Review: The White Rose at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Best known for their adaptations of literary classics, Arrows & Traps have taken a different approach in their latest production, The White Rose. An original piece written and directed by Ross McGregor, based on Richard Hanser’s A Noble Treason, the play tells the powerful true story of Sophie Scholl who, along with her brother Hans, was the leader of a resistance group – known as the White Rose – and was arrested and executed in 1943 for distributing leaflets denouncing Hitler’s regime. The structure of the play interposes scenes of Sophie’s interrogation with the story of the White Rose, telling an extraordinary tale of courage in the face of tyranny, and posing some important questions that resonate now more than ever with a modern day audience.

First of all, to anyone who fears that the company moving away from its roots was a bad idea, let me put your mind at rest: I think it’s very possible that The White Rose is the Arrows’ best show yet. It’s certainly the one that’s had the biggest impact on me personally – although leaving the theatre I couldn’t quite decide if I was sad, inspired, furious or terrified at the state of the world (both past and present).

The White Rose at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

The outstanding ensemble cast don’t put a foot wrong – both metaphorically and literally; like all Arrows productions, this is a play where every movement has meaning – and make us feel every emotion: there’s desperation and anger in abundance, but in lighter moments we’re also given the chance to appreciate the optimism and camaraderie of young people who want to make the world a better place. And through it all runs fear: the fear of being caught, of speaking out, of losing friends – but on the other side of the scales sits the fear of keeping quiet and what that could potentially lead to.

From Christopher Tester’s conflicted Gestapo officer Robert Mohr to Pearce Sampson’s quietly courageous Christoph Probst; Conor Moss’ witty Alexander Schmorell to Will Pinchin’s intense, furious Hans Scholl, every character has their own voice, and their own reason for behaving as they do. But above all, this is Sophie’s story, and just as she’s welcomed into her brother’s group of friends, Lucy Ioannou proves to be a fantastic new recruit to the Arrows family, balancing perfectly Sophie’s youth, wit and innocence with the courage and moral strength that will lead her to risk everything for what’s right.

With resident Movement Director Will Pinchin taking to the stage as Hans, Roman Berry seamlessly takes up the mantle, producing thrilling, immaculately choreographed dreamlike sequences reminiscent of the company’s earlier work. The cinematic quality of the play is further enhanced by the inclusion of video footage at the beginning of each act, which shows chilling scenes of Hitler addressing adoring crowds, and drives home more powerfully than any words the impossibility of what the White Rose is trying to do.

The White Rose at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

The script teases out parallels between 1943 and 2018, without beating us around the head with them, and also makes a point of reminding us that Nazism wasn’t always death camps and terror in the streets; Hitler came to power on the promise of rebuilding Germany, and everyone – including Sophie and Hans – believed him. The play celebrates and acknowledges the White Rose’s sacrifice, but at the same time attempts to understand why everyone else stayed silent even when things went bad. Some, like Sophie’s fiance Fritz (Freddie Cambanakis), feared the repercussions of resistance; some, like her cellmate Else (Cornelia Baumann) optimistically believed it would all soon be over; others, like Gestapo officer Mohr, genuinely thought Hitler had made things better. In allowing these characters to have their say, the play becomes something far more complex than simply good versus evil, and is all the richer for it.

Despite being very well known in Germany, very few of us here in Britain know the story of Sophie Scholl. The White Rose aims to set that right with this powerful, emotional tribute, but also seizes the opportunity to explore the many unnerving similarities between then and now. It’s uncomfortable, and devastating, and you should definitely go and see it.

The White Rose is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 4th August.


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Interview: Ross McGregor, The White Rose

Arrows & Traps have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with over the last few years with their unique and exciting adaptations of classic works of literature, from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky. But next week marks a new chapter for the company, as they present The White Rose, the first original play written by Arrows founder and artistic director Ross McGregor.

