Interview: Alice McCarthy, Rotterdam

The two years since Rotterdam‘s critically acclaimed debut run at Theatre 503 have been eventful, to say the least. Jon Brittain’s bittersweet comedy about gender and sexuality, directed by Donnacadh O’Briain, not only transferred to Trafalgar Studios and enjoyed a sell-out run in New York; it also won the 2017 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. And this month the fairy tale continues with a further London transfer, this time to the Arts Theatre, where the play will run from 21st June to 15th July.

Rotterdam is a warm, hilarious, appalling and devastating firecracker of a story, with a simple human love story at its heart,” explains Alice McCarthy, an original cast member returning once again to the role of Alice – who’s about to finally come out as a lesbian when her girlfriend announces she wants to start living as a man. As Fiona begins the transition to life as Adrian, Alice is left wondering if this means she’s now straight…

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography

Alice is joined by Anna Martine Freeman and Ed Eales-White, who also reprise their roles in the play, along with newcomer Ellie Morris, taking over from Jessica Clark as Alice’s free-spirited colleague Lelani. “It’s very exciting, of course, to be able to sit with a character for two years,” says Alice. “Relationships change and deepen, and I am discovering new sides to Alice all the time. Reuniting with the team is always fantastic and means that these long relationships between our characters now make more sense, as we do actually know each other better! Also, Lelani is now played by the lovely Ellie Morris, which has meant new colours and an exciting opportunity to look at all those scenes in a fresh light.”

Jon Brittain wrote Rotterdam after a couple of his friends transitioned in the late 2000s, and he decided to address the absence of transgender stories in pop culture. Despite this, Alice believes what makes the play interesting is that it avoids didacticism: “It in no way seeks to comment on the whole trans-experience but simply tells the story of a group of specific individuals dealing with a unique set of problems. It’s certainly a queer love story, which is of course important, but it is still essentially just a love story. In this way it’s accessible to all and invites the audience to view Alice and Adrian as no different from themselves. I hope that audiences will leave moved, laughed out and feeling like they have got to know four individuals intimately. The best responses are also when we change people a bit!”

And what does she feel is the secret to the play’s success? “I think it’s because Jon has written such specifically human and well-rounded people. There’s an element of the play that allows the audience to become voyeurs, and so they leave feeling close to the characters and wanting to know what happens to them next. A few audience members have come straight up to me and said, ‘What happens to Alice?! We want to know- make a series!'”

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography

Alice and the team are just back from their sell-out run at 59E59 Theaters in New York as part of the Brits Off-Broadway Festival, where the play’s reception was different but no less enthusiastic. “I think New York audiences are certainly more earnest,” says Alice. “There is an element of taking everything seriously. I think maybe UK audiences are more comfortable with a mix of irreverence and comedy in the tragic, whereas our U.S. audiences have seemed to enjoy the drama side of Rotterdam more. It’s certainly been fascinating to see how plays are so changeable dependent on the temperature of the audience and their expectations. We are lucky though, as our audience’s responses have been just as warm and ecstatic as back home.”

It’s not just audiences who can learn something from this play; Alice has also benefited personally from being a part of the Rotterdam story. “I’ve gained so, so much,” she reveals. “It’s my first lead role after drama school and so on a professional level it’s been my training ground and a huge learning curve. Also, it’s been such a privilege to learn about trans-issues, and for me more specifically, about the partners of transitioning people. I now feel equipped to enter the world as a well-informed trans-ally!”

Book now for Rotterdam at the Arts Theatre from 21st June-15th July.

Review: Dirty Great Love Story at the Arts Theatre

In a world that feels increasingly dark and depressing, a little light relief goes a long way. Dirty Great Love Story by Katie Bonna and Richard Marsh is a sweet, heart-warming romantic comedy about a perfectly imperfect couple, a much-needed bit of escapism for fans of Bridget Jones, Notting Hill, Friends, even Harry Potter – and if you also happen to be single and in your 30s, I recommend getting yourself down to the Arts Theatre for a good old giggle.

