Review: Little Shop of Horrors (Summer Youth Project) at the Orchard Theatre

For a second year running, the Dartford Summer Youth Project has selected a show that’s new to me. Following last year’s brilliant Bugsy Malone, this summer they’re back with Little Shop of Horrors, the classic horror comedy about a man-eating plant by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, in a production that brings together a community cast of young Dartfordians aged between 9 and 19. The story follows shop boy Seymour, who finds himself in possession of a “strange and interesting” plant that makes him rich and famous – but at what cost…?

The show might be considered a bit gory for kids (it does, after all, involve an abusive relationship, murder, dismemberment and a psychotic dentist) and it had to be sanitised a little for this production. But the horror is all very tongue-in-cheek, and the jokes are pitched so that a lot of the humour can be appreciated by adults whilst sailing over younger heads. There’s also a valuable lesson for all ages to be taken from this cautionary tale about the dangers of putting personal gain ahead of moral values.

I have two main conclusions from this evening’s opening night performance. First, I’ll be keeping a much closer eye on my plants from now on. Second, director Sean Hollands and the rest of the SYP team have pulled off another triumph. After just two weeks of rehearsal, Little Shop of Horrors is slick, professional and features several young performers who could easily give seasoned stars a serious run for their money.

This is particularly true of the principal leads – Ethan Oswald, Olivia Hallett, Luke Walden and Mikey Stevens – who all look and sound like they’ve been on stage for years. Each of them has at least one big musical number, and absolutely nails it, with my personal highlights Mikey Stevens’ hilariously deranged Dentist! and Olivia Hallett and Ethan Oswald’s gorgeous duet, Suddenly Seymour. There’s also some brilliant voice acting from Thomas Bassett, the voice of Audrey II, who succeeds in giving us the shivers without once appearing on stage, and impressive vocals from the chorus of glamorous Ronettes.

The principals lead a huge company of over 100 children, all of whom get to be involved throughout the show as they pop up frequently in aisles and on balconies performing dance routines choreographed by Mel Simpson. This sometimes messes with the audience’s view of the stage a bit – but it’s hard to mind that too much when the children are obviously having such an amazing time.

And that’s the genius of the Summer Youth Project. Yes, this is a fantastic production that showcases some outstanding young talent, but more importantly it’s giving each and every one of the children on stage an experience they’ll never forget – the chance to be part of a production led by a professional creative team, performing for a huge audience of friends, family and strangers in a proper theatre. But it’s not just a treat for the kids; their enthusiasm and delight is infectious, and you don’t have to be a parent or even know anyone involved to feel proud of what they’ve all achieved, or to appreciate the hard work they’ve put in. This is something that’s easy to take for granted when watching a professional company for whom it’s just another day at work, and sometimes we need a reminder of why we go to the theatre in the first place: to be entertained. And on that score, Little Shop of Horrors more than delivers.

Little Shop of Horrors continues at the Orchard Theatre until Saturday 12th August.

Interview: Nina Brazier and Hanna Grzeskiewicz, The Winter’s Tale

This Friday, RADA Studios Theatre will play host to a unique interpretation of The Winter’s Tale from award-winning contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment. The hour-long piece combines live music with Shakespeare’s drama, focusing on the jealousy and fury of King Leontes when he believes his pregnant wife Hermione has been unfaithful with his best friend and is carrying his baby.

“It’s the original Shakespeare play, pared down to an hour of its core elements and portrayed through a musical as well as a theatrical perspective,” explains director Nina Brazier, who adapted the original text for the production. “The Hermes Experiment are a group dedicated to pushing the boundaries of their craft, and it is their first project involving theatre.

“Alongside The Hermes Experiment, composer Kim Ashton and myself have led the devising process with five extraordinary actors: Christopher Adams, William McGeough, Sadie Parsons, Robert Willoughby and Louisa Hollway. The music plays an equal part as the text in bringing the drama to life, with the actors, the music and the musicians become intrinsically intertwined.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The Hermes Experiment are Héloïse Werner (soprano and co-director), Oliver Pashley (clarinet), Marianne Schofield (double bass), Anne Denholm (harp) and Hanna Grzeskiewicz (producer and co-director) who explains, “We’re a contemporary ensemble made up of harp, clarinet, soprano and double bass. We are mainly a musical ensemble, but we are very interested in working with different art forms – we have worked with a photographer, dancers, and now also actors. Aside from work with other art forms we commission new music for our group, and have commissioned now 40 composers to write for us, arrange better known works, and improvise. We started in late 2013, soon after we all graduated from Cambridge University, which is where we all met – and we all wanted to do something unique and innovative musically.

