Review: Our Last First at Union Theatre

On the surface, Lucinda Coyle’s play Our Last First is a relatively conventional love story between two characters, charting all their relationship milestones – some momentous, others less so, but all equally important in the journey they take together. What makes this play different, however, is the fact that none of the characters have names, ages, physical descriptions or, most significantly, pronouns. At the start of each performance in the four-night run, scripts are distributed to the diverse cast of four, assigning each of them the role of either A, B, Sibling or Friend.

This bold decision on the writer’s part not only makes the play intriguing to watch – in a longer run, I’d certainly go back and watch it again to try and catch a different combination of actors – but also makes a key and crucial point: love is love, whoever that love is shared by. Stripping away the characters’ gender means that the focus of the story is entirely on the blossoming relationship between A and B (at the performance I attended played by Tazmyn-May Gebbett and Aitch Wylie) as they begin to build a life together, with all the ups and downs that entails. And while the anonymising of all the characters, including those we never meet like parents and flatmates, occasionally jars a bit, it certainly doesn’t detract from the main narrative.

Photo credit: Daniel Francis-Swaby

That narrative is instantly compelling. Coyle begins at the end, before looping back to the start of the story and A and B’s nervous first date. The characters feel very believable – neither of them is perfect and both make mistakes, which helps the audience become invested in their rollercoaster romance. Meanwhile the two side characters, Sibling and Friend (in this case Jonathan Case and Louis Raghunathan), make brief but significant appearances, as a reminder that no relationship exists in a vacuum; outside forces also have a part to play in the direction they can take.

The feeling of a life constantly evolving is reinforced by Beth Colley’s adaptable set, consisting of boxes that are rearranged by the cast as the action moves between different locations. Director Stanley Walton makes good use of the space, although there are a couple of scenes that take place on the floor, meaning audience members sitting a few rows back may struggle to see what’s going on.

I hope that Our Last First will return for a longer run in the future; it’s an original and refreshing idea and one that it would be great to explore further.

Our Last First has its final performance this evening (19th November) at the Union Theatre.

Review: Doing Shakespeare at the Bridewell Theatre

Having kept audiences laughing through Covid with their award-winning online DOING series, the Northern Comedy Theatre return to the stage with Doing Shakespeare, a clever and joyously silly play celebrating Shakespeare in all his occasionally incomprehensible glory. The Felching Players are back in action, and excited to be performing for a real live audience after all this time. And director Tom (Robert Stuart-Hudson) has had a brilliant idea: to do Shakespeare as Shakespeare would have done Shakespeare – in other words, each actor learns their part in isolation, and the whole cast meet on the day to plan entrances and exits. Unfortunately, due to a Zoom-related communication breakdown, when the day arrives, it turns out they’ve all learnt different plays. Another group might have let that stop them, but not this one; they decide to go ahead regardless, with predictably chaotic results.

Photo credit: Shaun Chambers

So begins an immensely entertaining 90 minutes, during which six big personalities battle to outshine each other both on and off stage. David Spicer’s script quickly establishes the characters and relationships within the group as they bicker their way through Act 1, before coming together (sort of) in Act 2 to present… well, something. Such is the skill of the cast and director Shaun Chambers that it’s impossible to tell how much of Act 2 is scripted and how much is improvised on the spot – but either way, it works, and what the Players’ performance lacks in plot or coherence it more than makes up for in enthusiasm. And while the characters may be nothing we haven’t seen before – pompous Ebon (Steven Arnold), mouthy Terri (Kathryn Chambers), anxious Judith (Natasha Agarwal) – that doesn’t make them any less fun to watch or root for.

Ultimately, despite the in-fighting, cheap costumes and terrible acting, there’s something very heartwarming about Doing Shakespeare. The Felching Players may not be destined for theatrical stardom (one of them, it turns out, has only ever bothered to learn one Shakespeare play and uses the same lines in every performance – and none of her fellow actors have ever noticed), but they care about what they’re doing, and their excitement at being back in a real theatre is matched by that of both their fictional and real audiences. Who cares if they’re saying the right lines, as long as they’re standing (sometimes lying) on a stage and everyone’s having a good time?

