Review: Landscape with Weapon at the Cockpit Theatre

It’s every inventor’s worst nightmare: the idea that their creation could fall into the wrong hands. And if that creation is then used to cause harm, how much responsibility should the inventor be expected to bear for the consequences?

This is the central question of Joe Penhall’s Landscape with Weapon, first seen in 2007 and now revived by director Jason Moore of Onbook Theatre. Ned (Danny Szam) is a self-styled “mad genius” who’s come up with a new military technology that he believes will reduce civilian casualties through its deadly accuracy. But as he comes under pressure to sign a government contract and relinquish the intellectual property behind his invention, Ned starts – somewhat belatedly, you could argue – to worry about the possible implications.

Photo credit: Giacomo Giannelli

That moment of realisation comes after discussions with his brother, Dan (James Robinson), a dentist who seemingly has everything Ned doesn’t – the wife, the kids, the mortgage. With a bit of persuasion, and despite having signed the Official Secrets Act, Ned reveals to his brother what he’s been working on, and the moral high ground shifts rapidly as Dan – who just moments before was bragging about the ethically dubious sideline in botox that’s about to pay for his new swimming pool – reacts with instant horror. Even then, Ned sticks to his guns, stubbornly insisting that because his own intentions are honourable, any unintended consequences of letting his invention out into the world can hardly be pinned on him. And herein lies the play’s biggest flaw: while his viewpoint might be reasonable if he’d invented something inherently innocuous, Ned’s about to sell weapon technology to the Ministry of Defence, and his lack of foresight is at best unrealistic, at worst downright alarming. Considering how many times we’re reminded of the character’s intelligence, it’s difficult to believe he’d never before considered any of the qualms that become so important to him in Act 2.

That aside, the stage is now set for an interesting and often topical debate, and it’s presented by a strong cast, who do their best with some at times unnecessarily dense material. Commercial director Ross (Suzy Bloom) tries every trick in the book to convince Ned to sign, but their conversations go so deeply into the ins and outs of government business contracts, controlling shares and intellectual property law that it can be difficult to stay focused. The Act 2 arrival of sinister intelligence man Brooks (Malcolm Jeffries) takes us in a slightly different direction and raises the tension nicely, before a late twist in the tale sets the stage for a dramatic finale that never quite comes to pass. That said, the play’s deliberately muted and open-ended conclusion is, in its own way, quite haunting.

Photo credit: Giacomo Giannelli

Set designer Ian Nicholas largely lets the script do the talking, with the action taking place on a minimally furnished stage covered in inventor’s scribbles. There’s some great work too from Jonny Danciger, whose effortlessly naturalistic sound effects (including a rather too convincing off-stage bathroom visit) give way to total silence in Act 2 as the suspense begins to build.

Though not without its flaws, Landscape with Weapon asks some interesting and uncomfortable questions, and ultimately proves that when it comes to morality, right and wrong are not always as clear-cut as we might like them to be.

Landscape with Weapon is at the Cockpit Theatre until 18th September.

Review: Post Sex Spagbol at The Space

When you’re at school, you naturally assume that your teachers are Proper Grown-ups who’ve got their lives together. Then you leave school, become a Proper Grown-up yourself, and realise that may not have been the case after all. It certainly isn’t for Krissy, the protagonist of Katie Bignell’s Post Sex Spagbol and newly appointed counsellor and sex ed teacher at the posh boarding school run by her dad. It quickly becomes apparent that Krissy is struggling; estranged from her mum, pining for her ex, and judging her own self-worth solely by how many guys want to have sex with her, she ends up taking her dissatisfaction out on her students, deliberately giving them terrible advice regardless of the potential consequences.

