Review: The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

First performed in Edinburgh in 2014, Mark Farrelly’s solo show about the life of writer Patrick Hamilton is a fascinating insight into a troubled mind. Hamilton, who came from a family of novelists, enjoyed success as a writer from a young age; despite producing several bestselling novels, he’s perhaps best known today for his plays Rope and Gaslight (which, as a side note, gave us the modern expression gaslighting). But he also struggled for years with alcoholism and depression, and when we first meet him, he’s awaiting his final session of electroconvulsive shock therapy – an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to beat the Black Dog once and for all.

The Silence of Snow at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Encouraged by our “earnest silence”, Hamilton goes back to the beginning, sharing the story of his life in a monologue that combines Farrelly’s own words with excerpts from Hamilton’s work. Both are of a high standard, playing gleefully with language to paint unique and vivid pictures in our minds. These come to life in the masterful hands of Farrelly himself, who doesn’t so much play as inhabit the role of Hamilton. Charismatic and unpredictable, he builds an instant rapport with the audience, and then proceeds to hold us spellbound for the next 70 minutes. The total absence of any set behind him feels increasingly irrelevant as he easily holds our attention, conjuring up settings, characters – both real and taken from Hamilton’s work – and even a horrific car crash (which left him disfigured for the rest of his life) quite literally out of thin air.

Despite the lack of set, Linda Marlowe’s production is still highly atmospheric, due in no small part to the very effective lighting and sound design. The hiss and crackle of the impending shock therapy creates a sense of urgency in Hamilton’s monologue, and there’s an intense scarlet light that floods the stage each time he relives – somewhat vicariously, it seems – the violent acts committed by his characters. In contrast, at one point the lights are extinguished altogether, to great comic effect.

In fact, for a play about a depressed alcoholic, The Silence of Snow is very enjoyable and often surprisingly funny. Hamilton narrates his life with a wry humour and gently mocking tone – more than once the audience is invited to “keep up” – that masks his intensifying mental struggle. Late in the play, he invites his wife, ex-wife and brother to an intervention of sorts, which rapidly falls apart and leaves him alone and terrified of what lies ahead; it’s only in this moment that we really see the fragility of the man behind the mask. This scene gains greater poignancy when we learn that the play’s dedicated to Farrelly’s close friend Tim Welling, who was the first person to read it, but who took his own life before he could see it performed. (A collection for MIND taken after the show has so far raised over £7,500.)

The Silence of Snow at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Patrick Hamilton was once one of Britain’s most successful writers, but less than a century later, he’s faded into relative obscurity. The Silence of Snow seeks to shine a light not just on Hamilton’s work but also on the man himself – even if that light isn’t always particularly flattering. It’s not a very cheery tale, but it is an informative and expertly performed biographical piece, which – if you’re anything like me – will send you home wanting to know more.

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Review: As A Man Grows Younger at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Waiting for reviews to come in after press night is, I imagine, a fairly nerve-wracking experience for a playwright. But what if the critics’ response to your work could mean the difference between life and death? Such is the case in As A Man Grows Younger, a dramatic monologue based on the life of Italian writer Italo Svevo who, seeing his country in the grips of Mussolini, has written a play discreetly mocking fascism. Now, the morning after opening night, he waits anxiously to see who arrives first – the newspaper boy or the blackshirts.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

In reality, this never happened; a foreword in the play text by the writer Howard Colyer explains that in fact Svevo died shortly after the play in question was completed, and he never saw it performed. This forgivable dramatic licence does, however, add a bit of intrigue, and sets the stage nicely for what follows: a rambling but thought-provoking monologue that tells us a lot about the writer himself (I admit to knowing nothing about Svevo before entering the theatre) but also asks some interesting questions about the nature of protest.

David Bromley gives a very polished and assured performance as Svevo, a contradictory and eccentric figure whose anxiety is palpable from the start as he paces the room, frequently checking at the window to see if anyone’s approaching. To keep his mind occupied he reminisces about his life and career, including some enjoyable turns as other characters including his wife, mother-in-law, and good friend James Joyce. There’s humour too in his various eccentricities – among them an obsession with interesting dates, a tendency to ribbit like a frog when nervous, and an absolute inability to give up smoking, which he seems to view more as a point of pride than a weakness.

