Review: The Tempest at Brockley Jack Theatre

Controlled Chaos Theatre Company aims to promote diversity in the theatre, “including giving women a chance to take centre stage in the male dominated classics”. And they don’t come much more male dominated than The Tempest, a play in which the sole female character does exactly what she’s told by her father, then falls instantly in love with the third man she’s ever seen. Controlled Chaos aren’t the first company to turn that gender imbalance on its head with an all-female production; the Donmar did it last year, setting the action in a women’s prison, and a gender-reversed production at the Brockley Jack in 2005 saw all the male roles not only played by women but actually converted to female characters.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

This production keeps things much simpler: the characters are still male, and there’s no framing device; the only difference is all the parts are played by women. As in any gender-blind production, it’s a welcome sight to see female actors getting a chance to take on the meatier roles that Shakespeare never thought to grant them. That said, without any context it’s not always exactly clear what purpose the all-female concept is serving, and somewhat tentative performances from some of the cast dilute the powerful statement that could have been made by placing women in these positions of authority.

However, there’s still plenty to smile about in this version of Shakespeare’s tale of revenge, romance and magic on a deserted island. After a fierce storm shipwrecks the King of Naples and his entourage, they discover the island where they’ve landed is home not only to mischievous spirits, but also to the ousted and vengeful Duke of Milan, Prospero, his daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban. As Caliban conspires with drunken newcomers Trinculo and Stephano to kill his master, Miranda meets and falls for the king’s son Ferdinand, who’s become separated from his father and the rest of their party. And while all this is going on, elsewhere on the island Prospero’s brother Antonio plots to murder the king and put his dim-witted brother Sebastian on the throne.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

Dylan Lincoln’s production includes live music played and sung by the cast, to produce an atmosphere of magic and mystery, and also engages particularly well with the humour in the story. Carmella Brown’s Ariel is a delight throughout, skipping around the stage doing Prospero’s bidding with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Michelle Pittoni also stands out as Miranda, her comical wide-eyed wonder at meeting a handsome young man replaced later by horrified embarrassment as her father lectures Ferdinand about his intentions. Shereener Browne and Afsana Sayyed are good fun as Antonio and Sebastian, whispering childishly together behind the king’s back before making a hilariously clumsy attempt on his life, and Ceri Ashe and Kimberley Capero make quite the raucous double act as Stephano and Trinculo.

At just over two hours, this is an accessible and entertaining adaptation of The Tempest, a perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with the story. As to whether the show delivers on its promise of a “bold re-imagining”, I’m not sure – but there’s plenty to enjoy either way, and any production that promotes diversity on the stage deserves to be celebrated.

The Tempest is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 3rd March.

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Review: Fear and Misery of the Third Reich at Jack Studio Theatre

Bertolt Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich does pretty much what it says on the tin, but in Aequitas’ new revival, there’s a twist. Selecting from Brecht’s collection of short scenes set in Nazi Germany, the production sticks to the source material, but also takes the opportunity to draw parallels with the depressing post-2016 world in which Trump and Brexit continue to loom ever larger.

The link is obvious to anyone who’s willing to see it – both Trump and Brexit were the result of a democratic process, as was Hitler, and there are clear similarities to be found in the powerful rhetoric of fear used in all three cases. Though the characters remain Germans living under the Nazi regime, the actors are all in modern dress, and sporting accessories including a MAGA cap and a save our NHS badge (“I should put on my Iron Cross,” says one of the men at one point, as he hastily dons his “Brexit means Brexit” badge). To make sure we get the point, we’re also treated to scene change soundbites from and about Trump and co.

Director Rachael Bellis doesn’t try to claim we’ve reached the levels of (justified) paranoia experienced by Brecht’s characters, but she does suspect it’s where we’re headed if action isn’t taken: a world where parents fear being turned in by their children, where a throwaway comment can cost lives, and where a Jewish wife is forced to leave her husband and flee the country in order to save them both. It’s easy to shake our heads and claim such things could never happen here – but then two years ago, how many of us honestly thought Trump would be in the White House, or that anyone in the UK who speaks out against Brexit would be dubbed a traitor in the press?

The cast of six interact well with each other (and, on occasion, the audience) as a variety of characters of different ages and backgrounds. In the first of two scenes that feel closest to our current reality, Clark Alexander and Hugo Trebels face off in an intense debate between an SA thug and his cook’s brother; while the latter clearly has the upper hand in terms of logic and reason, it’s worth nothing when all his adversary need do is draw a chalk cross on his back to ensure he’ll be arrested. In the other, Rhiannon Sommers stands out with a heartbreaking performance as a Jewish woman trying to explain to her husband why she must leave the country, and by extension their marriage.

It’s not all doom and gloom; the play ends abruptly with a shout of “NO!” from a group of protesters getting organised to fight back. Even so, the play’s title is an apt description; we may not be in the Third Reich, but the fear and misery are all too real.

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 3rd February.

