Review: Pluto at the Cockpit Theatre

Who among us didn’t feel a little bit sad when Pluto lost its planetary status back in 2006? Partly because it messed up the mnemonic we all learnt at school (mine was Some Men Very Easily Make Jam Sandwiches Under No Pressure, which just doesn’t work without the P) but mostly because it just all seemed a bit unnecessarily harsh. Poor old Pluto’s up there minding his own business, doing what he’s always done, and down here on Earth someone’s tweaked a few rules and suddenly he no longer makes the grade. And to add insult to injury, he didn’t even ask to be part of our solar system in the first place.

This is the premise for Moonchild Theatre’s debut show, in which a depressed Pluto (Liam Joseph) struggles to come to terms with his sudden change in status, despite the best efforts of his devoted and kind-hearted moon Charon (Charlotte Price) – and the stripper she “forgot” to cancel (Thomas Lovell) – to cheer him up. Why is there a stripper there, you may ask? Well, because Neptune, Pluto’s next door neighbour, tricked him into having a party to celebrate what he thought was going to be an exciting announcement from NASA. And then didn’t show up. Along with all the other planets.

Photo credit: Dave Bird
Writer and director Callum O’Brien’s idea of presenting Pluto and friends as people with unique personalities, emotions and even sexualities presents plenty of comic opportunities (I particularly enjoyed the shared obsession with Sigourney Weaver). But it also makes their plight a lot easier to relate to, and the play has some really moving moments – largely due to the fact we’re not just talking about planets here. The show was inspired by the ongoing controversy in the USA over transgender bathroom laws, and from this very specific starting point explores the more general theme of individuals being labelled according to someone else’s world – or in this case, solar system – view, and the damaging effects this can have on their mental health and relationships.

The three characters complement each other well, in a story that balances Pluto’s persistent gloom against Charon’s energy and perkiness, and then throws in the Stripper to mix things up. The first outsider to visit in, presumably, a really long time, he brings with him all the prejudices they feared, but also a new, different energy that affects the two friends in contrasting ways and leads the play to a somewhat subdued and ambiguous conclusion.

Perhaps in a nod to their relative youth within Earth’s view of the solar system (Pluto was only discovered in 1930), both Liam Joseph and Charlotte Price bring a childlike energy to their roles – he’s pouting and petulant; she’s full of enthusiasm and a touching innocence – she has, we learn, been rescuing the dogs sent up on test missions by Russia because she couldn’t bear to see them die. They’re a likeable, if dysfunctional, pair with a genuine, irresistible fondness for each other – but heartfelt monologues from both reveal there’s considerably more going on behind the party games and comedy dance moves.

Equally enjoyable is Thomas Lovell’s decidedly un-childlike Stripper, who certainly knows how to make an entrance, and holds nothing back as he camps it up to the max. But this character also has hidden depths, and ultimately it’s he – not Charon – who finds a way to get through to Pluto.

Funny and thought-provoking, Pluto is an exciting debut from Moonchild Theatre. Being an astronomy fan (and having a pre-existing fondness for Pluto) will help but isn’t essential; at heart this is a story about the importance of not letting others’ prejudices define how you see yourself. And that makes it a lot closer to the human experience than its distant setting would suggest.

To find out more about Pluto and Moonchild Theatre, visit moonchildtheatre.co.uk or follow @MoonchildPluto. You can also read Theatre Things’ interview with Liam Joseph to find out more about the show’s inspiration.

Interview: Stephanie Silver, Monologues of a Tired Nurse

Who better to write a play about what it’s like to work for the NHS than someone who does it every day? Stephanie Silver was inspired by her own professional experiences to write Monologues of a Tired Nurse, which has its final run this week at the Lion and Unicorn as part of the Camden Fringe.

“I’m a nurse and have been for the last eight years,” says Stephanie. “I was working on a cardiothoracic intensive care for a while; it can be a tough environment. I was going through some personal problems and having some episodes of feeling very down about my job. I sat down and wrote some monologues to get some feelings off my chest and Tired Nurse kind of happened.

“It’s a brutally honest account of how it feels to work within the NHS in a understaffed, underpaid and emotionally draining time. The stories are fictionalised, but based on real life encounters of how it feels to be a nurse or any another healthcare professional working in today’s health service on an emotional and personal level.”

The show’s been in development since 2015, since Stephanie performed it at one of the first ever Actor Awareness scratch nights. “It’s changed a lot since then,” she says. “Even after performing it at Edinburgh 2016, we changed it up for the London run at Baron’s Court in 2017. I want it to be as visceral and engaging as possible to really grab the audience’s attention, and the director Simon Nader has always been fantastic in bringing the vision of the piece alive.

