Review: The Trap at Omnibus Theatre

With Christmas approaching far too quickly, more than one mind will be turning to the question of finances. So it’s an apt time of year to stage Kieran Lynn’s satirical comedy The Trap, which is set in a branch of the Debt Duck, a high street payday loans company where it’s not only the customers who are in need of bailing out.

Clem just got fired. Tom’s struggling to pay his rent. They just so happen to know there’s 10 grand in the safe, and plans are a bit of a speciality of Clem’s… Unfortunately, their ill-conceived heist is interrupted by branch manager Alan – and chaos ensues. But it’s fine, because it’s only stealing if you get caught, right?

Photo credit: Laura Harling
As we all know, companies like the Debt Duck may be legal but are also far from ethical, taking advantage of desperate people by offering a short-term fix in exchange for long-term misery. The employees of the branch are all too aware of the parallels between themselves and the Estonian gangsters who turn up later on in the story – but ironically they depend on the company for their own financial survival, and are consequently just as trapped as their unfortunate customers. Incoming government regulations are the catalyst, jeopardising the future of the Debt Duck and everyone caught within its vicious circle, and setting the scene for a debate about the ethics of capitalism.

Fortunately, we’re saved from anything too heavy by a witty script from Kieran Lynn, who clearly shares regional manager Meryl’s love for a good metaphor, and four strong comic performances from the cast (Jahvel Hall, Sophie Guiver, Andrew Macbean and Wendy Kweh). All four characters are somewhat ethically challenged – with the exception of Jahvel Hall’s Tom, who keeps trying to do the right thing in the face of intense peer pressure – but they’re also incompetent enough as both moneylenders and criminals that we just end up feeling sorry for them (Andrew Macbean cuts a particularly pathetic figure as the hapless Alan). The true villain of the piece is the unseen, mythical figure of company boss Trevor Wynyard, who has the power to make or break everyone else’s lives whilst remaining untouchable himself.

Photo credit: Laura Harling
Sarah Beaton’s set recreates the Debt Duck office in realistic detail, with director Dan Ayling centring the action along the middle of the space, with the audience seated on three sides. The lighting design from Jamie Platt not only helps us keep up with the story’s two distinct timelines (one night, one day) but also creates just the right level of drama at key moments. On a similar note, I feel I should mention the office’s temperamental burglar alarm (sound by Edward Lewis) which plays such a major role in proceedings it’s practically a fifth character.

While the play doesn’t exactly tell us anything we didn’t already know (payday loans companies are bad, basically), it is very funny – but is careful to target its satire at the perpetrators rather than taking cheap shots at the victims, so we don’t feel bad for laughing loudly and often. Recommended for a fun – and affordable – night out.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… ūüėČ

Interview: Josie Underwood, Follow Suit

Silent Faces was founded at Goldsmiths in 2015 by Josie Underwood, Cordelia Stevenson and Jay Wakely, with the aim of making brave, ridiculous, unique and challenging theatre. Their show Follow Suit¬†was nominated for the Brighton Fringe Award for Best Young Production in 2016, and now heads north to Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard.

“People should see Follow Suit because it’s ridiculous and funny, with a bit of liberal rage thrown in,” says co-founder Josie. “It’s a darkly comic take on the morally neglectful world of high finance, four clowns in an office distracting themselves in the most ridiculous ways possible from the skeletons in their stationery cupboard.

“We wanted to make a show that tackled a big issue like corporate responsibility, through clown and comedy. It seems a bizarre idea to smash together clowning with corporations, but it was a challenge we were excited to undertake! We love clown and physical theatre, but also want to make work that challenges, all the while entertaining its audience.”

With just a few days to go until their Edinburgh debut, Silent Faces are looking forward to the experience, and particularly seeing audiences’ reactions to the show. “We’ve worked on this production for so long, and we are incredibly excited to share it with the wonderful audiences that flock to Edinburgh Fringe,” says Josie.¬†

“And there are so many other shows that we’re excited to see this year: Superbolt‚Äôs two shows, Mental by Kane Power Theatre, Gecko, Different Party and Trygve vs a Baby, and so much more. We’re also gutted that we won‚Äôt be able to see Not I by Touretteshero ‚Äď which looks right up our street and we will definitely be encouraging everyone to see!”

Silent Faces aim to make their work accessible to as many people as possible, and Follow Suit was recently included in a round-up of Disability Arts International‚Äôs picks of the Fringe 2017. It does come with a bit of a health warning for younger audience members, though: “It‚Äôs not for kids, because it does get a bit gruesome, but we think anyone would enjoy Follow Suit,” says Josie. “As an integrated company of disabled and non-disabled artists, we were really keen to make work that is accessible to all adult audiences – and as a show that relies mainly on comedy and physicality, Follow Suit is accessible to an international audience.

“Above all else, we hope audiences will be entertained. While the content is in essence political, we don‚Äôt want to stand on a soap box and shove our views down our audiences’ throats. Instead we want them to enjoy the comedy, the silliness and the journey that our clowns go on.”

Follow Suit is at Pleasance Courtyard (venue 33) from 2nd-28th August (not 9th, 14th, 15th, 21st) at 12.45pm.

Review: The Pulverised at Arcola Theatre

Alexandra Badea’s The Pulverised is all about connection. Or rather, the lack of it. Globalisation may be bringing¬†everyone closer together on a business level, the play argues, but at what cost to us as human beings? Following the stories of four professionals based in different countries but working for the same multinational corporation, Badea paints a¬†catastrophic picture of lives without meaning, families who barely know each other, and identities lost to the corporate machine. In keeping with this, director Andy Sava situates Lucy Phelps’ translation in a scene of carnage; the stage is littered with smashed office equipment and rubble, and four bodies lie inert on the ground.

