Review: The Messiah Complex at Vault Festival

A world without religion might sound like a dreamy John Lennon lyric, but it’s a brutal reality in Bag of Beard’s unsettling thriller The Messiah Complex. A hundred years from now, the “Great Experiments” have determined that God cannot exist, and any display of faith, fiction or indeed anything that can’t be scientifically proven as fact, has been declared illegal. This is a problem for lovers Sethian (Anthony Cozens) and Sophia (AK Golding), who refuse to give up their faith despite the constant threat of punishment. Sethian’s devotion to Sophia, and Sophia’s to their mysterious leader “Adam”, set in motion a chain of events that ultimately leads to Sethian’s incarceration, where the Nurse (Sasha Clarke) will seemingly try anything to convince him to renounce his beliefs.

Photo credit: Charles Flint Photography

The play jumps back and forth in time between now and then, and sees Sethian caught in the middle between two extremely opposing views. Will he break under the Nurse’s regime of psychological and technological warfare, or will he remain true to Sophia and her equally unpredictable methods? And more importantly, do we want him to? Nothing is quite as it seems in this world, and our assumptions and sympathies will be challenged over the course of the play’s 70 minutes, leaving us feeling more than a little uncomfortable and with many more questions than answers.

Whatever we might think about the subject matter, which is not for the faint-hearted (check the long list of trigger warnings in the programme before entering), there’s no denying the quality of the production, which was devised, scripted and directed by Alexander Knott, James Demaine and Ryan Hutton, with additional devising by the company. Video projection gives the piece a cinematic feel and, even before the show begins, adds to the unsettling atmosphere that pervades the space. Dramatic use of lighting at key moments keeps us on our toes, and the introduction of a microphone is an interesting twist, reinforcing the idea that both women are preaching their own beliefs to an audience – whether or not that audience is willing to hear what they have to say.

Photo credit: Charles Flint Photography

The acting too is excellent. In a play that’s about the power of language, all three deliver their lines to perfection. AK Golding has a soothing, persuasive voice; even if we don’t really follow what Sophia’s talking about much of the time, we want to believe her. Sasha Clarke’s Nurse, in contrast, adopts a much crisper, more authoritative tone which slips only occasionally to show us the real person – a former colleague of Sethian’s – behind the zealous conviction. And at the centre of it all is Anthony Cozens, who is astonishingly good as the conflicted Sethian, his emotional and physical torment almost visceral as he wrestles with the choices others are forcing him to make.

The Messiah Complex is not the sort of play you can watch, then go home and immediately forget about. It’s thoughtful, haunting and at times downright disturbing. Different people will no doubt interpret it in different ways; I’m still figuring out what I think it all meant, and will probably continue to do so for several days. It asks questions we might prefer not to answer, and challenges assumptions we didn’t even realise we’d made – and while that’s not always a comfortable experience, it’s also a sign that we’re watching intelligent and potent drama. Go and see it… but don’t expect to sleep particularly well afterwards.

The Messiah Complex is at Vault Festival (Network Theatre) until 19th March.

Review: Rush at Chickenshed

In a week when the UK government doubled down on its harmful and divisive rhetoric with regard to refugees and immigrants, Chickenshed’s new spring show Rush feels depressingly timely. At its core the story of three women from different generations of the same family, the show also tells a much wider tale that both celebrates black culture and laments its erosion across the centuries.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

In 19th century West Africa, Abeni (Grace Wariola) watches in horror as British colonisers descend on her community, destroying everything she’s ever known in the name of their God. In 1960s London, Missy (Amber Ogunsaya-William) arrives from Jamaica as part of the Windrush Generation, but despite all the promises that brought her to Britain, she’s soon forced to accept that the welcome she’s received only extends so far. And in 2018, student Aya (Cara McInanny) moves in with her grandmother Missy (Natsai Gurupira), but the future of their housing estate is put at risk by property developers with a taste for gentrification… and an even greater threat lies in wait for Missy.

The first thing to say is that Rush is not an easy watch – as audience members we might be aware of the Windrush scandal, and the ruthless expansion of the British Empire, but there’s a world of difference between reading a watered-down version in the press or the history books, and seeing the same events played out in terms of three very real lives. Abeni, Missy and Aya all see their culture and community ripped away in order to make life better for wealthier, whiter people, and that’s a hard pill to swallow for those of us who are uncomfortably aware that we’ve benefited in some way – either directly or indirectly – from that loss.