“Nurses definitely relate to the play. Anyone who works in the public services in any capacity, whether they are a teacher, policeman, fireman or army officer, can relate to the level of pain and stress in the play and the feelings of never being good enough, especially in the current climate with all the cuts and pressures to work faster and be more efficient but with twice the work load. An army veteran told us in Edinburgh it was some of the most honest accounts of working on the frontline he had seen – that meant a lot.

“I’d like people to see the human, the person behind the professional. I’m sure most people do but the papers and government spin so much crap that it is infuriating. Health care professionals aren’t cogs or robots, they’re people trying their best. And if you want a great health service providing the best care then please look at who you vote for and how you treat the people you meet at point of service. Make a conscious effort to invest in our healthcare in more ways than just saying, ‘I pay my taxes, so I am owed this’.”

After doing some acting as a child, Stephanie trained as a nurse before returning to theatre as an adult. “When I was ten I was in Goodnight Mister Tom, a TV film, and then at 18 I did a summer course at The Poor School, but after that thought I couldn’t afford drama school so I should do a sensible job, and kinda just stayed until I turned 28! Then I thought fuck it, time to probably do some acting before it’s too late. I also had a brain haemorrhage, which soon makes you realise that if you keep leaving things you might be dead before you actually get to do them!

“Juggling the two jobs is doable. Must actors have many jobs, it can feel like two very different worlds! Mainly it’s hard work, long hours and no sleep. I hardly see my friends but I’ve been trying to work on balance. I don’t waste time, I write everyday, and I do one thing everyday for my acting, whether it’s write an email or read a bit of a play or watch something to inspire me. I also do emails on the tube, on the toilet – anywhere really. You can sleep when you’re dead, right?! My mum always says that!”

As well as writing and performing in Tired Nurse, Stephanie’s also set up Glass Half Full Theatre, a company dedicated to creating daring, provocative work. “I really love writing and find it rather depressing waiting around as an actor so decided to produce my own writing,” she explains. “I’m not very well connected as I come from a zero theatrical background, so I got involved with Actor Awareness and met a lot of like-minded people looking to create work. At one of their first scratch nights, I performed Tired Nurse. I asked a mate along and then we decided due to the amazing response to take it to Edinburgh. That was financially not a great idea but it was one of the best experiences.

“I also got heavily involved with Actor Awareness and realised that there a lot of actors just not working – a lot – and what a brilliant thing if I can produce work. So I created Glass Half Full, dedicated to creating thought-provoking contemporary plays with a strong social, political, ethical, domestic backbone; plays with messages aimed at a young demographic, about the world we live in today and the kinds of world we could live in. So hopefully we are making thought-provoking challenging plays. Fingers crossed!”

Glass Half Full have lots of exciting plans for the year ahead: “This is our last run of Tired Nurse as we’ve been doing it for the last year. The immediate aim is to look to produce our show Walk of Shame for EdFringe 2018. I also produce new writing nights every so often. Hoping to do one of those in September so keep an eye out on Twitter, the event is called A Series of Short Plays – we did the first event in May, and it was a great night so we aim to be back with that but with a twist!

“We also have a play called Our Big Love Story, a story of racism after the July 2005 bombings which we are getting on its feet for production in 2018. That’s enough to get on with for now…”

Catch the final run of Monologues of a Tired Nurse at the Lion and Unicorn from 16th-19th August.

Interview: Julian Bruton, HOT MESS

HOT MESS is a coming-of-age story about love, sex, connection and relationships,” says Julian Bruton, co-director of Vernal Theatre Company. “The play is about twins, Polo and Twitch, who have returned to their hometown to celebrate their 25th birthday. Inherently one twin can love, the other cannot. The story unfolds on their big night out, as the twins and their friends come to terms with their dichotomy.”

The play was written by Ella Hickson, whose other work includes Oil and Eight, and was first performed in 2010 at the Hawke & Hunter Below Stairs Nightclub as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. “I think what makes Ella Hickson’s work special is how it explores and challenges themes and subject matters that are relevant to audiences today. Her latest play, Oil at the Almeida, is a brilliant example of that,” says Julian.

“I was attracted to HOT MESS by its unique form. When it comes to plays, I admire plays that are unique, adventurous and different in their form. Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court is a good recent example. An integral part of the form of HOT MESS was its direct storytelling to the audience; the lack of fourth wall. I was also drawn to this play because of its focus on younger characters and their experiences pertinent to them. I feel there are not a lot of plays that solely explore characters of that age range.”

