Review: Dracula at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Following the smash hit success of The White Rose earlier this year, Arrows & Traps return to more familiar territory with a brand new reimagining of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Adaptations of literary classics is where the company began, and for long-time fans of their work, this deliciously entertaining production feels a little like coming home.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ the Ocular Creative

Adaptations of classic horror stories have a tendency to go one of two ways – either full-on terror, or spoof humour. Writer and director Ross McGregor charts his own unique course between these two options, bringing us a story which is both very funny and pretty scary in almost equal measure. The novel sets the scene through letters exchanged between solicitor Jonathan Harker (Conor Moss) and his fiancée Mina (Beatrice Vincent), and between Mina and her friend Lucy (Lucy Ioannou), and the play adopts the same style in its opening scenes, quickly introducing all the key characters and locations before immersing us in Stoker’s chilling tale. Slightly overlapping scenes ensure that the action keeps moving along at a brisk pace, building up to a fiendishly clever twist that diverts from the novel by allowing Mina to choose for herself how her story ends.

This, of course, is no accident; there’s a refreshingly modern flavour to the language and the attitudes throughout the play, and nowhere is this more evident than in its portrayal of the female characters. There’s no such thing as a damsel in distress in this story, and even in their moments of greatest peril, Mina and Lucy – both targeted by Dracula on his arrival in England – aren’t about to sit quietly around waiting for the menfolk to save them, any more than they’ll let anyone tell them earlier in the story who they should or shouldn’t marry. Meanwhile, the maniac Renfield (Cornelia Baumann) – in this adaptation also a woman – may be in thrall to Dracula, but despite the persistent efforts of Dr Seward (Alex Stevens), it’s Mina with whom she finally makes enough of a connection to withstand her master’s power.

Part of the fun of being an Arrows regular is seeing familiar actors taking on completely different roles, and always getting it right. Christopher Tester – last seen as the quietly conflicted Gestapo officer Mohr in The White Rose – wields power of a very different kind as Dracula, oozing charisma and menace as he seduces men and women alike; it’s not difficult to see why everyone ends up doing his bidding. Conor Moss and Alex Stevens (joined by returning Arrows Oliver Brassell and Andrew Wickes) go from fighting Nazis to taking down vampires – albeit with a touch less dignity – while Beatrice Vincent and Lucy Ioannou are drawn to the charms of the dark side, in stark contrast to the resolute strength of German resistance fighters Traute Lafrenz and Sophie Scholl. Finally, Cornelia Baumann’s performance as Renfield is a work of genius; a hunched figure with a vacant grin, she’s simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous, and undeniably mad but with moments of lucidity (and some cracking one-liners) that make her seem like easily the sanest person in the room.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ the Ocular Creative

As with any Arrows show, everything about the production is visually stunning: Odin Corie’s costumes are beautiful, the spooky castle set designed by Francine Huin-Wah not only looks the part but proves unexpectedly versatile, and the brilliantly atmospheric lighting design from Ben Jacobs sets us up more than once for a bit of a scare. Even the final violent moments of Act 1 end up looking amazing, thanks to the expert contribution of movement director Will Pinchin (and a lot of fake blood).

As someone who’s avoided horror-based theatre ever since being good and traumatised by The Woman in Black when I was fourteen (not to mention an earlier visit to The Dracula Experience on a family holiday to Whitby), I had my doubts about going to see a show billed as “a spine-chilling masterpiece of fear”. But while the show is certainly not for the faint-hearted, it’s also unexpectedly funny and a brilliant piece of storytelling. Devilishly good entertainment from Arrows & Traps – don’t miss it.

Dracula is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th October, then on to the Mill Studio at Yvonne Arnaud from 1st-3rd November.

Review: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at Finborough Theatre

Cancer is no laughing matter… or is it? In the European premiere of Halley Feiffer’s play, which for the sake of brevity let’s call A Funny Thing Happened, we’re respectfully invited to see the humorous side of an incredibly serious situation.