The White Rose tells the true account of the life of Sophie Scholl, a young student in Hitler’s Germany, who, with her brother Hans, forms a group of intellectual freedom fighters – calling themselves The White Rose,” explains Ross. “Together they lead the only major act of civil disobedience to the Third Reich. They have serious objections to what their government is doing during the war, particularly in Russia and Poland, and decide to voice their opinions in a series of leaflets that they write and distribute covertly all across Germany. Their resistance to the regime, although pacifist and passive in nature, causes major shockwaves all across the country, just at the point in 1943 when the war is turning in the Allies’ favour. It’s the story of a small group of young people standing up to the greatest act of brutality that modern history has ever seen.”

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

Ross first heard Sophie’s story earlier this year on a podcast called ‘The women who changed history but were ultimately forgotten by it’, and realised that here in Britain, we know very little about her. “I don’t think the story is that well-known, at least not in England, and this production seeks, in a very small way, to rectify that. In Germany, Hans and Sophie Scholl are national heroes, with over 190 schools named in their honour, streets, town squares, foundations, museums – one of the group was even made a saint. In a recent poll on German television, German citizens were asked to vote for their Greatest German. Sophie and Hans came fourth. They beat Einstein, Bach and Beethoven. I felt this was a female-led story that needed to be told – and with the world as it is currently, and how those in power are treating the weak and vulnerable, it seemed incredibly topical.”

In light of recent news headlines (and the arrival of a certain U.S. president in London), the story of The White Rose feels even more frighteningly relevant. “You would hope that the horrors of the Third Reich were behind us, but you only have to turn on the news to see the latest updates on the concentration camps in America – land of the free,” says Ross. “Concentration camps are defined as a location where individuals are detained against their will indefinitely without trial, and that is exactly what the Trump administration is currently doing. Children are being separated from their parents, and specific minorities are being targeted as enemies of the state, being compared to criminals without a crime actually being committed. Our future lies in the voices of the next generation, and the principles that Sophie and the other members of the White Rose stood for are as valid and vital today as they were in 1943.”

The White Rose marks the next step in the Arrows journey, which began back in 2014 with Much Ado About Nothing at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre. “Since 2016, our last Shakespeare show, we’ve been moving towards more modern work – mainly because we’ve done so many Shakespeare plays, and he’s not writing any more so we’re running out of material,” says Ross, who’s directed all twelve Arrows productions to date. “I have a deep love of Russian literature, and so that was our focus to begin with, with Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. As we moved forward, I began writing the shows, beginning with a Frankenstein that served also as a biopic of Mary Shelley herself, and an entirely new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted from the original Russian and a literal translation. After some success in the format, I felt it was time to do an original piece, without the comfort blanket of it being an adaptation, and Sophie’s story completely gripped me.

“When I was writing The White Rose there was an increased level of freedom, as the play has never been performed before, and you don’t have any ghosts of previous performances to exorcise or measure up to, but the writing of the script took a huge amount of research, which was a fascinating and thoroughly engrossing process. What quickly became clear was that all of the characters in the play could have had a play written about them, the source material was that rich, so it became more about working out what the focus was, and pairing the original story down into a theatrical form. Decide the story you want to tell, and try to tell it as cleanly and clearly as possible. It’s been an incredible honour to work on such a rich and detailed piece of history.”

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

While adapting works of literature carries with it an obligation to honour both the source text and those who know and love it, Ross argues that telling a story based on real historical figures is an even greater responsibility: “With our previous work in adaptations, we tried to serve the fanbase of the original novels, whilst still infusing each piece with something original and modern, but with The White Rose we’re dealing with a true story, involving real people, real crimes, real deaths, and several members of the story are still alive today. There was an immense responsibility to stay true to the actual events that took place 75 years ago, to the extent that the script uses verbatim pieces of text from diaries, court transcripts, first person accounts and interrogation documents. The story was unbelievably brave, heartbreaking and inspiring just as it was, without any embellishment, and I wanted to honour the sacrifice this incredible group of young people made.”