There is hope, however, represented by the wonderful Chickenshed spirit. The spring show, which brings together a cast of nearly 200, is always a heartwarming manifestation of the inclusivity that lies at the heart of the theatre’s core values. But in this case it’s even more powerful to see performers from a host of different backgrounds collaborating on stage to tell this vital story; coming from such a diverse and open-hearted community, the distressing scenes and dialogue within the show are even more jarring.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

It’s clear also the time and effort that has gone in to understanding and appreciating the heritage at the show’s heart, and the result is a joyous celebration of black culture, performed by a multi-cultural cast who take that responsibility seriously. Music and dance are an essential part of the production, with a score that includes music from Jimmy Cliff, Aswad, Gregory Porter, H.E.R. and Black Pumas, performed live by the almost 100-strong Rush vocal group. As always, you can’t fail to be impressed by the talent within the cast, and the commitment of everyone on stage. The show is essentially a series of individual pieces with a number of different directors, which allows for many voices to be heard in a variety of ways – though the core narrative always returns to the three central characters, so the show never feels disjointed.

After some technical difficulties delayed Rush‘s opening, it’s great to see the show now up and running – not only for the sake of the cast and creative team who’ve worked so hard, but also for its audiences, who will be both entertained and sobered by its content over the coming two weeks. Chickenshed, with its collaborative spirit, represents a vision of how the world should be, and that’s never been more apparent or necessary than in this production.

Rush continues at Chickenshed until 25th March.

Review: The Great British Bake Off Musical at Noël Coward Theatre

Back in 2009, when The Great British Bake Off first appeared on our TV screens, nobody could have predicted that a show about people making cakes in a tent would even get a second series, let alone become a national and international sensation. But the show’s wholesome combination of camaraderie, comedy, cheekiness and – let’s be honest – cake soon won our hearts, and the rest is history. We tuned in each week to see complete strangers we’d grown fond of produce beautiful, imaginative and tasty treats; we felt their agony when things went wrong, and we celebrated their successes when everything came together. Many past contestants are now national treasures, and some of the show’s biggest “scandals” have become the stuff of TV legend.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

On paper, a musical based on The Great British Bake Off also sounds like it shouldn’t work – but when you think about it, all the things that make the TV show such a success are actually perfect ingredients for a feel-good night out. Writers Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary have taken the very essence of Bake Off and simply turned it up a notch by adding song and dance routines (which some might argue is the one thing Bake Off‘s been missing all these years) – and the result is completely delightful.

The plot is simple: it’s a new series of Bake Off and presenters Kim and Jim (Zoe Birkett and Scott Paige) and judges Pam Lee and Phil Hollinghurst (Haydn Gwynne and John Owen-Jones) are back to welcome a new crop of contestants. From posh girl Izzy (Grace Mouat) to hipster Dezza (Jay Saighal), student Hassan (Aharon Rayner) to fashionista Francesca (Cat Sandison), they’re a diverse and yet very recognisable group – we’ve seen all these characters before on the TV show, so getting to know them is easy. Into the mix comes Gemma (Charlotte Wakefield), the “back up contestant” who doesn’t feel she belongs… but this is Bake Off, after all, and it turns out Gemma has quite a journey ahead. And nor is she the only one; as each of the characters opens up, secrets are revealed and we’re taken on more than one unexpected emotional rollercoaster. Pretty soon we’re so connected to all of them that an audible sigh goes up each time a contestant is eliminated.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Though the cast boasts some massive West End names, and everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, ultimately – like Bake Off itself – the show is very much an ensemble effort and ultimately, who wins the competition is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Haydn Gwynne and John Owen-Jones are clearly having the time of their lives as odd couple Pam and Phil, an only slightly more exaggerated version of the real Prue and Paul, and Zoe Birkett and Scott Paige are a fantastic comedy double act as presenters Kim and Jim. But without contestants there would be no show, and “the Bakers” give stand-out performances across the board. Michael Cahill and Jay Saighal are consistently hilarious, Grace Mouat and Aharon Rayner’s rivalry brings a little drama to the tent, and Claire Moore, Cat Sandison and Charlotte Wakefield bring the house down with their solo numbers – but if anyone comes close to stealing the show, it’s probably Damian Humbley and Aanya Shah as policeman Ben and his daughter Lily, with their irresistibly adorable performance of duet ‘My Dad’.

There really is very little not to love here for Bake Off fans, from soggy bottoms to soaring vocals. The songs are catchy, the intros are cheesy, there’s slow motion dancing with whisks, everyone wants a handshake, there are innuendos galore, and someone might put their cake in the bin. What more could we want? It’s not highbrow, but it is the epitome of feel-good fun and I absolutely loved it.

The Great British Bake Off Musical is at the Noël Coward Theatre until 13th May.

