Review: Moby Dick at Brockley Jack Theatre

In the week that Extinction Rebellion protests kicked off across the globe, and a lost whale tragically died after being struck by a ship in the Thames, So It Goes’ modern, multimedia production of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is both intentionally and accidentally topical. The story of Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest to find the monstrous white whale that took his leg comes vividly to life at the hands of a five-strong cast, strongly supported by the inventive use of video, light and sound effects. Oh, and not forgetting Alex Chard’s original sea shanties about the various perils and pitfalls of 21st century life.

Photo credit: Carl Fletcher

Douglas Baker’s significantly abridged adaptation of the 500-page novel follows the hunt for Moby Dick as Ishmael (Ben Howarth), a comically naive young man with a hankering to go to sea, sets out with new acquaintance Queequeg (Stephen Erhirhi) on board the whaling vessel Pequod. Shrugging off the warnings of chief mate Starbuck (Lucianne Regan) that his search will end badly for them all, Captain Ahab (Charlie Tantam) insists on pursuing his prey to the ends of the earth, with predictably disastrous results.

The play takes as its focus a line from the novel, which rings as depressingly true now as it did in 1851: “man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke”. Looking back on his experience aboard the Pequod, an older, wiser and far more cynical Ishmael (Rob Peacock) draws parallels between the self-destructive whale hunt and the many ways in which our planet continues to pay the price for humanity’s greed and thoughtlessness.

It’s hard to imagine how both a ship and a whale could realistically fit inside any theatre, and particularly one as small as the Brockley Jack – but this production achieves both with surprising success. The use of video projection is inspired and works extremely well, in particular during the surprisingly entertaining rowing boat sequence set to the immortal soundtrack of Europe’s The Final Countdown (though arguably this loses a little of its appeal after the third outing). Ahab’s dramatic struggle with Moby Dick is captured in a whirl of light, colour and movement, building to a haunting final scene that brings fact and fiction, and past and present, crashing together.

Photo credit: Carl Fletcher

The multimedia aspect of the show means that the cast have to interact not only with each other but also with whatever’s happening on the screen. This they do with great flair and conviction, dodging ocean spray, holding intense consultations with the captains of other nearby vessels, and – most memorably – scaling the suspended corpse of a huge sperm whale. Though we’re always aware we’re looking at images, they’re incorporated so well into the live action of the play that they never feel out of place.

Don’t be put off by the daunting length of Wikipedia’s plot synopsis (yes, I looked it up); this enjoyable production is a short, sharp adaptation of Melville’s story, with a powerful and very relevant message lying in wait at the climax. It’s by turns dramatic and funny and heartbreakingly sad, and at this particular moment in our political and ecological history, it’s telling a story we all need to be listening to.

Moby Dick is at the Brockley Jack Theatre until 26th October.

Review: The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Question: How do you turn a Victorian gothic novella into a gripping 21st century political thriller? Answer: get Arrows & Traps involved.

Taking Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story and its themes as a starting point, writer and director Ross McGregor has created something completely original, a dark, twisty horror story that becomes all the more terrifying for its proximity to real life. This is still recognisably Jekyll and Hyde, but it’s also a whole new story about school shootings, white privilege and political scandal that could have been lifted from today’s headlines.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @The Ocular Creative

Henry Jekyll (Will Pinchin) is a young, idealistic presidential candidate running in the 2020 U.S. election. With Trump impeached and awaiting trial, the nation is bitterly divided, and Jekyll wants to be the man to heal its wounds. When troubled freelance journalist Gabrielle Utterson (Lucy Ioannou) joins his campaign, she grows suspicious about his connection to violent criminal Edward Hyde (Christopher Tester). With the help of sex worker Imogen Poole (Gabrielle Nellis-Pain) and scientist Hayley Lanyon (Charlie Ryall), she sets out to uncover the shocking truth.

One of the most impressive aspects of this production is that despite re-telling a well-known story, it still holds plenty of surprises. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Jekyll and Hyde turn out to be the same person – that’s pretty much common knowledge, even if you haven’t read the book. But the way that twist is set up here is so clever that it feels like we’re discovering it for the first time, and there’s a delicious “Oh!” moment in Act 2 as all the pieces suddenly fit together.