Regular Arrows fans will recognise many familiar faces in the cast of The White Rose, which opens next week at the Brockley Jack Studio. “With this being such a special show, filled with such rich and nuanced characters, I wanted a cast that represented the best of what Arrows & Traps had to offer. Eight of the nine members of the cast are returning members to the company, and it filled me with such joy to cast them before the script was written, as it allowed me to write for the actors, and cultivate roles that I knew would challenge them, as well as play to their strengths.  I think a large part of the enjoyment of coming to see an Arrows show, as we’re a rep company, is to watch familiar faces in contrasting roles, and appreciate how that ensemble dynamic changes and shifts across the different texts we tackle. 

“We have our resident Movement Director Will Pinchin, who was an Off West End Award finalist for his portrayal of the Creature in our recent Frankenstein, returning as Hans Scholl. We have Off West End Award Best Actor nominee Christopher Tester (Crime and Punishment, Frankenstein) as Gestapo Interrogator Robert Mohr, Pearce Sampson (Macbeth, Gospel According to Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night, Three Sisters) returning as the heartbreakingly tragic Christoph Probst,  Conor Moss (Three Sisters) as the blisteringly funny Alexander Schmorell, Freddie Cambanakis (Three Sisters) as the dashing heartthrob Fritz Hartnagel, Beatrice Vincent (Frankenstein) as the powerhouse Traute Lafrenz, Alex Stevens (Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Gospel According To Philip, Othello, Twelfth Night) returning as moral compass Willi Graf, and of course Cornelia Baumann (Taming Of The Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Othello, Frankenstein, Three Sisters) playing Sophie’s cellmate Else Gebel. It’s gotten to the point where I’m not sure it would be an Arrows show if Cornelia wasn’t in it, she’s the heart of the company, and the best actress I’ve ever worked with. 

Photo credit: Arrows & Traps

“And lastly, but of course by no means least, we have the wonderful talent of Lucy Ioannou in the title role of Sophie Scholl. Although Lucy is new to the company, she has blown me away in rehearsal with her dedication to the role – she’s incredibly talented and an absolute joy to direct. For me, three weeks into rehearsal, she is Sophie Scholl.”

The Arrows’ next production after The White Rose sees a return to classic literature, as they turn their attention to a chilling new adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Dracula is again a new piece written in-house, which is going to be at the Brockley Jack just in time for Halloween,” says Ross. “Whilst having the focus of being an utterly terrifying experience, we’re also going to simultaneously tell the story of Bram Stoker, and his tumultuous relationship with infamous actor, arguably the most famous of his generation, Henry Irving. As the writer and director of the show, I’m currently in the research stages for the piece, and I cannot wait for it – we’re certainly ending the year with a bang, and have something truly spectacular planned for the new year, which I can’t talk about just yet. 

“I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention Artistic Director Kate Bannister, and Producer Karl Swinyard, at the Brockley Jack, who have supported our work for the last three years, and given us a home in which to cultivate our creative direction and find the work we wanted to make. You cannot hope to meet a more generous and caring theatre management team than Kate and Karl – they’re the best of the best, always on your side, and always open to taking new work. Kate fell in love with Sophie’s story from Day One, as she passionately cares about telling female-led stories, and supporting new writing, and it’s been such an honour to work with them on a great season so far.”

The White Rose runs from 17th July to 4th August at the Brockley Jack Studio.

Review: Three Sisters at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

It only takes one look at Odin Corie’s set – a light, sophisticated and immaculately decorated family room, which makes the intimate Brockley Jack Studio look far bigger than it is – to understand that with their third foray into the Russian classics, Arrows and Traps mean business. Following the success of their Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment in 2016 and ’17 respectively, the multi-Offie nominated company has now turned its attention to Chekhov, with a new adaptation of Three Sisters written and directed by Ross McGregor.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