“We’d been planning to do a project that fuses music and drama for a while – we were interested in what would happen if we brought all these creative minds together, and we hoped that the practice of the actors and the musicians would be enhanced by working with the other – and luckily we think it did! We had a few ideas, but eventually settled on Shakespeare: people know the plots so we could play around with it, the musicality of his language lends itself to working with music, and who doesn’t love Shakespeare!”

The show was developed during a residency at Aldeburgh Music in September 2016. “The devising process gave us permission to think in a completely new way about how we approached the text, and allowed us to explore Shakespeare from a musical as well as theatrical perspective,” says Nina. “During the process we used movement and gesture as much as text and music, feeling that we were creating a theatrical language that extended beyond the written and spoken word. As composer Kim Ashton said in his blog, we began ‘layering text, music and movement together in a variety of ways, such that each strand is dominant or subordinate at different moments, sharing equally in the unfolding of the narrative’.

“This heightened theatricality is fully integrated with the music, not only extending the emotions of the character but communicating the symbolic content of The Winter’s Tale.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The piece was first performed in a one night showcase at the Cockpit Theatre in December, where it was well received by critics. “It’s a completely new and original way of seeing Shakespeare,” says Nina. “Following our performance at the Cockpit, The Winter’s Tale was described as ‘groundbreaking’ (The Reviews Hub), ‘resourceful and inventive’ (The CUSP) and ‘skilfully crafted’ (London Theatre 1). The performance ‘gripped the capacity audience from beginning to end’ (Early Music Reviews) and was seen as ‘an exciting trend to start’ (Schmopera) with ‘tautly-directed action’ (The Evening Standard).”

The show is far from the only project for The Hermes Experiment, who have a busy year coming up. Hanna explains, “After The Winter’s Tale, we have about a month off and then we are performing as part of Colourscape Festival, we are doing a recital as part of the Park Lane Group concert series, and in November we are going to Russia to perform at a contemporary music festival in St Petersburg. We will be revealing even more projects we have coming up in the coming weeks so keep checking our website and social media for updates!”

Catch The Winter’s Tale at RADA Studios Theatre on Friday 11th August. And you can follow The Hermes Experiment on Twitter and Facebook for news and updates.

Review: Beautiful Little Fools at the Cockpit Theatre

Beautiful Little Fools is the debut production from all-female company Optic Theatre – and it’s clear they mean business. Intense, brutal and with a conclusion that’s genuinely quite traumatic, the show takes an everyday situation to the ultimate horrifying extreme, showing what human beings are capable of when exposed to a relentless stream of hatred and lies.

Three young women wake up in a room, with no idea of how they got there or even who they are. There’s no way of leaving, and each of them is wearing an electric ankle bracelet that delivers a painful shock every time they step out of line. Every day they’re forced to listen to disembodied voices – which we recognise as those of public figures including Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump – discussing the danger posed by immigrants. And then a new girl arrives…

I’d love to say this story is far-fetched – and of course it is, in the sense that the British government doesn’t really have bunkers full of terrified prisoners who are being slowly radicalised (or at least let’s hope not). But the way in which the girls are manipulated in their torture chamber/Big Brother house is unnervingly familiar, and with people like Katie Hopkins advocating “final solutions” in the mainstream media, the play’s shocking climax doesn’t seem like such a wild stretch of the imagination.

Anna Marshall’s production successfully depicts the passing of time (though exactly how much is hard to tell), with movement sequences between scenes that demonstrate the captives’ mind-numbing routine. Each time we come back to them, they’ve lost a little more of their humanity, as they play mind games, form alliances and turn on each other in their desperation to survive the ordeal. In 60 gripping minutes, Jemma Burgess (who also wrote the play), Sophia Hannides, Isabel Goldby-Briggs and Jessica Collins take us on a rollercoaster ride through shock, fear, anger, hysteria and hatred – but also some deeply moving moments of vulnerability that remind us these young women are human beings just like us, whatever they may find themselves driven to do.

