Review: Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Barons Court Theatre

I briefly considered writing a 140-word review of Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, but quickly decided against it. For one thing, if the play proves anything it’s that working with such a limited quota is difficult. Also, I just wasted five on the title.

So, in significantly more than 140 words: what’s it all about? Well, it’s a dystopian drama in which the British government – for reasons that are never really made clear – has just imposed a new law that limits everyone to 140 words of communication a day. The political and personal ramifications of this play out through the eyes of a young couple, Bernadette (Jemima Murphy) and Oliver (Charlie Suff), who only realise once every word counts how much they’ve so far left unsaid.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Barons Court Theatre
Photo credit: Maximilian Clarke

The plot has many frustrating gaps in it (why the ban was imposed, what types of communication it covers, how it’s monitored, what happens if you go over the limit, or if it’s even possible to do so…) but nonetheless the play does raise some fascinating questions about how we communicate with each other and the way we use language. Oliver, a musician and staunch opponent of the ban, points out the social and economic value of words; 140 words means a lot more to someone who has to go out and find work than it does to someone who’s already financially stable – like, for instance, his lawyer girlfriend. Then there’s the way words become a symbol of how much each values the relationship, as Bernadette repeatedly arrives home each evening having saved fewer words than Oliver has, and how the ban forces them to be creative and come up with their own private “couple’s code”. It’s particularly interesting to note that in some ways the two of them actually communicate more after the ban, revealing truths that were always avoided before, when it was easy to change the subject or “talk about it later”.

Unsurprisingly given the subject matter, the spaces between words carry just as much weight as the words themselves, and this comes across very effectively in director Hamish Clayton’s production. The play’s script is made up of a dizzying number of very short scenes, some of them merely seconds long, and every action that takes place in between – even something as simple as moving a chair or getting into bed – feels carefully considered to ensure that not a single moment of the 80-minute run time is wasted. The performances given by Jemima Murphy and Charlie Suff are similarly meticulous, the two of them saying just as much with their movements, gestures and facial expressions as they do with their dialogue. Meanwhile Gareth Rowntree’s set differentiates with admirable simplicity between the play’s different timelines; post-ban, a light is illuminated for each character, which goes from white to red when they hit zero.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Barons Court Theatre
Photo credit: Maximilian Clarke

Though written in 2015, the play’s parallels with Brexit are plain to see: the debate over the ban splits the nation, nobody really expects it to go through, and when it does there are a host of unforeseen consequences, most of which affect the poorest in society. The programme acknowledges this relevance, but there’s more than enough going on here to ensure that the play stands on its own, and that even those who are sick of hearing about Brexit (which is, let’s face it, most of us) shouldn’t be put off. A polished and carefully directed production, Lemons is the kind of thought-provoking play that keeps giving, with plenty of material to ensure an excellent debate in the bar afterwards.

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Review: The Unspoken at Barons Court Theatre

Begun all the way back in 2003, writer and director Jody Medland’s The Unspoken was chosen to be part of the Actor Awareness summer festival in July this year, after which it was immediately picked up by Barons Court Theatre for a two-week run. It’s an unconventional story, full of surprising twists and turns, and which does indeed leave a lot unspoken. It leaves the audience with considerably more questions than answers, along with a creeping sense of unease over both what we’ve seen, and what we haven’t.

It’s also likely to prove divisive among audiences, largely for its depiction of the difficult relationship between miner Jimmy (Will Teller) and his blind daughter Maggie (Hannah Tarrington). He’s raised her alone from birth following the death of her mother, and over the years has convinced her that he’s an architect, and that the two of them live in a beautiful house that’s the envy of their whole town. He does this, we’re told, out of love – but any sympathy we might have felt for his situation is lost in the opening moments of the play, when we hear him beating his daughter offstage as she begs for mercy. Nor is this an isolated incident; he repeatedly strikes her throughout the play, chains her up like a dog, and punishes her harshly just for talking through the door to regular visitor Father Alderton (Elliot Blagden).