Set in a Russian garrison town, the play immediately introduces the eponymous three sisters: Olga (the responsible one), Masha (the passionate one) and Irina (the romantic one). One year on from the death of their father, all three yearn to find some joy and purpose in a life that’s become relentlessly dull and ordinary. They believe the answer lies in their long-held dream of returning to Moscow – and yet, four years later, we find them exactly where they began, having moved precisely nowhere. This inertia means that not only have they not found happiness; they’re also significantly worse off, thanks to their brother Andrei (Spencer Lee Osborne). He’s led them into ruin with his gambling habit and disastrous marriage to Natasha (Hannah Victory) – a local girl they all once looked down on, but who now rules the roost with an iron fist and has, little by little, driven them out of their own home.

The substantial cast of fourteen is uniformly excellent. Cornelia Baumann never disappoints, and she hits the target again with her fragile and lonely Olga, trapped in a public service job she never wanted because she’s too nice to say no. At the other end of the scale, Claire Bowman is full of uncompromising fire as the sharp-tongued Masha; her disdain for her comically ridiculous husband Fyodor (Stephen MacNeice, whose plaintive insistence that he’s a happy man becomes harder and harder to believe) is matched only by her passion for the equally unhappily married Colonel Vershinin (Toby Wynn-Davies). Somewhere in the middle, Victoria Llewellyn balances the two out as the youngest sister Irina, soaring from ecstatic highs to desperate lows in her search for an idealistic true love that seems doomed to end in tragedy.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

The production also makes interesting use of music, with musical director Elliot Clay combining sweeping orchestral tracks with a more modern twist provided by guitar-toting soldiers Vladimir and Alexei (Freddie Cambanakis and Ashley Cavender), and – in a rare moment of joyful abandon – a traditional Russian singalong that might just have you reaching for the vodka, and will almost certainly get stuck in your head, possibly forever. (Just to make sure, they sing it twice.)

At 2 hours and 45 minutes it’s not a short play, but we easily become invested enough in the characters that the story remains compelling, and under Ross McGregor’s direction it never feels like the pace is too slow – all the more impressive when you consider this is, by its very nature, a play where the characters talk a lot but don’t do much. Five years of consistent excellence from Arrows and Traps have set the bar incredibly high – but while Three Sisters perhaps lacks a little of the cinematic grandeur we’ve seen in the company’s earlier work, this is still without doubt a stylish and beautifully acted piece of storytelling.

Three Sisters is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 14th April.


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Review: Frankenstein at the Jack Studio Theatre

It’s quite a feat to breathe new life into one of the world’s most popular and iconic novels – but there’s no doubt Arrows & Traps’ Ross McGregor has succeeded with his adaptation of Frankenstein. Like the novel, it tells both Frankenstein’s and the Creature’s story, but reframes these within a fascinating insight into the life of their creator, Mary Shelley. The result is thrilling, poignant, often surprisingly funny and – unsurprisingly – visually beautiful, and it allows us to consider the themes of the novel in a whole new way.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

In fact, this is much more Mary’s story than it is Frankenstein’s, and the always brilliant Cornelia Baumann leads the cast with a moving portrayal of the troubled writer, now older and suffering with ill health and bad memories. Drawn into a passionate romance with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was still a teenager, despite the disapproval of society and the attempts of her father William Godwin to keep them apart, she went on to face the tragic loss of three of her four children, a near-fatal miscarriage and then the death of her husband in a shipwreck not long afterwards. In light of all this, it makes sense that the adaptation of her novel focuses primarily on the relationship between parent and child, and invites us to question what it is that makes someone a parent in the first place.

A real highlight of the show is seeing Will Pinchin – the Arrows’ Movement Director – take to the stage for the first time as the Creature. Having admired his work in many previous productions, it’s great to see it in the flesh, and his performance proves to be worth the wait. Unlike the classic Hollywood portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster who was “born” evil, this Creature starts out as a gentle soul, a frightened, child-like figure eager to learn and play. It’s the rejection of those he loves that creates the monster, and Pinchin’s cold fury and sharp intellect in the play’s later scenes are far more chilling than any lumbering movie depiction. Christopher Tester’s Frankenstein, meanwhile, undergoes a similar transformation from a likeable, earnest young geek to an obsessive genius, capable of creating life but not appreciating its true worth.

