiastically debating the merits – or otherwise – of Winston Churchill, Ken Livingstone and Vladimir Putin. They’re clearly enjoying themselves, and it’s not uninteresting to listen to, but this entire section serves little purpose in terms of plot development, other than letting us know they all enjoy arguing for the sake of it, and setting up Eleanor to discuss her own favourite topic: Iraq. It’s only in Act 2 that there’s any real action, and even this comes only after another spirited debate about the pros and cons of the 2003 conflict. (It’s also heavily foreshadowed by a strange and rather clumsily inserted anecdote early in Act 1.)

All that said, it’s not a bad play; it just needs to focus in more on Eleanor’s journey and spend less time on side plots and themes. Ashleigh Cole gives a strong central performance as Eleanor, a woman who’s become so addicted to debate that she no longer sees the human beings behind the arguments. Even when she learns what happened to Mark, even while sitting in his family home looking at photos of his early years, she shows little sign of remorse or even empathy – and when challenged by his angry, grieving brother Billy, she instinctively goes on the attack instead of trying to engage with him on a personal or emotional level. As such, when her moment of “redemption” finally arrives, it rings decidedly hollow, and not only because it comes at such a terrible cost.

There are strong performances also from Lucia France, Arthur Velarde and Henry Eaton-Mercer as Eleanor’s pretentious friends and fellow debaters, and Paula Cassina as Mark’s bereaved mother Maria. Meanwhile the one voice that really matters – Mark’s – belongs to Georgie Farmer, who delivers three short monologues with charisma and clarity. Here lies the other side of the argument: far from coming across as a brainwashed young boy, taken in by some well-crafted articles written by a stranger, he’s clearly intelligent and capable of independent thought. Is it therefore reasonable for his family, or indeed the audience, to hold Eleanor responsible for his death?

Photo credit: Charles Flint

As one might expect from the title, For the Sake of Argument poses some great questions about the limits of free speech and responsible use of the media. These are issues that are perhaps even more relevant in the age of social media, where everyone can have a platform to share their views, with little chance of ever being held accountable. The play does struggle to take flight under the weight of too many plot threads, characters and themes, but with a bit of pruning there’s definite potential here to spark a lively post-show debate or two.