Review: Voices From Home at The Old Red Lion

The inaugural Voices From Home event from Brighton-based Broken Silence Theatre brought together writers from the Home Counties and beyond to showcase new work from outside the capital. Four thought-provoking short plays all started from the theme of “trust” before heading off in a variety of directions to bring us an evening populated by outspoken refugees, dodgy psychics, estranged sisters and reluctant lovers.

The latter feature in Love Me Tinder, written by James McDermott from Norfolk and directed by Roman Berry. Emma Zadow and Mauricia Lewis prove that opposites do (eventually) attract, as spiky Tina and sweet-natured Ellie cautiously embark on a Tinder-based romance beset by false starts and misunderstandings. It’s a funny and very relatable piece about the many ways we self-sabotage whilst dating out of fear of getting hurt, but it also explores the unexpected and touching ways in which new love can change us for the better.

There’s a similar blend of laugh out loud humour and human vulnerability in Danielle Pearson’s The History Club, set in the writer’s home county of Berkshire, which examines how grief can make us do extraordinary things. In this case, three women engage the services of a less than convincing psychic to put them in touch with their lost loved ones. Directed by Jennifer Davis, the play sees Vicky Winning clearly enjoying herself as Florence, with moving performances from Anne Rosenfeld, Helen Belbin, and particularly Dominique Moutia as a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of a schoolfriend.

The heartbreaking Trust, written by Sussex-based Ella Dorman-Gajic and directed by Raymond Waring, shows us the awkward reunion of two sisters, played by Alex Reynolds and Abbi Douetil. From a close childhood relationship, marked by a shared love of S Club 7 and a wall chart plotting their heights over the years, Sarah and Lotty become increasingly estranged as their gran’s health deteriorates. It becomes obvious that she effectively raised them in their mum’s frequent absence, and the play ends on a hesitatingly uplifting note as the two attempt to build bridges and come to terms with their loss.

Each Voices From Home event will also feature a Headline Playwright; the first of these is Sevan K. Greene, whose play Asylum – directed by Tim Cook – opened the evening with an alternative and eye-opening view on the first world response to refugees. Lynn (Rosalind Adler) has got an empty house and a kind heart, but never really expected to be taken up on her offer of taking in a Syrian refugee – and when Mohammed (James Hameed) is sprung on her by his caseworker Mike (Matt Kyle), he’s not quite as gushingly grateful as she’d expected. As with all the other plays, Asylum offers lots of laughs, but they grow increasingly uncomfortable as the piece goes on, and we’re forced to examine our own motives, assumptions and reactions to those less fortunate than ourselves.

With so much theatre going on in London every day, it’s easy to forget that there’s plenty to enjoy elsewhere too. Voices From Home co-producers Tim Cook and Katharina Rodda have assembled a strong line-up for their first showcase, bringing a little piece of the Home Counties into the capital and proving to any sceptics out there that good theatre can and does exist outside the M25. Here’s hoping we don’t have too long to wait for the next evening; I’m looking forward to seeing what my home county of Kent has to offer…

For more details about Voices From Home and Broken Silence Theatre, visit brokensilencetheatre.com.

Review: Grease at the Orchard Theatre

Grease is a show that needs little introduction. Originally written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey for the stage, it’s best known for the 1978 movie adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, and has quite the cult following – at least if the number of audience members dressed as Pink Ladies and T-Birds at the Orchard last night is anything to go by. This is a show that’s known for its classic song and dance numbers, and on that score the latest touring production doesn’t disappoint; the band, choreography and costumes are fantastic and really bring Rydell High to life in all its energetic glory as Danny, Sandy and friends negotiate the perils of teenage romance.

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

Unfortunately, the production is let down by some underwhelming casting. The Wanted’s Tom Parker, in his musical theatre debut, looks the part and has the dance moves down, but his acting is at times rather stiff and his vocals are inconsistent. Danielle Hope and Louisa Lytton fare better as Sandy and Rizzo, but sadly none of the three really makes much impact, and they don’t even come close to the sky-high bar set by John Travolta and co in the movie. This means it falls to the other cast members, among them Tom Senior as Kenickie and George Olney as the Teen Angel and DJ Vince Fontaine, to bring the energy and steal the show – and it’s the big group numbers that really get the audience going, far more than any of the solos – though admittedly Danielle Hope does a flawless version of Hopelessly Devoted To You.