As brilliant as the writing is, it’s easily matched by the standard of the performances, which are universally flawless. Will Pinchin gives a masterclass in physicality, convincingly capturing every nuance of each of Jekyll’s very different personas – public and private, good and evil. For a politician, what is said is so often less important than how it’s said, and as a popular, charismatic on-screen personality, Pinchin gets the delivery exactly right.

Equally outstanding is Lucy Ioannou, who plays Gabrielle Utterson with a stunning, haunted intensity from which it’s almost impossible to look away. We don’t need to be told that she’s battling her own demons; it’s all there in her eyes and posture from the moment the play begins. In contrast, Gabrielle Nellis-Pain radiates warmth and openness as Imogen Poole, who becomes Utterson’s confidante. Her early monologue, in which she recalls with undisguised emotion Hyde’s unprovoked attack on a young girl, is instantly captivating, and just as Utterson looks to her repeatedly for comfort, after a while so do we.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @The Ocular Creative

As this is an Arrows & Traps production, it should come as no surprise to anyone that it also looks amazing. The use of video screens is a particularly clever touch, a physical obstacle between the audience and the characters to show how technology can distort the truth. The lighting design from Anna Reddyhoff is superb, as are Bryony J. Thompson’s costumes, each of which perfectly captures the personality of the character wearing it.

It’s always a sign of a good play when you wake up the next morning still thinking about it, and this one gives us more than enough to dwell on for several days. So much about the world we live in today is built on choosing a side, and then being prepared to defend that side against all argument. Democrat or Republican, Leave or Remain, pro- or anti-guns… We’re growing more and more incapable of compromise or finding middle ground on any subject, and that division is driving good people into dark places. This – not Brexit, or Trump, or any of the other issues that we see in the headlines every day – is the real crisis, and to sum it up as eloquently as this play does is an outstanding achievement. It’s Jekyll and Hyde for a new generation: an endlessly thought-provoking, unsettling, enthralling production that’s not to be missed.

The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 28th September, then touring – see arrowsandtraps.com for details.

Review: Katheryn Howard at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

When it comes to Henry VIII’s wives, the key fact that most people learn at school is how he disposed of them. In the case of Katheryn Howard, his fifth wife, this was at the executioner’s block, after she was accused of adultery with one of the king’s favourite courtiers.

Written by Catherine Hiscock, the debut production from Goose Bite Theatre picks up the story of Queen Katheryn close to the end, as an all-female cast portray a court filling with rumours – not just regarding her reported liaisons with Thomas Culpepper whilst married, but also previous sexual relationships with her music teacher Henry Mannox and secretary to the Dowager Duchess, Francis Dereham. Once these well-documented facts have been established, the play takes us back to the start to give us Katheryn’s account of these events, and a very different picture emerges.

Photo credit: Georgia Harris

The first piece of information I don’t remember learning in primary school is that Katheryn Howard was only a teenager at the time of both her marriage and her death, and each of the men with whom she was reported to have been involved – including her husband – were more than twice her age. The second little-known fact is that she could have saved herself by confessing that her relationship with Dereham was consensual, and yet despite the possibility of salvation, she continued to insist that he had raped her. The Katheryn we meet in this production (Catherine Hiscock) is not the adulteress we know from the history books, but a naive, terrified teenager who’s repeatedly found herself flattered and seduced into unwanted sexual relationships with predatory men. Seen through fresh eyes, and particularly from a 21st century perspective, her story is not just tragic but horrifying.

Surrounding Katheryn are her friends and ladies-in-waiting: Joan Bulmer (Francesca Anderson), Katheryn Tilney (Emmanuela Lia), Isabelle Baynton (Srabani Sen) and Jane Boleyn (Natalie Harper) – Anne Boleyn’s former sister-in-law, who allegedly aided and abetted Katheryn’s adultery and was executed immediately after her. The interactions between these characters paints a picture of life both at Lambeth, where Katheryn spent her childhood and early teenage years, and at court, where everyone’s number one concern is to protect their own position. Though it covers a relatively brief time period, the production captures very well the stark contrast between the giggling girls of Lambeth, for whom it’s common practice and seemingly harmless fun to welcome young men into their sleeping quarters, and the anxious ladies of court, who quickly realise that the queen’s downfall could also spell their own doom. This atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion and political manoeuvring is portrayed by the cast in the form of a chorus, who pace the stage with hands to their mouths as if whispering secrets.