Recently heartbroken hen Katie and lonely, geeky stag Rich wake up together in a Travelodge after a boozy one night stand. She can’t get out of there fast enough, despite his awkward attempts to make her stay – but when two of their friends unexpectedly get together, it seems they’re doomed to keep bumping into each other. Will they overcome their differences and realise they’re meant to be together? (Obviously, we all know the answer – but let’s pretend we don’t.)

Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

The show was originally performed by its writers, but now stars Ayesha Antoine and Felix Scott, who in taking Katie and Rich’s names still leave us wondering whether the story we’re hearing, with all its toe-curlingly embarrassing details, is actually autobiographical. Like all the best romantic comedies, Dirty Great Love Story brings together two flawed but ultimately likeable characters – the cheers of support from the audience as Rich prepares to declare his love are heartfelt and genuine. The pair also play an assortment of the couple’s annoying friends, switching with ease between accents and personalities, but it’s in their scenes as the two main characters that sparks really fly.

Dirty Great Love Story began life as a 10-minute “poetry duet”, and the full-length show maintains this rhyming verse – but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all that roses are red nonsense; it turns out you can make poetry out of anything, including boob bothering, gluten-free croissants and even an unfortunate vomiting incident at the worst possible time. The use of language combined with the actors’ skilful comedy performances result in some full-on belly laughs – even if a few of them are prompted more by surprise (of the “did they really just say that?!” variety) than anything else.

Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Director Pia Furtado and designer Camilla Clarke wisely keep the staging simple, allowing the actors and the writing to take centre stage, armed only with a couple of stools and a fabulous pair of sparkly heels. This means we don’t have to waste time with costume or set changes, and the show can keep flowing at an enjoyable pace. That said, there is one nice touch at the end from lighting designer Mark Howland that offers a final cheeky wink to the cheesy sentimental rom com format we all know and love (to affectionately mock).

Dirty Great Love Story is the perfect night out for girls and guys – unlike most romantic comedies, which focus on just one side of the story, this takes on both. The result is a show that celebrates love in all its clumsy, embarrassing, screwed up glory, and brings our favourite romantic cliche – “opposites attract” – firmly back where it belongs. Highly recommended.

Dirty Great Love Story is at the Arts Theatre until 18th March.

Review: We Live By The Sea at Arts Theatre

We Live By The Sea, the latest production from Patch of Blue, opened to universal acclaim in Edinburgh this summer, before the company were invited to open the Fringe Encores Series in New York. Now they’re back in London, and having finally seen the show everyone’s been raving about, all I can say is… I get it.

Patch of Blue have worked with The National Autistic Society to bring us the story of Katy (Alex Brain), who’s 15 and lives on the coast with her older sister Hannah (Alexandra Simonet). Katy has to greet strangers by tapping their shoes three times, she can’t stand physical contact and she has an imaginary dog called Paul Williams (Lizzie Grace). She’s also incredibly lonely – until 17-year-old Ryan (Lloyd Bagley) arrives in town. What follows is a poignant and charming tale about an unlikely friendship and how sometimes changing how you think about things can make a whole world of difference.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures
Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

As ever, the attention to detail in this production is exquisite. This is a company that do their homework, and always aim to bring us a true picture, without any attempts to glamorise or conceal anything (even the fact that it’s theatre – “now we are going to do what is called a montage” was perhaps one of my favourite moments). It’s important that we see past Katy’s autism – and we do; Alex Brain is utterly enchanting, her performance revealing a creative and affectionate young girl, who sees the world with a childlike innocence and vulnerability that make you just want to go and give her a hug… And yet at the same time, the play makes no secret of the fact that doing so would probably earn you a slap. Similarly, the devotion between Katy and Lizzie Grace’s Paul the dog is heartwarming to watch, only for us to come crashing back to earth as Paul explains he’s only perfect because he’s not real.