He tells himself – and her – that he’s doing all this to protect her from a world that not only won’t help but may actively harm her, and the play’s unexpected final scene proves that he may have been right to be concerned – although, like Maggie, we never leave the house, so have no way of knowing for sure who or what is really out there. Regardless, it’s difficult to get past the fact that this is a relentlessly abusive and controlling relationship, which is built almost entirely on deceit, and which makes for very uncomfortable viewing.

This also means that the play’s central theme of classism gets a bit lost, because while we can appreciate the difficulties of Jimmy’s situation – the play is set in 1972, in the looming shadow of the impending miners’ strike – it still doesn’t seem like enough to justify his brutal methods. And though he ultimately takes steps to ensure a future for Maggie that will see her elevated in society, the way in which he does it, and in which the final scene is performed, leave us questioning whether he may not have just moved her from frying pan to fire.

Whatever your reaction to the play’s themes and content, however, there’s no denying the performances are excellent. Will Teller has arguably the toughest role as Jimmy, walking with great precision the narrow line between loving father and vicious tyrant, and there are moments when we do genuinely sympathise with his situation – if not with his reaction to it. Alongside him, Hannah Tarrington is painfully vulnerable as Maggie, submitting meekly – almost willingly – to her father’s abuse and taking scraps of comfort from the hours she spends listening to her radio. And yet despite the attempts of several men to rescue her from dangers she can’t see, she’s not quite the damsel in distress they all believe her to be – as Dr Rose later discovers to his cost. Elliot Blagden plays both Father Alderton and the doctor, and though we never see the former and only meet the latter for a few minutes, he brings an ambiguity to both roles that poses one of the play’s more intriguing questions: is seeing really believing?

There are certainly aspects of The Unspoken that feel problematic, and for that reason the play won’t be for everyone; I still haven’t quite decided how I feel about it myself. On the other hand, so much is left unexplained that it gives the audience plenty to talk about, debate and almost certainly disagree over. Sometimes it’s obvious what a writer wants us to take away from seeing their play; this is not the case here, and that alone makes it worth a visit – just make sure you allow plenty of time for post-show discussions.

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Review: Dante’s Divine Comedy at Barons Court Theatre

I mean this in the nicest way possible… but if you’re looking for a theatre in which to stage a play about descending into hell, I can think of few better than Barons Court. Partly because you actually do have to descend a flight of stairs to get there, but mostly because with its low arched ceilings and shadowy corners, it guarantees an atmospheric setting for any production.

The directors of So It Goes Theatre clearly had a similar instinct, and have returned to Barons Court for a second time with their adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, based on the epic 14th century poem by Dante Alighieri. A dark tale of suffering and loss, this modern retelling also has an unexpectedly wry sense of humour, and is packed full of witty one-liners that are often as surprising as they are enjoyable. Who knew hell would be so funny? (Although I suppose the clue’s in the title…)

Following the death of Beatrice, the woman he loves, Dante’s about to kill himself when up pops the Roman poet Virgil, who takes him on a slightly grim guided tour of hell and purgatory before dropping him off at the gates of paradise, where Beatrice awaits. But their reunion may not be quite as joyous as expected…

Alex Chard is great as the depressed yet determined Dante, really coming into his own in the second half of the production when he has the opportunity to get into some meaty theological debate. His budding bromance with Virgil, played by Jack Blackburn, is fun but also surprisingly touching, particularly the moment when Dante promises to have a word with God about getting his new best mate through the Pearly Gates. Their witty banter, right up to the moment Virgil leaves, means the icy encounter that follows with Kathryn Taylor-Gears’ Beatrice is all the more jarring.

A hard-working and incredibly versatile all-female Chorus (Sofia Greenacre, Marialuisa Ferro, Sophia Speakman and Michaela Mackenzie, along with Kathryn Taylor-Gears) accompany Dante on every step of his journey, as the condemned souls suffering the countless torments of hell, those unfortunates stuck in the limbo of purgatory – brilliantly reimagined as the mind-numbing boredom of a daily commute – and the shockingly unpleasant residents of heaven. I’d go so far as to say that the Chorus steal the show in the first part of the play; their pain, fear and anger grows ever more palpable as Dante and Virgil descend deeper into the inferno.