With three interwoven stories, all taking place at different times and in different locations and a lot of historical information to digest, there are occasions when it becomes a little hard to follow; some knowledge of the novel is also probably an advantage to help pinpoint where we are in the chain of events. But the skill of the actors (and a few swift wardrobe changes) ensures that despite some significant multi-roling – particularly from Oliver Brassell, who plays no fewer than four major characters – we can always identify who we’re looking at.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Another bonus is the presence of some strong female characters. Shelley’s novel is dominated by men, but here we have not only Mary herself but also her two sisters Fanny and Claire – as well as Agatha, the young blind woman who teaches the Creature to speak and read. Played by Zoe Dales, she’s enjoyably feisty and sarcastic, but also a rare source of compassion in a world that’s far too quick to reject them both just because they’re different.

As in all Arrows productions, there’s also a lot going on visually – from Odin Corie’s steampunk-inspired costumes to Ben Jacobs’ lighting design, which combined with sound from Alistair Lax creates some striking moments. Most impressive is the sequence in which the Creature first comes to life; it never fails to amaze how this company can create such drama on such a small stage.

Frankenstein is the first Arrows show written by artistic director Ross McGregor, who must be feeling a certain sympathy for Mary Shelley seeing his baby come to life on stage every night. But I don’t think this ingenious creation will be turning on its parent any time soon.


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Interview: Ross McGregor, Frankenstein

Arrows & Traps were last seen at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre in February with their acclaimed production of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Now they’ve turned their attention to another classic novel: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“It’s the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s original novel, so it seemed a great time to tackle the piece,” says director and writer Ross McGregor. “Frankenstein is so iconic as well, it’s ingrained in our literary and cinematic history, and there’s been over 100 different adaptations both on stage and screen. It’s such a flexible and deep piece of literature – I found the ideas that Shelley talks about in the novel to be fascinating and worthy of dramatic exploration. Plus, it’s just so much fun to do. There’s literally a scene when a monster made of dead people comes to life. You don’t get that in Alan Ayckbourn.”

Frankenstein is the eleventh show from Arrows & Traps, known for their innovative adaptations of literary classics – and it could be their most ambitious project yet. “In many ways, it has all the hallmarks of an Arrows show: the tight ensemble work, the physical pieces, the fluid staging and the excitement of seeing a classic story told in a new, and hopefully interesting, way,” says Ross. “What makes Frankenstein different from anything we’ve done before is that we’re telling three stories at once. Victor’s, The Creature’s, but also Mary Shelley’s. It’s a triple narrative all being told simultaneously, which makes for some exciting viewing.

“Also, this is the first production that I’ve actually written myself, as well as directing it, so rehearsals have been a voyage of discovery in terms of staging the piece, finding what works, what needs clarifying, and how best to tell the stories we want to tell. It’s been a fascinating and gruelling process of vision and revision. I’m slowly learning the importance of being able to kill your darlings.

“There are moments when it is as though the ghosts in my head are literally manifesting in front of me, which is very moving and humbling, and there is always a great relief when a particular bit or a specific scene is rehearsed and it ‘works’. So often what might look acceptable on paper doesn’t then work in performance, so it’s always lovely to see something that translates and makes the leap. The cast is bringing an awful lot to the roles though, and I’m constantly surprised by all the new layers they’re discovering. It’s been a joy to be involved in.”

Ross explains that in his research for the show, he became fascinated by the story of Mary Shelley: “Her world was filled with characters such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, her father William Godwin, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her sisters Jane and Fanny, Shelley’s wife Harriet – all of these people would have made a great play in their own right – but what principally struck me was the notion of all the strange parallels in her own life to Frankenstein. Now Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was nineteen, and although there were definitely things in her childhood that inspired her to write the book, her subsequent life after the novel’s publication shared many strange links to the book, almost as though she cursed herself by writing it. The more I delved into the real story around Frankenstein, the more I wanted to include it in the play.

