Review: Moormaid at The Arcola Theatre

The fact that the opening scene, in which disenchanted art teacher Melissa tries to hang herself with her favourite scarf, isn’t the most dramatic moment in Moormaid immediately tells you quite a lot about Marion Bott’s play. When her attempt to end it all is interrupted by the arrival of Mehdi, a former student who stood her up for dinner two years earlier and hasn’t been seen since, things start to get really messy – in more ways than one.

Photo credit: Anika Wagner

This is partly because Melissa (Sarah Alles) has since got married to Simon, who’s away a lot for work and with whom she maintains a cheery but detached phone relationship; they sound more like old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while than two newly-weds. But complications arise mostly because Mehdi (Moe Bar-El) isn’t alone; he’s accompanied by his own personal ghost – his friend Khan (Ali Azhar), who he abandoned in the desert while they were both off fighting for IS.

This fact, revealed partially in Act 1 and confirmed in Act 2, feels at odds with the mercy mission that brings Mehdi to Melissa’s apartment, and the way in which his intervention “saves” her not only from her suicide attempt but potentially also from a meaningless, joyless future. This in turn prompts an interesting debate: is it possible for someone who’s been radicalised – and acted on it – to still be the person their friends and family once knew, and is redemption ever really an option for someone who’s committed such acts of brutality? Mehdi’s left the desert behind and seems to feel real remorse; on first meeting he’s a nice enough guy, and his adoration of Melissa appears to be genuine, if a little overbearing and dysfunctional (he calls her “Miss Darwood” far more than he uses her first name, and essentially asks to revive their teacher-student relationship by requesting painting lessons in exchange for the pleasure of his company). And yet he also admits to being a killer, and there are a couple of explosive, unsettling moments in Act 2 where we really believe it – all credit to Moe Bar-El’s excellent and chillingly convincing performance.

Mehdi isn’t the only one who’s complex and contradictory, however; all three characters are more than they first appear, and this is reflected in their sensitive portrayals from not only Bar-El, but also Sarah Alles and Ali Azhar, all making their UK debuts in convincing style. After the initial shock of seeing him, Alles’ Melissa somehow maintains an air of dignified authority despite the predicament in which Mehdi finds her, and the chemistry between the two is very believable. As Khan, Ali Azhar brings a different kind of energy to the room; there’s a restless, pent-up anger and hurt over what’s happened to him, and constant reminders of where he’s been and what he was doing – but there’s also a playful and surprisingly likeable side to his character, which further blurs the line between friend and terrorist.

Photo credit: Anika Wagner

Director Zois Pigadas takes Bott’s script and gives it an additional artistic twist, with Melissa and Mehdi painting each other’s bodies and engaging in dizzyingly hypnotic movement sequences as the tension between them builds and, finally, erupts. Some of the cultural references – specifically to “the androgynous” – are perhaps a bit on the obscure side (they went over my head, anyway), but fine performances and an intelligent, balanced portrayal of radicalisation and the psyche of a terrorist make Moormaid well worth a look.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre

Imagine for a moment what would happen if Albert Einstein met Marilyn Monroe. And then imagine their spirited discussion about the theory of relativity being interrupted by first Joe DiMaggio, who hasn’t seen his wife for two weeks and wants her to come home, and then Senator Joseph McCarthy, who’s trying to drag Einstein to an un-American Activities Committee hearing.

Having trouble? Well then get yourself along to the Arcola, where Terry Johnson’s Insignificance imagines it for you. Directed by David Mercatali, the result is an enjoyably (and perhaps predictably) bizarre encounter that begins as a comedy but ends up in significantly darker territory. Written in 1982, it’s a play that seems to be about a lot of things, much of which a 21st century audience can still relate to – among them the downsides of fame, the threat of nuclear war and the stereotyping of women.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Simon Rouse’s Professor and Alice Bailey Johnson’s Actress (none of the characters are referred to by their names, although the script, costumes and performances leave us in no doubt who we’re looking at) find a surprising connection when she bursts into his Manhattan hotel room eager to meet him and prove she understands the theory of relativity. As someone whose scientific knowledge is limited to say the least, I don’t mind admitting I got totally lost during her increasingly enthusiastic recital – not helped by the fact it’s delivered at the speed of light – but that doesn’t prevent it being the defining moment of the play. You can’t help but cheer a little bit to see Marilyn shrug off her dumb blonde persona and take on one of the brainiest men on the planet… and then again when she takes down the infinitely easier target that is her abrasive, gum-popping husband with a series of withering retorts.

