Review: Gentleman Jack at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Following in the footsteps of last year’s historical drama The White Rose, the Female Firsts repertory season from Arrows & Traps sets out to tell the little-known stories of two different but equally remarkable women. The first of these, Anne Lister, was a 19th-century landowner and businesswoman from Yorkshire, who defied social expectations by refusing to take a husband and openly acknowledging her sexual relationships with other women – an act of rebellion that’s earned her the title of “the first modern lesbian”.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Opening with the discovery of Anne’s coded diaries by her descendant John Lister (Alex Stevens) some 50 years after her death, the play takes us back to two key moments in her life: her tempestuous relationships as a young woman with Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe (Laurel Marks) and Mariana Belcombe (Beatrice Vincent), and several years later, her growing bond with heiress Ann Walker (Hannah Victory), who would go on to become her partner in both business and life. Meanwhile we also see the impact of her diaries on John Lister, who was himself secretly gay, but whose political ambitions held him back from following Anne’s example. (In the end, he hid the diaries for a future generation to find, and they were only finally published in 1988.)

Importantly, writer and director Ross McGregor wears no rose-tinted spectacles in his portrayal; the play is respectful of Anne’s intelligence and courage in the face of extreme prejudice, but at the same time doesn’t shy away from the less savoury aspects of her character. As a young woman, played by Lucy Ioannou, she’s charming and witty, but also manipulative, impatient and cruel, particularly to the devoted Tib. Cornelia Baumann’s older Anne has matured considerably, and her blossoming relationship with Ann Walker is both believable and engaging – but her tongue remains as sharp as ever, and her refusal to give in to the scare tactics of local businessman Christopher Rawson (Toby Wynn-Davies) often leads her to gamble far more than she can afford to lose. This willingness to see both sides, far from detracting from Anne’s story, brings her all the more vividly to life.

The quality of the writing is matched by that of the production; though simply staged, and perhaps more understated than some of their previous work, it still retains the distinctive Arrows style and is, as always, acted with complete conviction by the cast. As a director, Ross McGregor has an incredible eye for talent and while every performance is excellent, I have to make special mention of Laurel Marks, who deftly balances humour and pathos as she makes an impressive stage debut in the role of Anne’s young lover, Tib.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Gentleman Jack shines a light not only on Anne Lister’s life and legacy as both a woman and a lesbian, but also on the rigid 19th century attitudes that she set out to challenge. Watching the play, you can’t help but be struck not just by how much our society has progressed, but also by how far we still have to go on multiple fronts. A fascinating story brought to life with sensitivity and more than a little humour, it makes for an evening that’s as enlightening as it is entertaining.

Gentleman Jack is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 16th February, performed in rep alongside Taro, the story of Gerda Taro.

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Review: Cinderella: A Fairytale at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

If you enjoy a good festive fairytale but you’re not a fan of panto, Cinderella: A Fairytale, this year’s Christmas production at the Brockley Jack, offers an excellent alternative. Fairy godmothers and glass slippers are nowhere to be seen in this darkly humorous take on the well-known story – but despite a few grisly moments, there’s still a happy ending and more than enough fun and adventure to send the audience home full of glad tidings and cheer.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

Devised by Sally Cookson, Adam Peck and the original company back in 2011, this Cinderella borrows from the Brothers Grimm version, Aschenputtel, but with a few details tweaked. For starters independent, no-nonsense Ella (Molly Byrne) needs no rescuing; she’s more than able to take care of herself, first encountering the birdwatching prince (Charlie Bateman) in the woods after tricking her stepsiblings into doing her cleaning for her. Instead of stepsisters, this story has a stepsister (Aimee Louise Bevan) and a stepbrother (Joel Black), who may not be ugly but are definitely mean, though still portrayed in a more forgiving light than in most adaptations. The undisputed villain here is Ella’s awful stepmother (Bryan Pilkington), who’s more than prepared to mistreat her own children as well as Ella in order to get what she wants.

In a nod to the panto spirit, the show includes live musical numbers composed by Elliot Clay, and a little bit of harmless audience participation, led by Charlie Bateman as a prince whose social awkwardness actually makes him all the more charming. You won’t be called on to shout “oh no it isn’t” or “he’s behind you”, but it is tempting on more than one occasion to boo Bryan Pilkington’s wicked stepmother. The part of the baddie is very much played for laughs – and very successfully so – but that in no way detracts from the character’s viciousness, particularly in contrast to Pilkington’s other role as Ella’s kindly, mild-mannered father.