Karla’s mum has cancer. So does Don’s. She’s a stand-up comedian with abandonment issues. He’s a divorced millionaire with a “sea foam green” apartment he can’t bring himself to live in. The first time they meet, she’s working aloud on a comedy routine about her vibrator, and he – not entirely without justification – is appalled. They have nothing at all in common besides the two women sleeping quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) in the beds beside them, but that single shared experience is enough to spark a surprising connection.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

The vibrator jokes, as it turns out, are just the tip of the iceberg – but despite the ever-present gallows humour, there’s something very uplifting about this story of two unlikely companions working their way together through a devastating situation. It’s an unconventional, sometimes undignified and often wildly inappropriate journey – but does that mean they’re doing it wrong?

As Karla and Don, Cariad Lloyd and Rob Crouch have great on-stage chemistry, showing us multiple sides of each character as the dynamic of their relationship shifts. Just as in real life, there are moments when they each know exactly what to say or do to make the other feel better – but equally there are occasions where Feiffer acknowledges that there simply aren’t adequate words to make sense of what they’re going through.

On paper, Kristin Milward and Cara Chase have a lot less to do as the mums, Marcie and Geena, who spend most of their time sleeping – but their presence (and occasional contributions) become a vital backdrop to both the story and the characters within it. When Marcie wakes up, about halfway through the play, it’s quite a curveball; very quickly we have a much clearer understanding of why Karla is the way she is, but we also have to face up to the inconvenient truth that nobody wants to say aloud – not all cancer patients are nice people.

Photo credit: James O Jenkins

Isabella van Braeckel’s set recreates the hospital environment down to the last detail; I could swear I caught a whiff of disinfectant in the air on the way in. The long curtain that spans the stage, shielding the patients from view, cleverly doubles up to do the same for the actors during a couple of fairly lengthy scene changes.

Terminal cancer is of course, in itself, not at all funny – and even less so in the States, where the cost of healthcare in a time of crisis only makes an unbearable situation even worse. A Funny Thing Happened respects that, and knows when to stop joking around and take itself seriously; the final scenes, in particular, are sensitively written and poignantly portrayed. In fact, the subject is so well handled that audiences are more likely to be offended by the foul-mouthed content of the jokes than the fact that jokes are being made in the first place. Cancer might be a formidable opponent, and it may well get the better of us eventually – but, as this play proves, that doesn’t mean we can’t have a big old laugh in its face first.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City is at Finborough Theatre until 27th October.


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Review: People Like Us at the Union Theatre

When it comes to Brexit, the one thing we can all agree on is that we don’t agree. The vote to leave the EU in June 2016 has been more divisive than any other political issue that I can recall in my lifetime, and while I personally voted Remain, I’m open-minded enough to acknowledge that Brexit could turn out to be not quite the disaster it appears to be, and to want to understand the other side of the debate.

Apparently, this makes me worthy of ridicule – at least according to Julie Burchill and Jane Robins, whose play People Like Us promises to “uniquely provide an argument for both sides of the debate”, and in doing so address the tendency within the arts to focus on the Remainer viewpoint. This is not a bad thing; we live in a culture of free speech, after all, and there’s certainly a need for theatre that makes us think outside our usual mindset.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

Unfortunately, People Like Us is not the play to do it. The cast of five do a decent enough job with the material, but there’s no hiding the fact that this is essentially one big, self-congratulatory dig at the Remain camp and everyone in it. Focusing on the members of a north London book club just before and after the vote, there’s absolutely no attempt at reasoned political debate, and any suggestion that the play presents a balanced view is, frankly, laughable. Remainer Ralph (Kamaal Hussain) is presented as a cartoonishly privileged cry-baby, a cad who abandoned his wife and daughters for sexy French environmentalist Clémence (Marine Andre). Worse, he then allows her to manipulate him into labelling Frances (Sarah Toogood) and Stacey (Gemma-Germaine) – the decent, hard-working patriots who voted for Brexit – as ignorant racists, and kicking them out of the book club.

Now, I’m more than aware there are Remainers who think that way, and it’s certainly reasonable – necessary, even – to point it out. Similarly, I understand there are many, many people who voted for Brexit who had good reasons for doing so, and who are not, in fact, ignorant racists. It does, however, seem a rather counterproductive approach to make the case against stereotyping people by, er, massively stereotyping people. (This stereotyping, incidentally, includes the portrayal of the Brexiters, who can offer no particular reason for their decision other than “democracy” – rather playing into the hands of those inclined to question their understanding of the situation.)