Photo credit: Shaun Chambers

For those who do “do Shakespeare”, there’s plenty of fun to be had trying to spot fake quotes among the real ones, but knowledge of the Bard certainly isn’t a prerequisite, and there’s something for everyone in this hilarious production. High culture it isn’t; great entertainment it absolutely is.

Doing Shakespeare continues at the Bridewell Theatre until 13th November.

Review: Heathers at New Wimbledon Theatre

Like the 1989 movie on which it’s based, Heathers the Musical has gained an enthusiastic cult following since the UK production first opened at The Other Palace in 2018. And while that enthusiasm sometimes feels borderline inappropriate – whooping and cheering while a lonely, bullied teenage girl seemingly acts on the suicidal intentions she’s just been singing about is one uncomfortable example – it’s certainly not unjustified. Heathers is a great show, taking all the best bits of the movie and adding catchy musical numbers that quickly take up residence in your head, whether you want them to or not.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Probably best summarised as Mean Girls with murder, Heathers takes aim at the savagery of high school life through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Veronica (Rebecca Wickes), whose only goal is to make it to college in one piece. When she finds herself unexpectedly adopted by the Heathers (Maddison Firth, Merryl Ansah and Lizzy Parker), the three most popular and feared girls in school, everything seems to be falling into place. That is until she meets newcomer J.D. (Simon Gordon), who has no patience for bullies, and no hesitation about fighting back. Soon he and Veronica – much to her horror – are racking up quite the body count, covering their tracks by making each death look like a suicide.

Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe’s show fearlessly tackles such dark subjects as suicide, bullying, date rape, murder and homophobia, but does so with the same deft comedic touch as the movie, ultimately concluding with an upbeat (albeit slightly consequence-free) message about acceptance and friendship. As troubling as it probably should be, it’s impossible not to be swept along by the sheer exuberance of it all, particularly in the hands of such a great cast. The vocals are, without exception, spectacular, particularly from leads Rebecca Wickes and Simon Gordon, and there’s some brilliant comedy performances from Maddison Firth, Liam Doyle and Rory Phelan – even, and perhaps even more so, after their characters have been bumped off. Meanwhile the emotional heart of the show lies with Mhairi Angus as Veronica’s best friend Martha, a sweet girl who becomes the target of bullying and practical jokes but never stops being true to who she is.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Though there’s a slight change of pace in Act 2 (following a riotous opening number), the energy of Andy Fickman’s production remains high throughout, with excellent choreography by Gary Lloyd, dramatic lighting design from Ben Cracknell, and a very neat quick costume change towards the end of Act 1 which deserves its own special mention. All in all, Heathers is a super slick show that knows its target audience and, if the volume of the screams at curtain call are anything to go by, gives them exactly what they want.

Heathers is at New Wimbledon Theatre until 6th November before continuing on tour.

Review: Within These Four Walls at Questors Theatre

Between April 2020 and February 2021, 13,162 people contacted the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, an increase of 5,000 from previous years. This statistic appears in the programme of Vanessa Cruickshank’s tense and challenging drama Within These Four Walls, performed at Questors Theatre this weekend for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and brings home the shocking scale of a problem that’s become significantly more widespread since the Covid pandemic began. This rollercoaster of a story takes the audience on an unsettling journey, ending with an emotional revelation that makes you completely question and re-evaluate everything you’ve just watched.

Act 1 of the play tells a horrifying but relatively textbook story of domestic abuse, which draws on Cruickshank’s professional experience with domestic violence and makes sure to demonstrate all the warning signs we should be looking out for in the real world. Karen (Vanessa Cruickshank) meets Jonathan (Kurtis Lowe) at work and falls instantly for his charms, despite the warnings of their colleague Sarah (Helena Huang) that he’s trouble. Soon the two have moved in together, and not long after that, he starts controlling what she wears and who she sees, repeatedly undermining her confidence, and finally escalating to physical violence. Eventually Karen makes the courageous decision to leave, but a final confrontation between the two ends in tragedy.