All that said, this is still Grease, one of the best and most popular musicals of all time (albeit with a slightly iffy message for the teenage girls in the audience, but we all know about that so I won’t go into it here), and you’d have to be made of stone not to be wowed by the high energy spectacle. The production looks great, recreating the quiffs and costumes we all remember – the programme informs us there are over 140 costume changes and 59 wigs in the show – to make sure we feel at home from the start. There’s plenty of cheeky humour too, though as you might expect in a 40-year-old show, some of the dialogue has not aged all that well…

Photo credit: Paul Coltas

With flashing lights and pyrotechnics, there’s a real party atmosphere in the theatre, with the evening frequently feeling more like a singalong than a performance. This means some of the dialogue becomes impossible to hear, but I’m guessing not many people are there for those bits anyway. Ultimately the show is all about the songs, which are as iconic as ever and ensure that if you’re a fan of Grease, you’ll almost certainly have an amazing time regardless of who’s singing them.

Grease is at the Orchard Theatre until 25th November.

Review: Phoenix Rising at Smithfield Market

There are several reasons to go and see The Big House’s revival of their acclaimed debut Phoenix – now reworked as Phoenix Rising – and that’s before we even start talking about the production itself. First, the venue; it’s not often you get to watch a show in an underground car park beneath Smithfield Market, after all. Second: The Big House is an incredible organisation working with young care leavers – in their own words, they offer “a place where people who may have given up on themselves gain the skills and confidence to turn their lives around”. And as if all that wasn’t enough, this particular show is dedicated to the memory of Dwayne Kieran Nero, the original Phoenix cast member whose experience with MS inspired the first production in 2013.

Photo credit: Dylan Nolte

Now, in case you’re not already convinced – let’s talk about the show, which is up there with any seasoned, professional company. Written by Andrew Day in collaboration with the cast, it’s the story of 18-year-old care leaver Callum, played by the exceptionally talented Aston McAuley. Suddenly he finds himself alone in a dirty flat, visited by a parade of social workers who say the right things but ultimately achieve nothing, and haunted by memories of his difficult childhood. A promising sprinter, Callum throws himself into training – but then something strange starts to happen to his legs, and the fragile future he’s started to build for himself comes crashing down.

Though it’s a revival of the original Phoenix, the story has been reworked to incorporate the life experiences of its new cast, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the performances all come across as particularly raw and heartfelt. The anger and pain – but also resilience and humour – that we see in Callum, his friends Omar and Bready (Jordan Bangura and Daniel Akilimali), his girlfriend Nina (Perrina Allen) and neighbour Hannah (Rebecca Farinre) are all the more powerful because we know they come from a real place; in this case, acting and pretending are far from the same thing.

Photo credit: Rick Findler

The promenade performance (top tip: wear comfy shoes and layer up), deftly directed by The Big House founder Maggie Norris, takes us into every corner of the chilly, echoey but surprisingly atmospheric venue, returning again and again to the race track at the centre. Here is where the story begins, and perhaps where it will end; it’s where Callum’s enjoyed some of his finest moments, but it’s also where he has to face his army of demons – an army hauntingly portrayed by the cast in dream-like sequences, led by the mocking, skeletal figure of Oz Enver as the Disease.

Let’s not beat around the bush; Phoenix Rising is a devastating story in many ways, forcing us whether we like it or not to confront the harsh reality that so many young people in the UK face every day. But the very fact that the production is happening at all offers a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and the commitment, energy and realised potential of the company can’t help but leave us uplifted, encouraged and motivated to take action. With organisations like The Big House to lead the way, it’s possible to believe things can and will get better.

Phoenix Rising is at Smithfield Market until 2nd December.

Review: The Dark Room at Theatre503

As the title suggests, the UK premiere of Angela Betzien’s The Dark Room makes for decidedly bleak viewing. Set in a run-down motel near Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, it tells three interconnected stories, which unfold simultaneously on stage but in reality months apart, taking in themes including police brutality and child abuse. Betzien weaves these narrative threads together, as the characters slip in and out of each other’s lives, resulting in an intense 75 minutes that makes you think, keeps you guessing and ultimately leaves you reeling.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

First to arrive are youth worker Anni (Katy Brittain) and her latest charge Grace (Annabel Smith), staying for the night while Anni tries to find a new home for the traumatised teenager. Next, we meet policeman Stephen (Tamlyn Henderson) and his pregnant wife Emma (Fiona Skinner), returning from a wedding but in far from high spirits. And last to enter the room is Craig (Alasdair Craig), another police officer, who’s facing up to recent events involving another teenager, Joseph (Paul Adeyefa), and the implications for his life and career.