At just 70 minutes long, the play packs in an enormous amount of detail about Svevo’s past and present, and because it hops very quickly from one subject to another it demands our full concentration at all times – not least because Svevo seems to have lived an extremely full and varied life. Despite this intensity in the writing, Bromley’s energetic performance, directed by Kate Bannister, means it never feels uninteresting or heavy, even in its darker moments. Karl Swinyard’s set is beautifully detailed in its portrayal of Svevo’s study, complete with a board full of dates and mementos that he frequently refers to throughout the piece, and Philip Matejtschuk’s sound design adds further detail, right down to the ticking of a clock.

Photo credit: Tim Stubbs Hughes

As A Man Grows Younger is an interesting and well performed historical play about a man caught between his distaste for fascism and his fear of speaking out. Despite knowing the very serious potential consequences of taking a stand, Svevo has chosen to use his new-found platform (he only became widely known, thanks to Joyce, in his 60s) to protest. Whether or not we like him as a man, we have to respect his courage as a writer – and with moments in the play that feel depressingly current, perhaps be prepared to follow his example.

Review: TARO at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Last week when I reviewed Gentleman Jack, the first of two new plays that make up Arrows & Traps’ Female Firsts repertory season, I described it as “perhaps more understated than some of their previous work”. The same can certainly not be said for TARO, the second piece. In fact, Ross McGregor’s biopic of Gerda Taro feels a lot like the Arrows’ greatest hits compilation (there’s even a cameo for the snow machine from Anna Karenina), but if it’s your first time seeing them in action… well, let’s just say you’ve picked a good one – possibly even the company’s best.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Born Gerta Pohorylle in 1910, Gerda Taro (Cornelia Baumann and Lucy Ioannou) was a German Jewish war photographer. Forced to leave her home by the rise of the Nazis, at the age of 23 she moved to Paris, where she met and fell in love with the Hungarian photographer Endre Friedmann (Tom Hartill). Faced with growing anti-semitic prejudice in Europe, the couple worked together under an invented alias, Robert Capa, before Gerta assumed her own professional identity and began working openly as Gerda Taro.

We hear this account from Gerda herself who, following her death in Spain at the age of just 26, looks back over her short life in an imagined conversation with her idol, Greta Garbo (Beatrice Vincent). Garbo adopts the role of director and under her guiding hand, the story of Gerda Taro comes magically to life.

And it really is a magical experience to watch it unfold. TARO is, quite simply, a meticulously choreographed masterclass in ensemble performance; a play in which every member of the cast shines individually but also forms part of a perfectly engineered and visually gorgeous whole. Movement director Matthew Parker has created some exquisite sequences, highlighted by stunningly atmospheric lighting from Ben Jacobs, and the whole piece has the feeling of both a story and a production far more epic than their intimate staging might suggest.

As in Gentleman Jack, the central character of Gerda Taro becomes a dual role, allowing the living Gerda to be observed wistfully by her ghostly counterpart. Both Lucy Ioannou and Cornelia Baumann are extraordinary, each radiating a quiet dignity in the face of tragedy and prejudice respectively. Among a host of great performances, Tom Hartill makes an incredibly charming Endre, Alex Stevens cuts a sympathetic figure as the couple’s friend and fellow photographer David “Chim” Seymour, and Beatrice Vincent oozes class and elegance as the legendary Greta Garbo.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Being labelled the first female photographer to be killed in action may seem like a dubious honour, particularly since Endre Freidmann – as Robert Capa – would go on to be dubbed by some the greatest war photographer in history. But those few words sum up so much about Gerda Taro: her courage, talent, passion, determination and above all, her refusal to let a little thing like being female – or indeed Jewish – stop her succeeding at a job she loved. All those qualities shine through in this beautiful tribute, which so clearly comes from a place of deep respect and admiration. What more can I say? An incredible life honoured by a gorgeous, goosebump-inducing production – you really don’t want to miss this one.

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.

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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…