It would be easy to assume that a small cast of seven, in a tiny pub theatre, might not be able to quite reproduce the epic scale of heaven and hell – but Douglas Baker’s production is a masterclass in how to do a lot with very little. A couple of handheld torches, a few chairs, a balloon and some cardboard cut-outs prove more than enough to create some fantastic effects, particularly when combined with video projections and some exquisite movement sequences directed by Matthew Coulton. The whole show is so absorbing, in fact, that it comes as something of a shock when Virgil suddenly breaks the fourth wall and reminds Dante – and us – that we’re just watching a piece of theatre created by the man himself; all his suffering is entirely self-inflicted.

I don’t know much about Dante’s original poem (though I may check it now), and I’m definitely no theologian – but neither is really necessary in order to appreciate this creative, powerful and really enjoyable production. So again, in the nicest possible way – I politely recommend that you go to hell.

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Interview: Douglas Baker, Dante’s Divine Comedy

So It Goes Theatre return to Barons Court next month with their 21st century interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Adapted from the 700-year-old narrative poem, it’s the story of Dante’s quest to rediscover the reasons for living by reuniting with his lost childhood love Beatrice; to do this he’s taken on a tour of hell, purgatory and heaven by mysterious stranger Virgil. “Naturally there’s loads to explore: faith, morality, friendship, redemption. You name it, there’s a whole world inside this show,” says director Douglas Baker.

Funnily enough, Douglas didn’t originally set out to adapt Dante’s classic poem. “I’m embarrassed to say it was basically a complete accident,” he admits. “I had in my head an entirely different piece of source material – which I won’t go into now because it may surface in the near future. However, when I arrived at the Barons Court, I knew instantly it wouldn’t work there, so I had a mad weekend reading lots of different texts to try and find something else to do.

“I wanted something that was seriously old, out of copyright, brimming with theatrical potential. There was one particularly desperate moment where I was considering stringing all Shakespeare’s sonnets together into a narrative; thank God I found the Divine Comedy. As I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It drew me in with every passage. The pace of the thing – despite its hefty length – is incredible.”

Despite its appeal, turning Dante’s original poem into a 90-minute play for a 21st century audience came with some pretty big challenges. “I don’t want to give too much away but I think there were three big problems,” says Douglas. “Firstly, trying to create a dramatic arc in a poem that is essentially a series of meetings where the main character simply accepts what he sees as truth; structurally this is so boring and doesn’t make so much sense as a coherent story. So we’ve flipped, rearranged and cut down lots in order to – fingers crossed – make an emotionally believable journey.

“Secondly, we wanted a culture in the rehearsal room where we worked openly with only dialogue on the page. So it was a challenge to try not premeditating what I thought it would look like on stage. Even though scenes were brimming with potential, I didn’t want to lock us into something that we couldn’t achieve. So finding that balance between honouring both the text and the devising process was tricky, but hopefully we’ve made it work.

“The other main problem was trying to present medieval morality sympathetically. I quickly saw that it was impossible, so as a result we’ve had to take some liberties. Our Dante is younger and more rebellious. I thought that youthful mindset could work because we the audience are basically seeing this stuffy old fashioned world through Dante’s eyes, so we can hopefully justify the difference between the Dante in the poem and the Dante we present on stage. The story is the same, but Dante’s feelings towards it have been modernised.”

Douglas is looking forward to introducing new audiences to Dante’s work, and says prior knowledge of the Divine Comedy isn’t a must: “I would say not. Part of the attraction to the poem was the feeling that many people knew of it, but not in any real detail. There’s something incredibly exciting about introducing people to a dusty old book for the first time; perhaps our interpretation will encourage people to read it for themselves and come to their own understanding about morality or the afterlife. I hope people will see our piece as a series of questions rather than assertions. The hope is we can ignite curiosities that will push people to reach their own conclusions.”