The Brockley Jack’s final show of the year is always a festive treat, and the latest offering from Kate Bannister and the team is no exception. While other productions of Cinderella may attempt a lavish Disney-style affair, this one uses the power of imagination to bring the story and its settings to life. The opening sequence charts Ella’s childhood years through some delightfully creative puppetry from Will Pinchin, and the all-important birds, who appear throughout the story as Ella’s friends and helpers, are portrayed using pages from books. Meanwhile Karl Swinyard’s deceptively simple set has a few magical surprises up its sleeve, and sound designer Phil Matejtschuk has rather too much fun with grisly sound effects; we may not see what happens when the meat cleaver comes out, but that doesn’t stop the audience flinching as one each time it finds its target.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

Meat cleavers (and vengeful birds) aside, Cinderella: A Fairytale is feel-good family fun, which discards the predictable cheesiness, chaos and risqué humour traditionally associated with festive shows, while retaining all the humour and entertainment value for audiences of any age. A charming, polished and hugely enjoyable Christmas production, this show is well worth venturing out in the cold to see. Oh yes it is…

Cinderella: A Fairytale is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 5th January.

Review: Radiant Vermin at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin, which sees a young couple resort to murder to secure their dream home, is a disturbing supernatural fantasy based on an equally depressing reality. With house prices still prohibitively high for so many, the play asks us to question not only what we would be willing to do to get on the property ladder – but also where we’d be prepared to stop.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Jill (Laura Janes) and Ollie (Matthew John Wright) are a young couple, recently married and looking forward to the birth of their first baby. As they despair of ever escaping their rented flat on a grotty estate, they’re invited by the mysterious Miss Dee (Emma Sweeney) to join a government scheme that will give them a free house, on the condition they take care of all the renovations. The couple jump at the chance, knowing it’s the only way they’ll be able to afford their dream home. When Ollie accidentally kills a homeless man on their first night, only to discover their kitchen has been magically transformed into the one they saw in Selfridges, he and Jill realise what they need to do, and set out on a murderous mission to complete the rest of the house. But then their baby is born, and new neighbours move in – and pretty soon Jill and Ollie find they can’t stop “renovating”, despite the terrible cost.

The play takes the form of a “confession” to the audience; Jill and Ollie hope if they can make us understand then it’ll justify what they’ve been doing and, more importantly, allow them to continue. Ridley’s play is a damning comment not only on the housing crisis but more broadly on the ease with which human beings adjust our moral compass to suit our own needs, implicating not only its characters but also the audience. Jill and Ollie seem like nice, normal people; the way they tell their story is very funny and engaging, and in spite of ourselves we find ourselves both liking and relating to them.

This is due largely to winning performances from Laura Janes and Matthew John Wright, who quickly build a rapport with the audience and bring the story vividly to life with the aid of absolutely no set or props. The action in Dan Armour’s production takes place against a stark white backdrop, and almost everything that happens is not seen but described by Jane and Ollie, inviting us to imagine, perhaps, our own dream home taking shape around them. Although excellent throughout, the pair’s stand-out moment comes towards the end of the play, at a birthday party for Jill and Ollie’s baby son, when the two actors play between them around twelve different characters – a high-speed tour de force that leaves both actors and audience breathless.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Though the majority of the stage time belongs to Jill and Ollie, it’s clear from the start that they’re not at all in command of the situation. Despite appearing only twice, all the power is in the hands of Emma Sweeney’s Miss Dee, who calmly manipulates and seduces the couple into taking her deal. There are enough clues scattered throughout the play to help us figure out Miss Dee’s true identity, but even without them it doesn’t take a genius to understand who – or what – we’re looking at.

Deeply disturbing but undeniably funny, Radiant Vermin is a cleverly written play that turns the spotlight ultimately on its audience. We all like to think we wouldn’t take the deal – but in a world where materialism reigns and enough is never enough, can we ever really know for sure?

Radiant Vermin is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 1st December.

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Review: Sweet Like Chocolate Boy at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Powerful, polished and utterly absorbing, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s Sweet Like Chocolate Boy explores the changing face of Black British identity and protest over the last three decades, through the very different experiences of two young Londoners.

In the 90s, Bounty (Michael Levi Fatogun) is a quiet, well-spoken boy who just doesn’t quite fit, no matter how hard he tries. He’s aware of racism, even in his best friend James, but he doesn’t like to confront it – a reluctance that will come back to haunt both him and the people he loves. In the present day, Mars (Andrew Umerah) is street-smart and brimming with confidence as he sets out to meet his dream girl, Fantasia (Veronica Beatrice Lewis) for a protest march that simmers throughout the day with the potential for violence. Mars and Bounty seem at first glance to have little in common – until an explosive finale reveals that their lives and actions are far more intricately linked than we thought.

Photo credit: Aaron Kelly

The show’s lyrical and fast-moving script is set to a soundtrack of garage and jungle, which evolves with the story through the decades, and is accompanied by energetic choreography and movement sequences from Sean Graham. Under writer Fynn-Aiduenu’s direction (and the watchful eye of Alice Fofana as the omnipresent god-like figure of the DJ), the action is as non-stop as the dialogue, with the actors often given only seconds to slip on a new outfit and in doing so, embody a very different character. All rise to the challenge with incredible dexterity; such is the success of the play’s characterisation that it often feels like we’re watching a much bigger cast. Veronica Beatrice Lewis in particular shines as she reappears in the guise of brash Sandra, mysterious Fantasia and sweet-natured Michelle, as well as the overly aggressive mental health nurse trying to get Mars’ attention.