The Dark Room is not an easy play, either in its subject matter or its format. The script blurs and overlaps scenes, with the actors remaining in the room throughout while other stories are told. Yet each pairing occupies their own separate world, and director Audrey Sheffield skilfully manoeuvres the actors around the space so that each strand of the plot remains distinct and clear. There’s a connection between the three, which is gradually revealed as the play goes on, and places Joseph and Stephen at the centre of the intricate framework. Tamlyn Henderson is excellent as Stephen; he’s clearly a good man who loves his wife and wants to do the right thing, but has found himself trapped in a world where masculinity always wins, at the expense of everyone and everything else.

Ultimately, though, it’s Grace’s story that lingers most in the mind. Annabel Smith is mesmerising as the volatile and vulnerable young girl whose life has been so horrific it’s left her broken and feral. In contrast, Katy Brittain’s Anni exudes the weary patience of an experienced youth worker who’s seen it all before – not just in this case but in an endless line of mistreated and neglected children over the course of ten years. Her lack of surprise in the face of Grace’s outbursts is perhaps the most disconcerting point of all.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

After carefully building the suspense little by little, the play’s conclusion comes suddenly in a burst of drama (with lighting designer Will Monks creating some genuinely unnerving effects in the play’s dying moments). Though conclusion is perhaps the wrong word, as we’re left with the depressing sensation that nothing’s really changed; just as they weren’t the first, Grace and Joseph won’t be the last young people to end up in their situation. And though the play’s set in Australia, it issues a universal challenge to society to change the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Certainly not a light evening’s entertainment, but a grimly thought-provoking piece of theatre that deserves to be seen by many.

The Dark Room is at Theatre503 until 2nd December.

Review: Netherbard at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

Why go and see one Shakespeare play when you can see several all at once? In Netherbard, the debut show from Budding Rose Productions, Kate (Rosemary Berkon), Amy (Tayla Kenyon) and Lena (Katrina Allen) have been cast as the three witches in Macbeth. In between rehearsals they take time out to moan about Abby (Lucinda Turner), who’s snatched the role of Lady Macbeth from under Kate’s nose – along with Lena’s boyfriend and Amy’s dream role in Eastenders.

Their light-hearted banter takes an unexpectedly dark turn when Abby herself arrives, and the trio realise they’re no longer rehearsing Macbeth, but King Lear. By the time they realise what’s happened and why, there’s no going back, and so begins a mad chase through a selection of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, uncovering a tale of envy and ambition the Bard himself would be proud of. The only difference is that here the women are taking their destiny into their own hands, instead of slinking off to die quietly backstage while the men do the fighting.

Even the most diehard fan would have to admit women don’t always get a great deal in Shakespeare’s world, so it’s refreshing to see the girls stepping into the spotlight and taking on some meatier roles. Despite some sombre themes and nefarious deeds, Netherbard is very much a comedy, and under Rosie Snell’s direction the energy never wavers. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves and keep pace well with the rapid-fire dialogue – though it’s not always so easy for the audience to keep up, particularly later in the play when things start to get a bit chaotic and the actors are talking over each other. At just a couple of minutes under an hour, it’s all over very quickly, but manages to pack a lot of action into that brief time, and I would have happily stayed for more.

Janice Hallett’s lively comedy is great fun for Shakespeare fans, and a perfect opportunity for those who want to show off by identifying all the famous speeches that come up in the script (although it is possible to cheat a bit thanks to Greg Spong’s set, which is full of clues – some obvious, some less so). But the play’s equally enjoyable for lovers of Eastenders or reality TV where, let’s be honest, you’re just as likely to find people stabbing each other in the back as in any Shakespearean tragedy. 

Netherbard is an impressive debut from an exciting new female-led company. It’s a shame the initial run was just two days, but hopefully it’s not the last we’ve seen of this offbeat tribute to Shakespeare and the cut-throat world of showbiz.