Photo credit: Georgia Harris

You perhaps need to know a little bit more of Katheryn’s back-story than simply “beheaded” to follow everything in the text, but on the whole the play does a good job of untangling a complicated story in which many of the characters have the same name (to the point where it becomes something of a running joke) and/or are related to each other. And Catherine Hiscock gives a great performance as the young queen; her pleas for mercy and forgiveness as the play comes to an end are heartfelt and deeply poignant. It’s no surprise that women were second-rate citizens in Henry’s court, but it’s frustrating that even now we still only really know Katheryn by the manner of her death. This play sets out to right that wrong, and the result is a strong debut production that’s both historically interesting and emotionally impactful.

Katheryn Howard was performed at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 30th July to 3rd August. For more details about Goose Bite Theatre, follow them @GooseBiteTC.

Review: One Giant Leap at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Anna Karenina, Macbeth, Othello, Three Sisters, Frankenstein, The White Rose, Taro… Over the last five years, Arrows & Traps have proved time and again that they know how to do serious drama (and also that there are an awful lot of different ways to die). That label cannot be applied in any conceivable way to their new play One Giant Leap, which is a very silly story with no other mission in mind but providing two hours of pure entertainment.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

It’s 1969, and Apollo 11 is all set to launch for the Moon. But it’s too hot up there to film Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s one small step for man, so CIA Agent Harris (Alex Stevens) has come to cash-strapped TV producer Edward Price (Christopher Tester) with a request: he needs him to fake the Moon Landing. There’s just one problem – Price’s cast and crew of misfits are too wrapped up in their own issues to focus on the job at hand, and time is ticking away…

Writer and director Ross McGregor has thrown literally everything at this historical sci-fi romantic comedy (there’s no kitchen sink but there is an alluring stepladder) and the result is an often chaotic but always enjoyable romp that culminates in a musical number I don’t think any of us will be forgetting any time soon. The characters are stereotypes – the arrogant leading man, the scantily clad actress, the frustrated producer – and the plot relatively predictable, but there’s enough detail to ensure none of them are ever lacking in substance. At times, this detail actually works against the production; with every character getting their own story, there’s a lot to try and keep track of at any given moment. This also means that the play’s conclusion, particularly following the unbridled hilarity of the Moon Landing sequence, feels a bit like a box ticking exercise to ensure we’re not left with any unfinished plot threads.

That said, one of the best things about One Giant Leap is that the cast are clearly having an absolute blast. It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun up there: Will Pinchin as Howard, the world’s clumsiest cameraman; Lucy Ioannou as sweet but insecure Alchamy; Steven Jeram as casanova Daniel; Vivian Belosky as sharp-tongued and quite possibly permanently green Linda. Alex Stevens’ CIA Agent Harris showcases some impressive accent switching (and interesting wardrobe choices), and Christopher Tester and Charlie Ryall engage in excellent verbal sparring as increasingly desperate ex-spouses Edward and Carol. And Daniel Ghezzi, appropriately enough, steals every scene he’s in as frustrated actor and lover of all things jazz hands, Perry.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

As Arrows & Traps arrives at a crossroads before embarking on a new chapter with The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde later this year, One Giant Leap feels like the company is taking a welcome opportunity to pause and let off some steam. It’s not Shakespeare, and it doesn’t have the beauty and eloquence of, say, The White Rose or Taro – though it is still visually quite a feast, with an incredible set designed by Justin Williams and some unforgettable costumes from Delyth Evans. I didn’t always know exactly what was going on but I had fun trying to figure it out, and sometimes that’s all you need. So why not boldly go and get a ticket for two hours of silliness and escapism, and – for once! – a happy ending.

One Giant Leap is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 27th July.

Arrows & Traps: What’s Next?