Andrew Umerah and Michael Levi Fatogun are equally impressive as the two central characters. Umerah owns the stage as the young, cocky Mars – but like the chocolate bar after which he’s named, beneath the tough facade there’s a softer centre. We learn that he met Fantasia while recently hospitalised after a bout of depression, and it’s clear that she holds significant power over him; his actions on the day of the march are motivated just as much by his need to be loved – by her or by anyone – as by any particular ideology. Meanwhile, Fatogun’s endearingly awkward Bounty struggles to understand his place within an increasingly politically active Black community; he just wants to get along with everyone, and his naive attempts to fit in and act the role he thinks he should play are simultaneously a source of humour and desperately sad to watch.

Photo credit: Aaron Kelly

Sweet Like Chocolate Boy isn’t always an easy play, not least to those of us for whom it’s an uncomfortable (but necessary) reminder of our own privilege. But with race as an important, current and ever-present backdrop, the play also doesn’t shy away from tackling other themes like mental illness, the need for human connection, and the struggle faced by so many young people in Britain today to find a place in the world where they can truly feel like themselves. This is a challenging and gripping piece of theatre from an exciting emerging voice; though it may be named for a 90s tune, it has just as much to say – and maybe even more – in 2018.

Sweet Like Chocolate Boy is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 17th November.

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Review: Dracula at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Following the smash hit success of The White Rose earlier this year, Arrows & Traps return to more familiar territory with a brand new reimagining of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Adaptations of literary classics is where the company began, and for long-time fans of their work, this deliciously entertaining production feels a little like coming home.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ the Ocular Creative

Adaptations of classic horror stories have a tendency to go one of two ways – either full-on terror, or spoof humour. Writer and director Ross McGregor charts his own unique course between these two options, bringing us a story which is both very funny and pretty scary in almost equal measure. The novel sets the scene through letters exchanged between solicitor Jonathan Harker (Conor Moss) and his fiancée Mina (Beatrice Vincent), and between Mina and her friend Lucy (Lucy Ioannou), and the play adopts the same style in its opening scenes, quickly introducing all the key characters and locations before immersing us in Stoker’s chilling tale. Slightly overlapping scenes ensure that the action keeps moving along at a brisk pace, building up to a fiendishly clever twist that diverts from the novel by allowing Mina to choose for herself how her story ends.

This, of course, is no accident; there’s a refreshingly modern flavour to the language and the attitudes throughout the play, and nowhere is this more evident than in its portrayal of the female characters. There’s no such thing as a damsel in distress in this story, and even in their moments of greatest peril, Mina and Lucy – both targeted by Dracula on his arrival in England – aren’t about to sit quietly around waiting for the menfolk to save them, any more than they’ll let anyone tell them earlier in the story who they should or shouldn’t marry. Meanwhile, the maniac Renfield (Cornelia Baumann) – in this adaptation also a woman – may be in thrall to Dracula, but despite the persistent efforts of Dr Seward (Alex Stevens), it’s Mina with whom she finally makes enough of a connection to withstand her master’s power.

Part of the fun of being an Arrows regular is seeing familiar actors taking on completely different roles, and always getting it right. Christopher Tester – last seen as the quietly conflicted Gestapo officer Mohr in The White Rose – wields power of a very different kind as Dracula, oozing charisma and menace as he seduces men and women alike; it’s not difficult to see why everyone ends up doing his bidding. Conor Moss and Alex Stevens (joined by returning Arrows Oliver Brassell and Andrew Wickes) go from fighting Nazis to taking down vampires – albeit with a touch less dignity – while Beatrice Vincent and Lucy Ioannou are drawn to the charms of the dark side, in stark contrast to the resolute strength of German resistance fighters Traute Lafrenz and Sophie Scholl. Finally, Cornelia Baumann’s performance as Renfield is a work of genius; a hunched figure with a vacant grin, she’s simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous, and undeniably mad but with moments of lucidity (and some cracking one-liners) that make her seem like easily the sanest person in the room.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ the Ocular Creative

As with any Arrows show, everything about the production is visually stunning: Odin Corie’s costumes are beautiful, the spooky castle set designed by Francine Huin-Wah not only looks the part but proves unexpectedly versatile, and the brilliantly atmospheric lighting design from Ben Jacobs sets us up more than once for a bit of a scare. Even the final violent moments of Act 1 end up looking amazing, thanks to the expert contribution of movement director Will Pinchin (and a lot of fake blood).

As someone who’s avoided horror-based theatre ever since being good and traumatised by The Woman in Black when I was fourteen (not to mention an earlier visit to The Dracula Experience on a family holiday to Whitby), I had my doubts about going to see a show billed as “a spine-chilling masterpiece of fear”. But while the show is certainly not for the faint-hearted, it’s also unexpectedly funny and a brilliant piece of storytelling. Devilishly good entertainment from Arrows & Traps – don’t miss it.

Dracula is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th October, then on to the Mill Studio at Yvonne Arnaud from 1st-3rd November.