Alexandra Simonet perfectly captures the realism of the play in her portrayal of Hannah, who seems far older than her 19 years, and is caught between affection for her sister and resentment at everything she’s had to give up to care for her. And the unexpected realisation that Lloyd Bagley’s Ryan – a more complex character than he initially appears, whose story remains something of a mystery – might be getting as much out of the friendship as Katy and Hannah, forces us to reconsider our own assumptions.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures
Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

We Live By The Sea continues the work begun by the fantastic The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, educating audiences about the experience of living with autism. But while Curious Incident does so with spectacular effects, Patch of Blue prove that far simpler techniques can have just as much impact. In addition to live music composed by folk band Wovoka Gentle, Alex Howarth’s production uses sound and light effects to give us an insight into what life’s like for someone with autism in moments of stress; flashing lights, loud noises and overlapping voices combine to create a deliberately uncomfortable effect, which has us squirming in our seat and longing for it to stop.

Yet again, Patch of Blue have created something very special. Heartbreaking, challenging and inspiring, We Live By The Sea offers us a different way of thinking about autism, immersing us in Katy’s world instead of the other way around, and celebrating her as a person without ever shying away from the often harsh reality of her life. It’s a beautiful piece of theatre, and one that everyone should see.

We Live By The Sea is at the Arts Theatre until 1st October.

Review: The Taming of the Shrew at Above the Arts

The Taming of the Shrew is a comedy with a dark heart – a twisted little love story that’s generally considered one of Shakespeare’s most problematic. And for that very reason, it’s also a great candidate for a gender swap experiment. Nowadays, to watch a man attempt to control his wife by a combination of mental and physical torment is called abuse. But do we react the same when it’s a woman in charge, or is that just considered girl power?

Custom/Practice have taken on this question with great enthusiasm in their gender-reversed production of The Taming of the Shrew, the centrepiece of the inaugural Verve Festival at the Arts, celebrating cultural, ethnic and gender diversity in theatre. In this version of the story, the women hold all the power and it’s the men – trussed up in corsets and tottering around in women’s shoes – who must do as they’re told.

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Doing away with the framing story of Christopher Sly, we’re thrown straight into the action. Famously bad-tempered Katherina (Kazeem Tosin Amore) is forced against his will into marrying Petruchio (Martina Laird), who’s more than willing to take on a challenge in exchange for her husband’s generous dowry. This frees his younger brother, the young, handsome Bianca (Tim Bowie), who has plenty of women after him but hasn’t been allowed to marry until Katherina does. As Bianca’s suitors, exchanging increasingly insincere air kisses, battle for his affections, Katherina’s new wife sets out to break his spirit and bring him to heel through a systematic programme of abuse and neglect.

Perhaps surprisingly given the subject matter, this spirited, high-energy production directed by Rae McKen delivers plenty of laughs – not least, dare I say, in the moments when the actors throw Shakespeare’s script out the window and start ad libbing. Brigid Lohrey and Eugenia Caruso make a brilliant comedy duo as Bianca’s bumbling suitors Gremio and Hortensio – think Cinderella’s ugly sisters fighting over Prince Charming – while Kayla Miekle’s Tranio is the ultimate fairy godmother with attitude, and Lorenzo Martelli gets some of the biggest laughs as Petruchio’s long-suffering servant, Grumio.

Meanwhile, Martina Laird gives a captivating performance as Petruchio, at once seductive and tyrannical. Swaggering about the stage, she has a way of directing her asides straight at individual members of the audience that makes us feel somehow complicit in her torture of her husband. And while it’s hard not to laugh at Katherina’s desperate expression as Petruchio launches herself at him, all the time we’re uncomfortably aware that if it were a man behaving this way, we’d probably be appalled instead of amused.

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This is theatre with a dual purpose – to make us laugh, and make us think – and on both fronts, it delivers. In a fast and frantically paced production, the cast never miss a beat, and genuinely seem to be having as much fun as the audience (occasionally more). And while the play’s central theme is always going to be challenging, gender swap or no gender swap, the awkward final scene is softened here by a Beyonce-inspired finale that, much like the rest of the show, is impossible to resist.

The Taming of the Shrew is at Above the Arts until 1st May.