In a couple of weeks, Arrows & Traps’ seventeenth production opens at the Brockley Jack – and for anyone who’s been to see them in action recently, it may come as a bit of a surprise. From 2nd July, the thirteen-time Offie-nominated company will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landings in their own unique style with One Giant Leap, a brand new comedy written and directed by Ross McGregor.

Last week, in the first part of our Q&A, Ross told us a bit about where Arrows & Traps came from and the journey so far. In Part 2, he’s looking to the future – and it turns out there’s plenty to see…

Your upcoming show is a bit different to most of your previous productions. What made you go for a comedy this time, and how have you approached it as a writer? It must be very different to the other plays you’ve written for Arrows?

Yes, absolutely!  And what a relief it is.  I’m so happy to be working on a play that doesn’t end with: “and then she was executed by the Third Reich,” or “and then she was hit by a tank,” or “and then she threw herself in front of a train,” or “and then her husband’s shot,” or “and then they both die on the ice,” or “and then everybody died”… Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we got to tell so many stories over the last sixteen productions, but my goodness, haven’t the majority of the storylines been so f*cking depressing?!

I guess the exception, not sure if you remember this one, would be The Gospel According to Philip, which was a sketch show comedy we did back in 2016 about the last few weeks of the life of Jesus, basically the story of Easter, told as a satire. I didn’t write that one, but I had such fun directing it, and everyone loved it at the Jack, it was an absolute storm of a show – such a joy. I wanted to go back to that and spend a summer working on something lighter, where nobody is destroyed by fascism, but where we can also push the boundaries and try our hand at that rarest of all theatrical genres – the sci-fi comedy.

One Giant Leap is basically a “what if” kind of a story – set in July 1969, where a two-bit run-down shoddy little TV company is asked by the CIA to fake the moon landing. The idea is that whilst NASA can get to the moon, all the cameras they test just melt in the simulation of the extreme heat on the moon’s surface, so they need someone to fake the footage for them to prove they got there. Which would be fine, but the TV company they ask to do it has just had their sci-fi show Moonsaber cancelled after its first season, and everyone has fallen out with each other, and is leaving the show, so there’s a lot of confusion and misdirection as the producer has to basically con them all to come back, and somehow pull off the biggest conspiracy in history with these bunch of misfits.

It’s certainly different in terms of the fact that it’s wholly original, and obviously a complete fiction. All the characters are products of my imagination, and it has no basis in fact or adaptation whatsoever, which has been super fun to start from scratch. It is also the silliest, most chaotic and most ridiculous thing I’ve ever written – it’s Noises Off meets Space Balls, I guess, or Hail Caesar meets The Play That Goes Wrong. I just love it, and I just know the actors in the company are going to have a ball doing it.

My approach for One Giant Leap is to tell a fun spin on the greatest event in history since World War II, to give the audiences a hilarious night out, telling a story that some of the audience, certainly those of my parents’ generation, can get a little nostalgic over because it’s set in an era that they were part of. Most of all, I just want to stage the funniest thing South London will see all summer. It’s going to be great. Everything about that period is so iconic, the music, the clothing, the language, the political figures, the movies, the cars, the culture – it’s so vibrant and giddy – and we’re literally building the moon as part of the set, so that’s worth a look all by itself.

After that you’re heading off on tour with Jekyll and Hyde – what prompted you to head out of London and what are you most looking forward to about the tour?

After five years, sixteen shows and thirteen award nominations, I feel like we’ve found our USP, and developed a sense of the type of work that we want to produce. And whilst we’ve loved being at the Jack, there comes a point (and for me it came after our production of White Rose last year) where you have to consider what the next step would be in terms of the company, and in terms of our progression both creatively and financially. It seemed like there were two options, to either scale up or down. Either Arrows become a purely artistic venture, done for the love of the process, in which case it only really made sense to do a show a year, and also only in the summer as to not interfere with my day job as an English/Drama teacher, or to scale up and take the company further. As much as I love the Brockley Jack, we all know it’s not about to get 150 more seats added to it, so it’s about reformulating the model and making it work for more audience engagement, and a wider profile beyond SE London. So I decided I’d try touring.