And just in case we need convincing that the writers have little interest in reasoned political debate, the book club’s fifth member Will (Paul Giddings) – the one character who’s willing to be a grown-up, accept the result of the vote and attempt to look for some common ground – is bullied mercilessly by both sides, because he’s not kicking and screaming in either victory or defeat.

Photo credit: Paul Nicholas Dyke

In fact, it’s a wonder the book club lasted until the Brexit vote, since none of the characters seem to like each other very much even before politics gets involved. Frances and Stacey make fun of Clémence for being a do-gooder; she in turn judges them for drinking too much. Ralph is tiring of his new young wife, and clearly has some unfinished business with Stacey, who’s all too aware of the fact. And of course, everyone looks down on Will, because – well, he’s an easy target. Consequently, the play isn’t even particularly fun to watch, since almost all the characters are such horrible people and it’s impossible to empathise with them, regardless of our own political stance. A few of the one-liners – mostly those from Will, the one likeable character – raise a chuckle, but everything else about the play feels so needlessly unpleasant that the humour often falls flat.

With the Brexit vote now two years behind us, and an uncertain future ahead, it’s sad to see so much bitterness lingering on between the two sides of the debate – and a play that seems to deliberately set out to perpetuate that bad feeling is at best unhelpful, at worst dangerous. The idea to examine how Brexit has come between friends, lovers and family members is certainly an interesting one, and it’s a topic worthy of further debate. But for me, People Like Us takes too much delight in the division to make any meaningful contribution to that discussion.

People Like Us is at the Union Theatre until 20th October.


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Review: Jekyll and Hyde at Chickenshed

Like the gothic novella on which it’s based, Chickenshed’s new musical adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde is short and to the point. Storming through Robert Louis Stevenson’s story in around 70 minutes (plus interval), Jonny Morton’s highly physical piece takes the original plot and adds a modern twist to the performance, along with a strong theme of social responsibility that feels particularly resonant today.

The studio space at Chickenshed has been transformed by set designer Constance Villemot into a smoky, dimly lit Victorian London street, where the poor huddle in corners while the more well-to-do go about their business, blind to the suffering around them. The story’s opening incident, which sees Hyde trampling a young girl in the street, has been upgraded in this version from a moment of carelessness to a deliberate and prolonged attack, which is observed but not interrupted by passing lawyer Utterson (Demar Lambert) and his companion Dr Lanyon (Finn Kebbe). Their chief concern in that moment is not for the nameless girl who’s beaten and left for dead in the street, but for their friend Dr Jekyll (Nathaniel Leigertwood), who they fear is being blackmailed by the perpetrator of the attack, Hyde.

Utterson’s anxiety grows when he’s informed by Jekyll’s household staff, led by butler Poole (Will Laurence), that their master seems changed – but it’s only much later that he learns the truth: Hyde is Jekyll, transformed by a potion of the doctor’s own invention into a villain. Over time, this side of Jekyll has seized control and gone on the rampage, climaxing at the end of Act 1 with the brutal, unprovoked murder of philanthropist Sir Danvers Carew (Ecevit Kulucan) as he tends to the poor.

Both Jekyll and Hyde are played by Nathaniel Leigertwood, and while he gives a good performance as both, it’s as the more interesting of the two – Hyde – that he really comes into his own. His transformation from the elegant and mild-mannered Jekyll into Hyde (further enhanced by Andrew Caddies’ particularly atmospheric lighting) is frighteningly convincing: appearance, voice and personality all change beyond recognition as he’s wracked by spasms and emerges a hunched, animalistic figure with an evil cackle and an absolute lack of remorse.

Strong individual support comes in the form of Demar Lambert and Finn Kebbe as Utterson and Lanyon – the former a commanding presence, the latter ultimately a broken man destroyed by the knowledge of his complicity in Hyde’s crimes. In reality, however (and in keeping with Chickenshed’s inclusive philosophy), this is an ensemble piece; a diverse, hard-working and vocally impressive chorus perform the majority of the physically demanding musical numbers and provide commentary on events as they unfold.