Three performers (Katie Bignell, Georgia Livingston and Signe Ebbesen) share the role of Krissy and the various different characters she comes into contact with, from crushes to hook-ups to students to parents, as she stumbles down an increasingly destructive path. The result is a mildly chaotic and often very funny show that doesn’t hold back on any front, whether it’s frank discussions about lady parts, a surprisingly emotional soliloquy about shaving, or a brazen attempt to hook up at a funeral. Krissy is undeniably a complete mess, and very easy to pass judgment on – but if we’re being totally honest, she’s also very relatable; putting aside her wildly inappropriate teaching methods, she’s ultimately just a young woman trying to find her way in a society that expects us all to be “perfect”, whilst struggling with anxiety, nursing a broken heart and enjoying an active – if not necessarily that satisfying – sex life. The moments in which she pauses and opens up to the audience about how she’s truly feeling are genuinely moving, sometimes unexpected and almost always something that most women watching the show will be able to identify with.

Director Caitlin Lee Smith oversees a polished production, which opens with the three performers taking time to carefully set the stage, just as a teacher would do at the start of a class. Once that’s done, the pace picks up and then never falters, building to a crescendo in the play’s final moments as Krissy finally hits rock bottom and begins to understand that her actions have consequences, and, just maybe, something in her life needs to change.

Frank and unashamed, Post Sex Spagbol explores the young adult female experience with humour and honesty. Expect to laugh, cringe, nod, gasp – and maybe even shed a tear or two as this journey of self-discovery unfolds.

Post Sex Spagbol is at The Space until 10th September.

Review: Persephone at the Jack Studio Theatre

First seen as part of Arrows & Traps’ online Talking Gods series during lockdown, Persephone has since been expanded and adapted for live performance by writer and director Ross McGregor. This original retelling of Persephone’s abduction by Hades brings the gods down to earth – both literally and metaphorically – in a clever and hard-hitting examination of modern life through the eyes of the immortals.

Photo credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative

Fifteen years ago, Hestia (Beatrice Vincent) and Demeter (Cornelia Baumann) left behind their abusive, manipulative brother Zeus (Jackson Wright) and chose to settle among the humans. Together, they’ve raised Demeter’s baby Cora – who will later come to be known as Persephone (Daisy Farrington) – and fought to protect her from the horrors they themselves suffered at the hands of her uncle and father (both Zeus). But in doing so, goddess of the harvest Demeter inadvertently ends up pushing her spirited daughter into the arms of Hades, a much older man who runs a dog shelter in Eastbourne. Desperate for her return, the sisters are forced to turn to their brother for help – but at what cost?

The outcome of Persephone’s story is well known, but the origins less so, and for most of Act 1 you could be forgiven for wondering what all this has to do with the eponymous character, not least because the first character to speak is – as Hestia herself acknowledges – a little known one. Beatrice Vincent is heartbreakingly good as the goddess of home and hearth, whose timid exterior hides a will of steel when those she loves are threatened. Her gentleness is a soothing balm next to the foul-mouthed abrasiveness displayed by Cornelia Baumann as her sister Demeter – who, in stark contrast to Hestia, uses her prickly exterior to mask the damage and vulnerability within. It’s their story that lies at the heart of the play, and though Daisy Farrington and Jackson Wright give equally impressive performances, it’s the central pair who grasp and hold our attention throughout, particularly in Act 2. (That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Wright’s undeniably powerful rant about the perils of the internet – a moment that jars slightly with the rest of the plot, but still leaves you slightly breathless with the sheer rage of it.)

The adaptation of the traditional Persephone myth to a modern world is ingeniously done, and McGregor’s script is packed with a dizzying amount of cultural references, leaving the audience with plenty to mull over on the way home and in the days afterwards. Ultimately this is a story of female empowerment in the face of male violence; both Hestia and Demeter have suffered in different ways at the hands of a man who quite simply doesn’t like to be told no, and it’s depressing to realise how little has changed over the centuries. Framing the story is a court case at which Zeus appears to be about to pay for his crimes – but the play’s ending is left open, and having seen his charm and manipulation in action earlier in the play, it’s not hard to imagine this powerful man in a nice suit somehow wriggling off the hook.