The play unflinchingly exposes its audience to the same treatment as its characters. We listen to the same abhorrent recordings at least three or four times, and endure flashing lights, high-pitched tones and crackling electricity (courtesy of sound designers Dan Bottomley and Davide Vox). It’s deeply unsettling, even for just an hour, and makes it easy to believe that after days, weeks or even months of this treatment, the girls might be willing to do just about anything to gain their freedom.

Beautiful Little Fools is an exciting debut from Optic Theatre, a thrilling and disquieting reminder of the power of words to change hearts and minds, for better and for worse. It would perhaps have been easy to dismiss as impossible a couple of years ago – but with hate crimes on the rise, Brexit going ahead and Trump in the White House, the play is not only timely; it’s terrifying.

The Cockpit Theatre run of Beautiful Little Fools is now over, but visit Optic Theatre’s website or follow them on Twitter for updates.

Review: Boom at Theatre503

What would you do if you knew the world was about to end? Call your loved ones, spend all your money, ditch the diet…? All good answers – unless you’re marine biologist Jules, who has a different approach. He’s predicted the imminent apocalypse by observing the behaviour of his fish, but having failed to convince anyone to take him seriously about the threat, he’s made his own arrangements: luring unsuspecting student Jo to his lab/bunker for what she thinks is a fun night of no strings sex. It’s only when she discovers a drawer full of diapers that it dawns on her Jules’ promise of “intensely significant coupling” might have been more than just good marketing…

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is a play of two halves. It begins as an enjoyably off the wall romantic comedy about two people thrown together in the most extreme circumstances. Will Merrick and Nicole Sawyerr are great as the unlikely couple – he’s an earnest nerd who genuinely can’t understand her reluctance to be Eve to his Adam; she’s a wannabe journalist with a sharp tongue, dismayed by her latest disastrous life choice. They’re so terrible together that it actually works… at least to begin with.

Then the world ends, and things take a bizarre and mildly baffling turn with the sudden intervention of Barbara. Up to this point, Barbara’s been sitting in the corner, pulling levers and providing enthusiastic percussive sound effects for what we now learn is a museum exhibit several millennia from today, educating future generations about “the Boom”. Barbara’s not supposed to talk, she informs us, before going on to do exactly that – frequently, and at great length.

It’s here that the play seems to lose its way a bit, as Barbara, played with joyous abandon by Mandi Symonds, goes pretty quickly from amusing and lovable to verbose and more than a little irritating as she constantly interrupts proceedings to talk about her own issues. Some of her monologues are utterly surreal (in particular the bit where – a propos of absolutely nothing – she decides she must tell us how she was conceived; and no, it’s not in the way you might think) and her behaviour increasingly erratic, which is entertaining but gets in the way of the play actually making a point. As a fan of dystopian fiction who’s fascinated by the psychology of survival, I was looking forward to a juicy exploration of Jules and Jo’s evolving relationship, but we spend less and less time with them as Boom slowly but surely becomes Barbara’s story instead. Having enjoyed the randomness because I assumed it would all make sense in the end, I left 90 minutes later with very little idea what I was meant to be taking away other than a feeling of slight bewilderment, and a new respect for fish.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
All this doesn’t mean the play isn’t funny; it is, and all three members of the cast give great performances. But the humour lies mainly in the awkward relationship between Jules and Jo, and in Barbara’s lively personality, rather than in the end of the world story itself. There are fewer laughs in the second half of the play – partly because, well, the world’s ended and our characters find themselves in dire straits; and partly because by this point things have got so bizarre it’s difficult to know how to respond to anything that happens.

For this reason, it’s difficult to give a conclusive opinion on Boom. It may be that in a few days’ time, something clicks into place and I suddenly get it. Right now, though, I’m still trying to figure out what hit me.

Boom is at Theatre 503 until 26th August.

Interview: Anthony Orme, Sanctuary

2040. The war is over, and the world is resolved… so why can’t Kari remember anything? What is S.A.M. and how can she escape Sanctuary?