Review: Violent Circumstances at the Blue Elephant Theatre

Susannah Cann started writing Violent Circumstances in response to the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in 2021. Since then, the piece has remained just as topical; the murders of Ashling Murphy, Lily Sullivan, Zara Aleena, Emma and Lettie Pattison and countless others have made headlines in the last twelve months, while who knows how many more women have suffered abuse and violence that never made the news. This violence is nothing new, of course, but it’s hard not to feel helpless in the face of its continued prevalence. That helplessness and anger led to the creation of Violence Circumstances.

The play is actually made up of four short plays, linked by the common theme of violence against women and girls. In The DJ Thinks I’m Smashed, a young woman (Cat Thomas) is enjoying a night out at a club, but when she’s parted from her friends and her drink gets spiked, the evening takes a dark turn. In How Old Was I When We Met? we witness a phone conversation between two friends – it’s never explicitly stated but it’s implied that they’re ex-lovers – as one (Annabel Lisk) learns to her horror that the other has had a sexual encounter with an underage girl… and there’s video. Not All Men sees two sisters (Phoebe Shephard and Cat Thomas) argue about the validity of the “not all men” argument. And in I Never Gave It Much Thought a woman (Susannah Cann) remembers her walk to work one dark winter’s morning, and the events that turned this ordinary day into anything but.

In covering four very different angles of the same topic, Cann – who also directs – makes a powerful point about the many different ways in which women can find ourselves at risk. Whether we’re walking to work, or on a date, or enjoying a night out with friends, or at the shops, or at home with our family, the chance of violence – and our awareness of that chance – is never far away. The four pieces are all extremely well performed by the cast, and though they’re all no more than ten minutes long, the characters are for the most part well written and easily relatable. The first and last stories are particularly haunting, for obvious reasons, but the other two play an equally important role in raising awareness for both male and female audiences.

As society continues to search for ways to prevent the continued violence women and girls suffer every day, Violent Circumstances offers its creators and audiences an outlet for the anger and fear we all live with. It’s an important play that deserves to have a future and to be seen and heard by more people – because in this particular fight, every little helps.

Violent Circumstances was performed at the Blue Elephant Theatre on 23rd and 24th February. For details about future performances, follow Act!ve Bitch Face Theatre on Instagram: @activebtchfacetheatre and Twitter: @abftheatre

Review: Maud at Vault Festival

Tomorrow will be the third anniversary of the “modern day lynching” of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was shot dead in Georgia in February 2020. Arbery was out jogging in the neighbourhood of Satilla Shores when he was pursued by three white men in trucks, who later claimed they believed him to be a burglar. After several minutes, one of the men assaulted Arbery with a shotgun before shooting him three times. The shocking crime and the way in which it was handled by the US legal system made headlines across the world, and though Arbery’s killers were ultimately brought to justice, the case reignited the ongoing debate about racism in the United States.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Maud is a verbatim play written by Jeffrey Miller and directed by Andrew French, which examines the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in detail, but also places it within a wider social and historical context. Performed by Miller and Perry Williams, the play is made up of excerpts from police interviews and trial testimony, along with audio and video footage of this and other crimes – among them the murder of George Floyd, which took place just a few months later. Interspersed with these are the familiar words of then-president Donald Trump, the powerful speech given by James Baldwin at a Cambridge University debate in 1965, and a 1982 interview with the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Bill Wilkinson. The point is clear: the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, while shocking, was perhaps not all that surprising. The play invites us to honour his memory, along with that of George Floyd, Botham Jean, Tyre Nichols and countless others, by listening to their stories, re-examining our own prejudices, and recognising the bigger picture that unites them all.

Video footage, projected on to the back of the stage, is used to powerful effect throughout; although the attack on Arbery is described in detail during the play’s opening minutes, it’s the video taken by one of his killers that really brings home the full horror of what happened. Similarly, the animated map that precedes it forces us to imagine the final terrifying minutes of his life as he was chased through the streets by armed assailants.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Perry Williams was a late addition to the cast after Jak Watson was forced to drop out due to illness, but you’d never know it from his assured performance. The fragmented nature of the play and the wide range of voices it draws upon calls for a significant amount of versatility from both actors, with the added pressure of knowing all those voices belong to real people. Williams’ portrayal of James Baldwin is a standout moment, and Miller’s Donald Trump is, if anything, a bit too accurate; you know an impression is good when you have the same visceral reaction to it as you do to watching the man himself.

Maud is a powerful and considered piece of theatre, and while in parts it could use a bit more polish, its foundations are undeniably strong. The careful selection of material and the ways in which it’s presented have a lot of impact, especially when coupled with solid performances and the choice to step back and allow some key voices – among them those of Ahmaud Arbery’s mother and sister – to speak for themselves. Recent headlines have shown that racist violence against Black Americans isn’t going away, and however hard they may be to watch, we need shows like Maud to keep speaking out against it, and encouraging others to do the same.

Maud is at Vault Festival until 25th February.