Photo credit: Dashti Jahfar

A Quality Assurance of Subcontractors Manager from Lyon (Richard Corgan) wakes up in a characterless hotel room and for a minute can’t remember what country he’s in. A factory worker in Shanghai (Rebecca Boey) spends her days on a production line in which any loss of speed and efficiency¬†could cost her job – or worse. An ambitious Call¬†Centre Team Leader in Dakar¬†(Solomon Israel) can’t understand¬†why a new recruit might object to adopting¬†a French name in place of her own. And a Research and Development Engineer in Bucharest (Kate Miles) spends time with her family the only way she can – by spying on them via CCTV while she’s at the office.

The character profiles are deliberately vague; they’re¬†all just one more nameless face in the rat race of global business, taking it in turns to address¬†the audience in the second person and¬†make the point that any one of them could be any one of us. The dialogue is rapid, and there’s a constant sense of urgency and pressure, of time being short – “the clock’s ticking, and you’re falling behind” is a frequent refrain, as is the supposedly motivational “aim for excellence”. In between their scenes, the actors crumple to the ground as if too exhausted to react to anything beyond their own experience, raising their heads to monotonously voice secondary characters in other stories, before powering back up to continue their own.

This unusual structure effectively conveys the isolation of the characters, though it does¬†run the risk of becoming repetitive, particularly as the play is more¬†a collection of snapshots than a story in the traditional sense, and we end pretty much where we began. It’s testament to the engaging performances of the four actors that the play holds our attention for the full 90 minutes, with each capturing¬†the¬†emotional and mental strain faced by their character, but also the absolute impossibility of breaking free from their soul-destroying routine.¬†Simultaneously they – and we – are bombarded by a multimedia sensory overload, with video projections from Ashley Ogden particularly effective at demonstrating the constant flow of data and images that’s become part of 21st century life.

Photo credit: Dashti Jahfar

The Pulverised¬†is a relentlessly¬†bleak piece of theatre. Nobody gets a happy ending, and even for the characters who are offered an opportunity¬†to escape, there’s a depressing sense that nothing is really going to change.¬†But the play does¬†force us to confront for a moment the damaging effects of progress, to reflect on that ‘made in China’ label that allowed us to pay¬†half price, and also to consider our own priorities and work-life balance. The piece-by-piece breaking down of the set’s rear wall offers the tiniest glimpse of an emergency exit for those brave enough to take it, and the suggestion that while we may not be able to stop globalisation, we can at least save ourselves from being pulverised¬†by it.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… ūüėČ

Review: Happy to Help at Park Theatre

If you¬†thought a supermarket was nothing more than¬†a place to pick up a pint of milk, think again. Happy To Help by Michael Ross¬†opens the door¬†to Frisca, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, and takes us behind the scenes for one dramatic week, to reveal¬†the internal politics and daily power struggles hidden behind the brand’s cheerful¬†public face. It’s a sharp, clever comedy but with a serious message, in which¬†the huge corporation is likened to an autocratic state, where¬†speaking out against the regime can have dire consequences.

UK managing director Tony (Charles Armstrong) is doing¬†his Secret Millionaire bit, on the advice of American boss Huck (David Bauckham), going behind the scenes at a Frisca branch to mingle with the workers. But little does he know that store¬†manager¬†Vicky (Katherine Kotz) has her own agenda… Meanwhile disgruntled employees Elliott (Jonny Weldon) and Myra (Rachel Marwood) are whispering about unions, and¬†wannabe rockstar Josh (Ben Mann) has no intention of sticking around for long, even if he is everyone’s favourite shelf-stacker. For Frisca’s customers, it’ll be just another week, but behind the scenes everything’s about to change as a hilarious, shocking and unsettling chain of events is set in motion.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

In a fantastic¬†cast, Katherine Kotz gives a stand-out performance¬†as the manipulative Vicky; with a sunny smile that never reaches her eyes,¬†she prowls the stage, a figure of¬†absolute authority and control –¬†but with¬†a slightly manic air¬†that suggests¬†she could lose it at any moment. Ben Mann also shines as the brashly confident Josh, who thinks he’s got it made by being teacher’s pet. The confrontation between Vicky and Josh at the end of Act 1 is masterfully constructed and performed; much like Josh, we don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late.

Perhaps the biggest personality on stage, though – both¬†literally (the brand name is emblazoned across Emma Tompkins’ set) and figuratively –¬†is Frisca itself, a business so wildly successful that¬†it’s come to dominate every area of our lives, without ever¬†pausing to consider who might be suffering as a result. Directed by Roxy Cook, the play skilfully contrasts¬†Frisca’s shiny public image with the less than glamorous reality, in which employees are devalued, dissatisfied, and anything but ‘happy to help’. Each scene change is punctuated by a soundtrack of till beeps and monotonous store announcements, and there’s even a perky (and frustratingly catchy) Frisca song. It’s a world governed by ridiculous¬†rules and regulations, whose absurdity¬†is hammered home by Tony – the man who wrote them – now having to abide by them.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

But Happy To Help, which was shortlisted for the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize in 2015, is also a stark warning about the power¬†that big businesses are allowed to wield over both us as consumers and the smaller firms that get in their way. As much as we may laugh watching the play, it actually paints a pretty bleak picture, and though¬†the twist in the tale isn’t difficult¬†to see coming, it still makes a powerful point. And it may make you think twice about ever setting foot in a supermarket again… at least until the next time you run out of milk, anyway.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… ūüėČ