The model is that we will retain the Brockley Jack as a home, always debut each show there, hold the press nights there, and have the 3-4 week run of 15-20 shows as we have in the past, but then to take the show on national tours that are produced and supported for a longer period of time, and run for an extended season of shows. So more shows, less productions, if that makes sense. We’re building a team to support the shows, a tour booker, a producer, a fundraiser, set designer, costume designer, etc – and the cast size has been streamlined to make it viable for a touring model. So in a sense this is the end of an era as the 8-15 person cast just won’t be possible anymore, but I’m excited about the possibilities that touring produces, and I’m very eager to instigate a paid model that edges away from the profit-share fringe structure that unsubsidised theatre often has to be done at. The most exciting part for me is to go to new places and debut our work there, to build new followings and to really work at making this a viable business model. Of course, I’m not expecting a six-figure salary for all, there’s no money in theatre, never has been, but the pride and justice involved in finally being able to pay every single person involved in the show properly for the vast amount of time they put in to each show will be very validating and satisfying when it at last happens.

Tell us a bit about your new Renegade season. How did you select the stories you wanted to tell and which are you most excited about?

The idea with the Renegade season is to continue the work we’ve already been doing, and just go further with it in new areas and new remits. For the last few years our work has been falling into one of two categories, the literary adaptation of classic novels, and the new writing about a historical figure. I want to continue this remit by bringing a conclusion to the Gothic Trilogy that we started with Frankenstein and Dracula, and write a modern political thriller adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde set in the 2020 US Presidential Race. I think, when reading the novella, you get the strong sense of the importance of reputation in Victorian society, and the hypocrisy that so many fell into when they tried to conceal a darker part of themselves, and only present the morally upright version of their personalities. To our modern audiences, and to students of the text, this is quite hard to find a parallel to in our society or see the importance of why something like a “Hyde persona” would need to be concealed, but I think politics still has that sense of moral rectitude and the threat of what a sudden scandal can do to your career – so the political arena seemed a good setting, particularly when you look at our current social climate. Oh and yes, I’m choosing to set it in the States mainly because I’m sick to death of hearing about Brexit, and I certainly don’t want to write a f*cking play about it.

We then plan to follow it up with a rewritten version of our 2017 hit Frankenstein, which was very popular at the time.  I also want to continue our new historical writing slant, but obviously I’m aware that the viable choices for real-life figure is slightly more limited if you want to go outside of London, so I’ve chosen to tackle the origin stories of two of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. In CHAPLIN, we’ll deal with how he becomes the Little Tramp, and cover his childhood and upbringing in Victorian London – his story is absolutely breath-taking and heart-breaking – it reads like something ripped out of a Charles Dickens novel. And in Making Marilyn we’re dealing with Norma Jean and her road to Hollywood. Hopefully, we’ll be able to tell you stories that you didn’t know about figures that you are familiar with, and with all prequels, there’s some fun to be there about how exactly the iconic images are created, and the reason behind them.

What made you decide to bring back Frankenstein, and can we expect any other revivals in the future…?

I think, with all of these shows, as the writer, you go through a process working on them. Frankenstein was the first show for Arrows & Traps that I wrote as well as directed, and I think that version was something of a scatter-gun, in terms of the fact that I threw everything that I found interesting about the book and its author onto the stage, it was stuffed with characters and plotlines, almost to confusion-levels, I found. Often, when you get to the last night, you have just worked out what story you wanted to tell, only to have it all be over. I think I’ve managed to refine that over the two years I’ve been writing for Arrows & Traps, but Frankenstein really stands out to me as one that I’d love a second go at writing. Hone and rein it in slightly, make it more about the absent mothers, and the uncaring fathers – less about the romances, and it’s an opportunity to bring back Will Pinchin’s phenomenal performance as the Creature, which really has to go down as a company highlight for me.

I certainly wouldn’t rule out other revivals in the future. I think White Rose and TARO have been my favourite productions so far, and I’d certainly like to bring both back at some point… we shall see what destiny holds. For the moment, there’s certainly a lot going on, and I’m looking forward to building a roster of great productions that are touring, reaching new audiences, and bringing the company to the next level of working that we’ve all been dreaming of since 2014.

Tickets are now on sale for One Giant Leap and The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde. And to keep up to date on all things Arrows, follow @arrowsandtraps on Twitter.