At the root of this triumphant moment, though, is a deep sadness that only grows as the play goes on. The Actress desperately wants to be taken seriously, but is constantly thwarted by the image she’s created for herself. Similarly, the mild-mannered Professor just wants to sit and quietly work out the shape of space, but is pursued by the expectations of others, and the use to which his name and work could be put, should he allow them to be. Each has grown used to the world knowing them only by their public persona, which is why this odd pair make a strange kind of sense – certainly more so than the Actress and the Ball Player, who don’t seem to get each other at all. Joe DiMaggio, played with swagger and just a hint of appealing vulnerability by Oliver Hembrough, is fine with people seeing him exactly as he is, just as long as they still see him… which is probably why the suggestion that he’s merely a creation dreamed up by Tom Mannion’s malicious Senator riles him so badly.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Though rooted in troubling subject matter, Johnson’s script is full of witty one-liners, from inside jokes about Schrödinger’s cat and Arthur Miller to more universal gags, most at the expense of the less intellectually blessed characters. In between the four of them talk at length about various topics, from the scientific to the political to the domestic, in a production that tails off to a vaguely unsatisfactory conclusion – so much so that we end up wondering if the bizarre events of the night happened at all.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Insignificance, not least the strong performances from four actors seemingly unfazed by the pressure of playing real – and in at least two cases, iconic – historical figures. The Professor and the Actress might not succeed in teaching us much science, but their imagined encounter does pose some interesting questions about the self-defeating nature of celebrity. It’s a bit of a slow burner on the night, but this is the kind of play that stays in your mind, throwing up more ideas and discussions the longer you think about it. Well worth a visit, if only for the thrill of witnessing such an unlikely meeting of minds.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: The Pulverised at Arcola Theatre

Alexandra Badea’s The Pulverised is all about connection. Or rather, the lack of it. Globalisation may be bringing everyone closer together on a business level, the play argues, but at what cost to us as human beings? Following the stories of four professionals based in different countries but working for the same multinational corporation, Badea paints a catastrophic picture of lives without meaning, families who barely know each other, and identities lost to the corporate machine. In keeping with this, director Andy Sava situates Lucy Phelps’ translation in a scene of carnage; the stage is littered with smashed office equipment and rubble, and four bodies lie inert on the ground.

Photo credit: Dashti Jahfar

A Quality Assurance of Subcontractors Manager from Lyon (Richard Corgan) wakes up in a characterless hotel room and for a minute can’t remember what country he’s in. A factory worker in Shanghai (Rebecca Boey) spends her days on a production line in which any loss of speed and efficiency could cost her job – or worse. An ambitious Call Centre Team Leader in Dakar (Solomon Israel) can’t understand why a new recruit might object to adopting a French name in place of her own. And a Research and Development Engineer in Bucharest (Kate Miles) spends time with her family the only way she can – by spying on them via CCTV while she’s at the office.

The character profiles are deliberately vague; they’re all just one more nameless face in the rat race of global business, taking it in turns to address the audience in the second person and make the point that any one of them could be any one of us. The dialogue is rapid, and there’s a constant sense of urgency and pressure, of time being short – “the clock’s ticking, and you’re falling behind” is a frequent refrain, as is the supposedly motivational “aim for excellence”. In between their scenes, the actors crumple to the ground as if too exhausted to react to anything beyond their own experience, raising their heads to monotonously voice secondary characters in other stories, before powering back up to continue their own.

This unusual structure effectively conveys the isolation of the characters, though it does run the risk of becoming repetitive, particularly as the play is more a collection of snapshots than a story in the traditional sense, and we end pretty much where we began. It’s testament to the engaging performances of the four actors that the play holds our attention for the full 90 minutes, with each capturing the emotional and mental strain faced by their character, but also the absolute impossibility of breaking free from their soul-destroying routine. Simultaneously they – and we – are bombarded by a multimedia sensory overload, with video projections from Ashley Ogden particularly effective at demonstrating the constant flow of data and images that’s become part of 21st century life.

Photo credit: Dashti Jahfar

The Pulverised is a relentlessly bleak piece of theatre. Nobody gets a happy ending, and even for the characters who are offered an opportunity to escape, there’s a depressing sense that nothing is really going to change. But the play does force us to confront for a moment the damaging effects of progress, to reflect on that ‘made in China’ label that allowed us to pay half price, and also to consider our own priorities and work-life balance. The piece-by-piece breaking down of the set’s rear wall offers the tiniest glimpse of an emergency exit for those brave enough to take it, and the suggestion that while we may not be able to stop globalisation, we can at least save ourselves from being pulverised by it.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Cargo at Arcola Theatre

We’re all used to hearing about refugees by now. A bit too used to it, actually; we hear the word so often these days that it’s begun to lose all meaning. It’s a sad but undeniable fact that the sight of terrified people risking everything to flee their homes has become ordinary, everyday… and with the click of a remote, even the most compassionate among us have the power to change the channel and dismiss the pictures from our minds. It’s something that happens to other people, from countries far away, so it’s easy to distance ourselves from the situation.

Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo offers its audience no such luxury. For 80 gruelling minutes, we’re trapped in the dark, claustrophobic belly of a ship with four terrified refugees: Iz (Jack Gouldbourne) and his big sister Joey (Milly Thomas), Sarah (Debbie Korley) and Kayffe (John Schwab). We don’t – at least initially – know where they’ve come from, or what’s led them to leave behind everything they know and love and embark on such a dangerous journey. All we know is that they’re headed for Europe, the promised land where a golden future awaits them… if they can only get there.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Director David Mercatali and designer Max Dorey pull no punches in their efforts to give us an authentic experience. Seated on wooden crates and plunged more than once into prolonged and total darkness, we’re kept in a state of constant, deliberate discomfort, and spared nothing; even the loo bucket is only inches from the audience (and yes, it does get used – more than once). As the journey unfolds in real time, the four characters form – and just as quickly break – alliances, swap stories, and try to decide who they can trust. And gradually, a truth begins to emerge that suddenly puts a very different complexion on our understanding of what – and who – a ‘refugee’ is.

In the tiny, cramped space, we’re treated to four exquisite performances from Cargo’s actors. Each of these characters has lived through horrors we can’t even imagine, and it’s affected them all in different ways. John Schwab is excellent as Kayffe, a mysterious American who constantly rewrites his own history until we can no longer tell truth from lies, and Debbie Korley gives a haunting performance as the fragile Sarah – even as she makes plans for a new life in Scandinavia, she can’t quite leave behind the things she’s had to do to get this far. In contrast, Jack Gouldbourne is almost puppy-like as Iz, full of innocent and heart-breaking optimism about the future, while Milly Thomas’ Joey is hardened and cautious, forced to take on the role of mother to her little brother, knowing deep down that she won’t always be able to keep him safe.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Don’t expect an easy ride with Cargo; it’s almost unbearably tense from the moment you step inside the dingy, cramped space, and it forces its audience to confront two very uncomfortable truths: first, this is happening right now to unimaginable numbers of people, and will continue whether or not we turn off the TV. And second, it might not be happening to us – but that doesn’t mean it never could.

Devastating and unsettling it may be, but this timely and compelling piece of theatre is nonetheless essential viewing.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Theatre round-up: 30 Aug 2015

Back on track after a week off, here’s what I’ve seen this week (plus one from the week before):

Twelfth Night

My second visit to see Oddsocks, whilst on holiday in Guernsey. Castle Cornet is a lovely setting, even when it pours with rain, and Oddsocks never fail to entertain with their unique, family-friendly approach to Shakespeare. Their Twelfth Night is a Britpop musical featuring hits from the likes of Adele, Roxy Music, Take That and – yes, really – PJ & Duncan. As always, you never quite know what to expect from an Oddsocks show, but it’s always a safe bet that it’ll be great fun.

Twelfth Night review

Madama Butterfly

I’m no expert on opera, but of the ones I know, this is a favourite. And this particular version, part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Theatre, is different to any I’ve seen before. It’s a unique reinterpretation of the classic story, based on Japanese ghost stories, with a set that looks like something out of a horror movie. But it still retains the emotional punch of the original, thanks to the intimate, candle-lit setting and incredible performances – from the entire cast, but particularly from Natasha Rouhl as the tragic heroine, Butterfly.

Madama Butterfly review for LondonTheatre1

You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews

Yes, that is actually the name of the show; it’s a quote from Monty Python musical, Spamalot. This is a gloriously, unashamedly stagey celebration of the contribution made by Jewish people to musical theatre over the last century. Which actually includes a lot more shows than I realised – Hairspray, The Wizard of Oz, Fame, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Godspell… even my favourite, Les Mis. The show, at St James Theatre, is fast-moving (sometimes a bit too fast), funny and filled with sensational performances from the cast of singers and dancers. If you’re a fan of musical theatre, this is the show for you.

You won’t succeed… review for Carn’s Theatre Passion

The Lion King

This was probably my fifth visit to see The Lion King, one of my favourite shows ever since I first saw it years ago. I don’t know how, but it somehow manages to turn me into a child, and by the time that opening scene (in my opinion, probably one of the best of any show) finally started, I was basically bouncing up and down in my seat like a five-year-old. And it was just as good as I remembered. Between the story, the humour, the music, the set and the incredible puppetry, it’s all brilliant, and so much fun it’s impossible to resist.

Bonus – this time, I was with a friend who’d never been to a musical before, so I was also really excited for her. And although I’d briefed her on the fake happy noises she was to make if she didn’t enjoy the show, the good news is that none were required, because she loved it too.

This week's theatre




Kinky Boots – Adelphi Theatre

Thoroughly Modern Millie – Landor Theatre

The Man Who Had All the Luck (End of Moving Walkway) – King’s Head Theatre