“So yes, Mary is a main character in the show. And not just as a narrator, she has a part to play in it. She’s older now, suffering from a terminal brain tumour in fact, and is tormented by something that happened in her youth. Something that ties directly into Frankenstein. And so as we see the story of Victor and his Creature unfold, we also see Mary relive her past, with the cast playing roles in both worlds, leaping from one timeline to the other. It’s something of a rollercoaster to watch. I’m very excited about it.”

In adapting the novel, Ross encountered various challenges – one of which was sidestepping the traditional Hollywood image of Frankenstein’s monster. “Initially, I was very faithful,” he explains. “I had always seen the Creature as this lumbering, bolts in the neck, flat-headed lummox that groaned at people, but in the novel, he’s very graceful and agile. The Creature in the novel is very eloquent and possibly as smart as his creator. I wanted to try and mimic that, because I hadn’t found a version where that had ever been attempted.

“In the novel also, there’s no motivation for Victor’s need to create this monster – he just does it because he can. So I knew I wanted to humanise Victor and make him more sympathetic, more flawed, more human, more understandably motivated. So it’s been about balancing those two things. Also, the novel itself isn’t very dramatic and doesn’t lend itself easily to being dramatised. The iconic bits that you probably think of when you think of ‘Frankenstein’ are not from the novel. There’s no ‘IT’S ALIVE!’, there’s no character called Igor, there’s not even any mention of the Creature being scarred or covered in stitches or bolts. All of that is from the films.

“The novel concerns itself with ideas of nature versus nurture, of the perils of parenthood and the isolation caused by abandonment. The hubris of genius. So in adapting it, I have tried to stay true to Mary Shelley’s vision, whilst constructing something that stands on its own two feet as a piece of theatre. And from being in rehearsal, I can certainly tell you we’re making something inherently theatrical.”

The show’s cast includes a mix of Arrows veterans and new recruits: “The brilliant Christopher Tester plays Victor Frankenstein; Arrows fans may recall his recent performance as Raskolnikov in our last production Crime and Punishment, for which he was nominated for an Off West End Award for Best Male. We have the incredibly talented Cornelia Baumann returning to play Mary Shelley, after her recent turn as Olivia and Emilia in our repertory Shakespeare season of Twelfth Night and Othello last year, and we are honoured to have our resident movement director genius Will Pinchin playing the Creature, which I’m so excited about as I’ve wanted to get Will on stage in one of our shows for years. 

“We have Philip Ridout, of this year’s festival circuit hit Dogged fame, playing William Godwin, and recent Oxford School of Drama graduate Victoria Llewellyn playing Elizabeth Lavenza. I recently had the honour of directing for Fourth Monkey Theatre Company as part of their One Year Actor Training program so we’ve got three of their very talented graduates involved: Zoe Dales playing Agatha, Beatrice Vincent playing Fanny Imlay and Oliver Brassell playing Henry Clerval. It is an honour to have all these guys involved and the benefit of knowing who the cast were when the script was still under construction was that I could write it with them in mind and tailor it to them.”

With Halloween just around the corner, theatregoers in search of something a bit scary are likely to have plenty of options – so why should we book to see Frankenstein? Over to the writer: “It’s a gothic steampunk horror set in two different timelines, playing just before Halloween, in one of London’s most iconic and welcoming fringe venues, by a company that cares greatly for the source material and has spent the last three years working to hone their skills and push fringe theatre to the limit of what it can do in terms of ensemble, spectacle and excitement. Frankenstein is quite scary, quite funny, quite sad, and very very exciting. I’d definitely go, and I’m rubbish with scary things.”

Frankenstein opens at the Brockley Jack on 26th September, continuing until 21st October, followed by a brief run at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford from 2nd-4th November.