The show returns to Barons Court for a second time following a well-received run in April. “Being back is strangely unnerving,” says Douglas. “We always forget how small the stage is, so it requires seriously precise coordination to keep things visually interesting. Luckily our movement director Matthew is a genius at utilising space in interesting ways, so your eye is always drawn correctly. Other than that it’s just been a case of balancing creating with re-creating, we don’t want to just redo the original production but rather build on it and improve.”

This latest run, which opens on 5th September, sees almost all of the seven-strong cast reprise their roles. “They are the most generous people you could ever hope to meet,” says Douglas. “The bond between performer and director can be so fragile if egos are at play. If a cast don’t trust the director they will seize up and work only for themselves. But these cast members work for each other, they are beautifully spirited people.

“As a director I often get my actors to do very weird weird things to create the spectacle for the audience, so if it’s to translate into a coherent performance where they can commit completely it’s utterly reliant upon their trust in me. I think we have that trust, so the rehearsal room is a joyful space where we can really play and find the truth in what we’re doing.”

Douglas co-founded So It Goes Theatre with producer Charles Golding. “Charlie and I created the company way back in 2011, its been on hiatus for a while because Charlie now has a family but we always knew it would be back some day,” he explains. “We wanted to do a combination of reimagining classic stories and telling brand new ones. We want to showcase new performance talents in a largely ensemble context. We were also aware that the majority of actors auditioning for us were female, so we decided very quickly to produce work that in general favoured largely female casts. Maybe it was pragmatic rather than righteous, but it’s worked for us so far.”

Book now for Dante’s Divine Comedy at Barons Court Theatre from 5th-30th September.

Interview: Michelle Payne, The Staff Room

They’re teaching our children, but are they teaching the right things…?

Michelle Payne’s The Staff Room started life as a 15-minute piece, written for an Actor Awareness scratch night. Now a one-act play, the show is all set for its first Edinburgh preview tomorrow at The Bunker, followed by a second at Barons Court Theatre on Saturday, before heading to the Fringe.

The Staff Room follows three young teachers on their breaks through an academic year,” Michelle explains. “You can expect to see a slice of life; an insight into what our teachers get up to in state schools.”

The play was inspired by Michelle’s own experience as a freelance dance teacher. “I was working in a lot of different schools for a really long time, so I sat in a lot of staff rooms,” she says. “I found the dynamics really interesting, and often very comical. I wanted to praise our hard working, state school teachers and give them an up to date voice in the theatre!”

While the play is a must for anyone who’s ever wondered what goes on behind the staffroom door (which, let’s be honest, is all of us when we were at school), Michelle hopes it’ll also be enjoyed by those within the profession: “Definitely teachers! And I also hope it appeals to young, working class people. Hopefully it’ll make our audiences laugh, and provoke discussion about political topics.”

Joining The Staff Room‘s all female creative team are cast members Faye Derham, Hilary Murnane and Craig Webb – who audiences might recognise from a recent high-profile TV appearance. Michelle explains, “Craig, who plays our Geography teacher Hugo, was a finalist singing with Neon Panda on Gary Barlow’s Let it Shine on BBC One. Which was very exciting for us – seeing him on the telly!”

The Actor Awareness campaign, founded by Tom Stocks, has played a key role in the play’s development. “I wrote the first draft of the play especially for an Actor Awareness health themed scratch night,” says Michelle. “This was chosen and performed at Theatre N16 last year. From this we were offered a full show at N16 if I could extend the play to one act for the summer. So Actor Awareness definitely supplied me with that initial opportunity!”

Following the show’s two London previews, Michelle and the team will be heading north for a run at Edinburgh’s theSpace @ Surgeons Hall from 21st-26th August. “I’ve visited the Fringe every year for the past six years and have supported friends’ shows, so I’m glad it’s finally my turn to have a show up there!” she says. “We’re looking forward to getting some feedback and hopefully making people laugh.”

Catch The Staff Room at The Bunker on 18th July, Barons Court Theatre on 22nd July or in Edinburgh at theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, 21st-26th August.