Like the rest of the production, Dave Carey and Hanna Bohlin’s up-tempo rock musical score has a distinctly modern flavour. With no spoken dialogue, the show moves swiftly from one number to the next, managing to pack an impressive 21 songs (albeit with several reprises) into its 70-minute duration. There are occasions when the vocals struggle to compete with the volume of the pre-recorded soundtrack, and combined with the pace of some of the songs, this can make it difficult to catch every word. Perhaps in recognition of this, the “penny dreadfuls” that are distributed as we arrive contain a handy synopsis of the plot, while the title of each new chapter is projected on the wall to help us orientate ourselves and fill in any plot gaps.

With this production, Chickenshed proves once again that it knows how to entertain audiences with a good story. But the show also asks us to consider some pertinent and rather topical questions about the importance of the choices we make – for ourselves, for others and for society as a whole.

Jekyll and Hyde is at Chickenshed until 20th October.


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Review: Side Show at the CLF Art Cafe

First performed in 1997 – a couple of decades before The Greatest Showman earwormed its way into our lives – Side Show is based on the true story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Like the recent monster hit movie about the life of PT Barnum, Bill Russell and Henry Krieger’s musical is a story about being different, but takes a rather darker and more grimly realistic approach than Jackman and co.

As the star attractions of a travelling show, the two sisters – conjoined at the hip – dream of stardom (Daisy) and romance (Violet). But while they experience brief glimpses of both, the two never get to live the one dream they share: that of a normal life. Instead they find themselves ruthlessly exploited by everyone around them, while they’re constantly torn between their desire to be alone and their fear of being apart.

Photo credit: Michael Smith

Pint of Wine’s revival, at the suitably unconventional Bussey Building in Peckham, immerses us instantly in the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the side show. A lot of attention has clearly gone into the production’s design, with Lemington Ridley’s increasingly glamorous array of costumes plotting the sisters’ rise to fame, while a simple but effective set from Roberta Volpe proves you can do a lot with some wooden bleachers and a couple of screens.

The cast for Dom O’Hanlon’s production are generally strong, with stand-out vocal performances from Matthew James Nicholas as Terry, the twins’ manager, and Lauren Edwards as the sweet-natured Violet. She and Katie Beudert work well together, capturing in both performance and appearance the differences between Violet and Daisy’s personalities, and managing with ease the physical demands that come with being attached to another performer.

As Violet’s love interest Buddy, Barry O’Reilly excels in the dance numbers – including an impressive solo tap routine – and Alexander Bellinfantie is vocally strong as the sisters’ friend and protector Jake. Both seem less confident with their spoken dialogue, however, and we never quite get to the bottom of their character’s complex emotional struggles around their feelings for Violet.

Meanwhile the ensemble give an accomplished performance, particularly as the other side show acts, who step up to support their friends against their bullying adoptive father, Sir (Stephen Russell). In doing so each gives us a glimpse of their distinct personality, and a reminder that they’re not just attractions to be stared at, but real people who live, love and dream like everyone else. In fact, they’re considerably more human than the journalists, doctors and audiences – the other parts played by the ensemble – who view Daisy and Violet as little more than objects to be exploited.

Photo credit: Michael Smith

The musical numbers are performed well, led by musical director John Reddel’s excellent band, with the opening number Come Look at the Freaks and Terry and Daisy’s Act 2 duet Private Conversation among several highlights. The vaudeville routines are great entertainment, and Act 1 comes to a poignant close with the cast’s heartfelt rendition of Who Will Love Me As I Am? This song in particular taps into an emotion we can all identify with – the need to be loved and accepted just as we are – but it also represents something Daisy and Violet seem destined never to have. The show’s sombre conclusion might be more realistic than most, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling a bit unsatisfied by the resignation with which the twins accept what lies ahead.

Pint of Wine’s debut musical theatre production, while not perfect, is a welcome opportunity for London audiences to discover a little-known show – as well as the true story of two fascinating women who, while certainly unique, in a lot of ways really were “just like everyone else”.

Side Show is at CLF Art Cafe in the Bussey Building, Peckham, until 13th October.


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