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Review: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

The Jack Studio is bringing 2017 to a suitably wintry close with their production of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, adapted by Russ Tunney and directed by Kate Bannister. The story of two plucky young girls taking on their villainous governess, this thrilling adventure is presented with tongue firmly in cheek, and is all the more enjoyable for it.

When Bonnie Green’s wealthy parents leave for a long sea voyage, she and her orphaned cousin Sylvia are left in the care of their new governess, the sinister Miss Slighcarp. Aided by a mysterious stranger Sylvia encountered on the train to Willoughby Chase, it’s not long before Miss Slighcarp has set in motion a dastardly plot to steal the Willoughby home and fortune. But her two young charges are not so easily defeated, and fight back with help of their own from an eccentric assortment of characters, some secret passages – and a couple of geese.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

The wolves of the title, meanwhile, are noticeably absent; we are, however, pointedly informed that they came from Eastern Europe, through the newly constructed Channel Tunnel, and have taken over the English countryside. Despite this, their menacing presence is always more of an implied than an actual threat – we only actually see the wolves once in the whole play, though they’re often mentioned – while, as it turns out, the greater danger comes from within.

The production is spookily atmospheric throughout, thanks to excellent work from designers Karl Swinyard (set), Ben Jacobs (light) and Jack Barton (sound). Despite a dramatic opening, however, within minutes it’s become clear that this is not a show we’re supposed to take terribly seriously. Largely, this is thanks to the casting of Adam Elliott as the deliciously wicked Miss Slighcarp (among several other roles). With a permanent sneer of disdain and absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever, she’s a proper villain we can really love to hate, along with her comically absurd partners in crime Mr Grimshaw and Mrs Brisket, both played – again, among several others – by Bryan Pilkington. It’s all a little bit panto (there’s even a bit of audience participation), especially towards the end as events grow increasingly chaotic, but that just adds to the fun. And it is Christmas, after all.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

As often happens in panto, the good guys inevitably end up playing it a little straight next to their larger-than-life adversaries. That said, Rebecca Rayne as Bonnie, Julia Pagett as Sylvia and Andrew Hollingworth, who plays footman James and the girls’ friend Simon, are likeable, intrepid heroes, each of whom grows and matures as the story progresses. They’re also not without a mischievous twinkle of their own from time to time; I particularly enjoyed the two girls “skating” – and who can forget the cheese alphabet…

The show is an intriguing mix of classic children’s tale, spooky mystery and laugh-out-loud comedy – the sort of combination that sounds like it shouldn’t be possible but somehow works really well. There’s certainly never a dull moment, and it’s always fun as an audience member to see a cast who are not only talented performers but are also clearly having a great time themselves. If you’re expecting to see wolves, you may be a bit disappointed – but otherwise this is a show that delivers on every level.

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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.

Review: Tom Molineaux at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

Tom Molineaux is an extraordinary true story about boxing, gambling and friendship. About a man who fights his way to freedom, but remains trapped in the injustices of society. A boxing ring, two men and some period costumes; nothing more is needed to bring this narrative to life. Tom Green’s compelling writing flows fluidly in an extremely believable manner, bringing us back to London in the nineteenth century whilst never losing the audience’s attention. Directing with simplicity and beauty, Kate Bannister constructs an extremely pleasurable evening.

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs-Hughes

Nathan Medina skilfully plays the part of an African American boxer, born on the plantation in Virginia, with incredible force, leaving spectators astounded. Tom Molineaux is strong, powerful and will not stop until he beats everyone. Before the play begins, Tom is cherished in America for winning his master a great deal of money, which releases him from slavery and wins him freedom. It seems like nothing will bring him down, his determination and ambition to become world champion is too strong. He manages to convince the English champion Tom Cribb, who is retired, to fight him.

However, the play is not only about boxing, it is about so much more. About injustice, prejudice, loyalty and addictions. The story is narrated by another incredibly talented actor, Brandon O’Rourke, who plays Pierce Egan, a sports journalist who befriends Tom when he arrives to London. Pierce allows us to see the honest emotional turmoil which is present under Tom’s muscles and strength. Unfortunately, this is not a happy story. It is a true story. Will the former slave manage to gain his victory and make millions, or will he be crushed to the bottom by society’s injustice and greed?

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs-Hughes

The performance is highly physical. The set is dark and misty. A seriousness in tone is most commonly present, but lighthearted moments are present too. One of my favourite moments is when Tom and Pierce come back drunk from a night out in 19th century London. The atmosphere transports you and allows one to imagine the streets of London back then, thanks to the accurate descriptions. Unfortunately, Tom and Pierce’s friendship is put to the test. Molineaux fights Cribb but the match is flawed, and Pierce knows. Will Pierce decide to lose the money he has bet on Cribb; or will he convey the truth and tell the world that Molineaux is the world’s biggest champion? Will Pierce fight the system or will Molineaux be representative of our unjust post-colonial society?

Courageous, powerful and human, this brilliant play packs a punch in more ways than one.

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