This is where things begin to get interesting, from a theatrical point of view. For a while in Act 2, the narrative appears to have got a bit jumbled, with some confused double casting and what seem to be glaring factual inaccuracies in the presentation of the legal process that follows Act 1’s deadly conclusion. That is until the closing moments, when the truth is revealed and suddenly everything slots into place. The reason this is so interesting is because at that moment, it’s difficult to remember how much of what we thought was happening is because we were led in that direction by the script, and how much was purely our own assumption – and if it’s the latter, what does that say about the way society views women and, more specifically, violence against women, and even more specifically than that, violence against women of colour?

As Karen, writer Vanessa Cruickshank is a compelling and sympathetic protagonist. Just like her friend Sarah, we find ourselves desperate for her to escape from her abusive partner, but at the same time we come to understand enough about Karen as a person to fully understand why she stays. Kurtis Lowe makes a convincing villain, with the audience audibly shocked on more than one occasion by the viciousness of his words and behaviour, and Helena Huang and Aniya Sek Kanu provide differing outsider views of the situation as colleagues Sarah and Kitty. The other two characters – Karen’s mum Natasha (Peaches) and coroner Penelope Fraser (Elizabeth Shaw) – are well performed, but could be developed further so they become more than just vehicles for key facts in Act 2.

Director Atticus Orsborn sets all the action in Karen and Jonny’s living room, a stark white set onto which the characters’ emotions are projected through the highly effective use of dramatic lighting. By not moving away from this domestic setting even in Act 2, we’re reminded that what should be a safe space can so often be anything but – and that what happens afterwards can often be just as traumatic.

It’s the mark of a good play when you find yourself thinking about it all the way home, and beyond – and Within These Four Walls certainly does that. There are parts of Act 2 that could be tightened up, but on the whole, this is an important and well thought out play that will enrage and educate in equal measure. Ultimately, its goal is a clear and noble one: to send its audience away with a knowledge and understanding of what domestic violence is and what it looks like, so that we feel empowered to get involved when we’re needed and not look away from someone who might be silently crying out for help.

Within These Four Walls has its final performance this evening at Questors Theatre. A portion of the profits from the show will be going to Refuge. For more details, visit the show’s Facebook page.

Quick Q&A: Sophie

Where and when: The Hope Theatre, London, 12-14th October; The Dukes Lancaster, 15th October; Lawrence Batley Theatre Huddersfield, 20th October; Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, 28th October

What it’s all about… “Thanks for joining us tonight for Sophie’s birthday. I can’t believe my big sister is 30! Where have all the years gone?”

Sophie is my older sister and she has Down syndrome, but that has never stopped us dancing to 90s girl hits, snogging boys and causing mischief when we were growing up in Hull.

Come and join us on my autobiographical one-woman show, where I travel through the years, navigating my way through womanhood and sisterhood, with a sibling who has additional complex needs.

The play is a celebration of what life can be like with someone like Sophie in it!

You’ll like it if… You enjoy real life inspiring stories that are coming of age, love the 00’s and girl power hits; you’re interested in female relationships, sisterhood and womanhood; you’re passionate about equality and accessibility for people with learning disabilities. 

The production uses digital techniques, dance and physical story telling. 

You should see it because… The play is a unique story about two sisters who have a very special relationship and have faced challenges and opinions that many won’t ever have to. Their unique bond is heart-warming, inspiring and full of hope. You will laugh until your belly hurts and have a lump in your throat while the play takes you on their incredible journey spanning over 30 years. 

Anything else we should know…: Hiding Place Theatre commissions artists with inspiring and untold stories. Sophie by Emily Curtis was first commissioned in 2019 in its early stages of development. After a couple of cancelled tours – due to you know what – we are delighted to be sharing this unique and heart-warming story.

CAST & CREATIVE TEAM

Written and performed by Emily Curtis
Produced by Hiding Place Theatre
Director & Dramaturg- Chantell Walker
Producer- Jamie Walsh
Stage Manager- Alice Winter
Assistant Director- Sophie Potter

Where to follow:
Twitter: @HidingPlaceTC
Instagram: @hidingplacetheatre

Website: www.hidingplacetheatre.com 

Book here: https://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/sophie/ (Hope Theatre); https://dukeslancaster.org/whats-on/theatre/sophie (The Dukes); https://thelbt.org/what-s-on/drama/sophie/ (Lawrence Batley Theatre); https://watersidearts.org/whats-on/2902-sophie/ (Waterside Arts)

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