So begins Anthony Orme’s feminist sci-fi thriller, Sanctuary. “In the aftermath of the war, Kari Allwood wakes in a cell with no recollection of how or why she got there,” explains Anthony. “We see as she struggles to survive her life as a woman in the army and to comprehend the mistakes that she has made and conquer her own mental instability. Tackling the subjects of women at war, PTSD, and the essence of human self-preservation, Sanctuary creates an exciting and thrilling whirlwind of a show that will leave you questioning your own view on life as we currently understand it.”

Anthony was inspired to write Sanctuary by two main factors: “The first was my own history and exploration of mental health and its effect on my own life, and secondly the lack of representation of women in war and theatre,” he says. “Having struggled with mental health issues all my adult life but never really having a way to present parts of it, I wanted to create a piece that discussed this as well as being entertaining and enthralling – which is where the idea of Sanctuary was born. From there I started to look closely at PTSD and the women who suffer from it and how little we hear about them, much like strong females in the arts. All three combined became the perfect inspiration for a play.

“I’ve always been a massive fan of sci-fi. I think when done correctly, it enables viewers to see and acknowledge problems in their own society without even realising. The entertainment and escapism of future and the unknown wraps the audience in a blanket of theatre and art which allows them to soak in the political and social undertones of a piece. With a piece like Sanctuary there is no other genre it could have been. Plus it’s also very rare to find a strong piece of sci-fi on stage and so I was very up for taking on the challenge.”

As writer and director, Anthony is full of praise for actors Elizabeth Robin and Catalina Blackman. “They are two of the most hardworking and dedicated cast I have had the pleasure to work with. Sanctuary is not an easy play – it’s intense, real and a challenge for any actor, yet these two incredible women have been stoic throughout. Both characters are equally challenging – one is never on the stage and so has to express empathy, fear and desire using only her voice, while the other never leaves and has to hold the show and bare a lifetime’s worth of emotions alone and exposed. They truly are artists of their craft.

“It’s fair to say that we have had our fair share of personal trauma throughout the rehearsal process, which leaves me in even more awe of the incredible performances they have delivered.”

With themes of feminism, LGBT, mental health and war, Anthony believes every audience member can take something from the play. “Maybe I’m biased, but I feel that Sanctuary speaks to people from all ages and creeds,” he says. “I might add that due to very adult themes and language it may be best to restrict the viewing to audiences above the age of 16… but we all learn sometime.”

In addition to winning Best Play at the Stockwell Play House One Act Festival, Sanctuary is also Bechdel approved. “The Bechdel Test and Bechdel Theatre are in my opinion one of the most important companies in the arts at the moment,” says Anthony. “Their aim is to bring awareness to pieces of theatre that have strong feminist bases. The test is simple:
1. Are there two women on stage?
2. Are they talking to each other?
3. Does that conversation involve anything except men and relationships?
Congrats – you have been approved.

“Why it is so important to me? In short, there is too little theatre around with strong female characters, and too much that thinks their characters adequately represent real women. It has always been a strong passion of mine to create parts for women and to prove that feminism and equality aren’t fads… they are here to stay. Having Sanctuary Bechdel approved not only proves that we have been able to, but also helps to raise awareness of this glaring issue and highlights to fellow feminists the theatre they should be seeing.”

London and Merseyside-based Now You Know Productions was founded four years ago. “We started as most small companies do, with a few friends, in a bar, wanting to take a piece of theatre to the Edinburgh Fringe, and we did,” says Anthony. “We took I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change up and haven’t looked back since.

“Since our first outing, Now You Know has grown and developed into the company it is now, a company who creates new and exciting theatre that constantly tries to break the mould and highlight the real issues at hand. We are always looking for the next best play and team and constantly growing. Commercial theatre to some extent has forgotten what theatre is for, which is to enlighten, to teach and to empower… we have not forgotten this message.”

Sanctuary opens at the Tristan Bates on 14th August. “I think people should come and see the play because it’s exciting, different and the themes are important,” says Anthony. “It’s not just another millennial piece of theatre where boy meets girl – it has a message and a purpose, one which I think matters. That’s why we decided to go to the Tristan Bates, a space that prides itself on fringe theatre at the front of change.

“Also having won best play, as well as highly commended directing and acting at the Stockwell Playhouse One Act Festival, people don’t need to just take my word for it.”

Book now for Sanctuary at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 14th-19th August.