Photo credit: Davor @ The Ocular Creative

As ever, the production looks stunning; Odin Corie’s gorgeous costumes perfectly encapsulate the personality of each character; video design from Laurel Marks provides a powerfully evocative backdrop, particularly in combination with Jonathan Simpson’s atmospheric lighting; and beautifully choreographed movement sequences from Matthew Parker eloquently supplement the script, enveloping us wordlessly in the characters’ lives.

This production has everything that has always made Arrows & Traps so compelling to watch: great performances, exquisite design and intelligent, imaginative writing that finds the relevance in classic stories and shines new light on them. Most of us have heard the story of Persephone at some point in our lives – but almost certainly never told quite like this.

Persephone is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 17th September.

Quick Q&A: Rapsody

Where and when: Pleasance Courtyard (Above) at 17:20, 3rd-29th August

What it’s all about… Join Elz, Jams, Toni and latest arrival Jaime, as they confront the realities of our modern-day class system through live rap, trap and drill. Living in a hostel and battling impossible odds from the beginning, their worlds are upended by the arrival of a newcomer from a privileged background, with deeply held religious beliefs. As the dynamics of the hostel shift, all four struggle to get by, rapping the things they can’t bring themselves to say.

You’ll like it if… The idea with Rapsody is to bring in a different audience than the typical theatre goers. Although I’m sure they’ll be all there anyways, hopefully we can educate them about a class of people that are heavily underrepresented in the theatre scene and they can appreciate what a group of working class young artists can do. But we really want to break some new ground with this project, Rapsody speaks the same language as the ignored children of the UK. I believe it’ll resonate with working class kids like myself, hopefully when they see us spitting bars and speaking like we speak, we can lead by example and give disadvantaged kids the permission to feel part of the conversation in the arts. And to show them it’s not just completely dominated by the middle classes.

You should see it because… Everybody should come and see Rapsody. People should be taking notes about the day-to-day living of the poorest young people in this country, this play will be eye-opening for everybody who gets a ticket. I can’t say how audiences are going to feel but we want them to take away the lives of the four characters in the play and make what they want of that. As long as we do our job as actors, writers and directors. It’s up to them what they choose to take away.

Anything else we should know…: I’d just like to say that we’ve spent the best part of two years developing the writing of this project. It all comes from a place of hunger and authenticity, it’s not another poverty project written by a middle-class man who wants to fetishise the working classes. Corey Weekes and I are from very similar backgrounds as the characters depicted in the show. We know this world inside out and I’m personally sick of seeing stereotypes depicted in theatre so hopefully, Rapsody can help change that narrative.

Where to follow:
Twitter: @RapsodyThePlay, @thepleasance
Instagram: @Rapsodytheplay, @thepleasance
Facebook: @thepleasance

Ticket link: https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/rapsody#overview

Quick Q&A: Today I Killed My Very First Bird

Where and when: Pleasance Courtyard (Beside) at 14:10, 3rd-29th August

What it’s all about… Today I Killed My Very First Bird is a semi biographical, poetical rendition about growing up in South East London. It started off as a poem written at a bus stop, and has been developed by piecing together a series of poems to create this epic story which follows a gangster for the last 24 hours of his life. It explores childhood trauma and the environment in which that child grew up in, taking away his innocence only to create a beast. It’s fast paced with no holds barred and says it exactly as it is.

You’ll like it if… I would imagine it would appeal to people from all walks of life however, I would definitely recommend being 16 years old or over.

You should see it because… Everyone should come and see the show. It’s an insight into the gritty criminal underworld of South East London. I would like audiences to take away a piece of my soul and a greater understanding of how trauma affects everyone especially children.

Anything else we should know…: I think it’s important that people who are not necessarily from theatrical backgrounds are heard. This story comes from lived experiences and opens up the debate on a number of issues that plague our society such as childhood trauma, addiction and crime. The play hopefully gives an insight into the root causes of these problems.

Where to follow:
Twitter: @voodoo_monkeys, @TRPlymouth,
#TodayIKilled

Ticket link: https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/today-i-killed-my-very-first-bird#overview