In light of this, Julian thinks the play will particularly appeal to twenty-somethings and teenagers, but he hopes it’s also got something for other audience demographics: “I think people should come and see the show because it’s entertaining and funny, with a good dose of pathos and a thumping soundtrack. Another reason to see the show is because it’s very relatable. It’s a play about love. In an age of social media and phone apps such as Tinder and Grindr, exploring the challenges of finding love and connection couldn’t be more relevant. I’d like audiences to have an entertaining experience and as part of that, to delve and ponder the play’s explorations of love, sex and coming-of-age.”

HOT MESS opens at the Lion and Unicorn on 22nd August as part of the Camden Fringe. “I’m looking forward to being part of the buzzy atmosphere of Camden and its equally exciting festival!” says Julian.

He’s just as excited about the play’s cast: “They’re a group of actors who are really active and in the thick of it. Timothy Renouf has recently finished filming the upcoming feature film, Game Over, with Mark Heap. Gareth Balai has only just finished appearing in The Taming of the Shrew at The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre with Lazarus Theatre Company. Katrina Allen recently performed in a new play, Baby Come Back, at the Leicester Square Theatre, and Natalia Titcomb graduated from the Guildford School of Acting this year.”

Vernal Theatre Company was founded earlier this year by Julian and co-director/producer Kieran Rogers. “The company started when Kieran and I met at the Director’s Club, as part of the Director’s Cut Theatre Company,” says Julian. “We also met and worked with Katrina and Timothy as they were members of the Actor’s Club with Director’s Cut.

“As a company, we have an aim of producing new writing in the future. We aim to produce theatre that is current, exciting, bold, entertaining and provocative.”

Book now for HOT MESS at the Lion and Unicorn from 22nd-26th August.

Interview: Liam Joseph, PLUTO

Liam Joseph and Callum O’Brien met when they were working Front of House together at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Now co-founders of their own company, Moonchild Theatre, this month they return to London with their acclaimed first production, PLUTO.

PLUTO tells the story of the titular former planet during the period in which he finds out he is no longer a planet,” says Liam, who plays Pluto. “We follow his story as he battles with an identity crisis and his moon Charon tries her best to keep his spirits high. The show is an allegorical examination of LGBT issues that are still rampant in the world today.”

Liam explains that the story of PLUTO was inspired by the now notorious anti-LGBT laws passed in North Carolina last year, which required transgender people to use the restrooms that matched their birth certificate. “On the surface this would seem an unlikely source to inspire a play about the former planet Pluto,” he admits. “However, the story of a governing body dictating the personal identity of others and actively doing harm in the process, upon closer inspection, does in fact bear a remarkable similarity to that of our fallen cosmic comrade. The toilets of North Carolina have been exchanged for the constellations of the night sky. In lieu of the transgender population there is a distant planet battling with his identity.

Photo credit: Dave Bird

“Although our story is not limited specifically to transgender struggles, these ongoing issues – and many like it – helped develop the themes of identity, labelling and loneliness that form the emotional crux of PLUTO. This play is a marriage of two enormous but previously unrelated themes; the LGBTQ+ experience in today’s society and the beautiful, incomprehensible mysteries of space.”

The show was last performed in April at Baron’s Court Theatre, where Millennial London called it “an impressive first production of a new play that captures many important issues in today’s world”. Now returning as part of the Camden Fringe, the show’s undergone some changes: “As we’re now performing as part of a festival run, the show had to be adapted to suit the new working environment,” explains Liam. “With strict get in and get out times, it was necessary for us to cut the run time of the play from eighty minutes to one hour. It used to be bookended by a prologue and epilogue of human characters, to bring the audience back down to earth – literally – but that’s completely gone now.

“It’s much more streamlined and serious, focusing more on the effect of labels and the issues that labels cause in society. And it also opens up a whole new level to the relationship between Pluto and Charon, the icy twins who live in the furthest reaches of the solar system. Completely removed from the solar system, one wants to escape their one-billion-year solitude and the other wants to stay in their ‘safe oasis of anxiety’. Naturally this causes catastrophic tension…”

Despite these changes in structure, the message and spirit of the piece has remained intact: “The show is generally aimed at a millennial/queer audience whose experiences we hope the show manages to capture,” says Liam. “We are a theatre company composed of relatively young individuals and so it was in our interest to create theatre that appealed to us as audience members.

“I think Callum would agree in saying it’s a fable for the millennial; understand that this story is happening now in London as we speak. So many young millennials struggle with being labelled something by ‘words on a page’ and it affects them deeply. We can all do something by accepting each other for who we are: human beings. Simple as that.”

Photo credit: Dave Bird

 

The foundation of Moonchild Theatre came about when the two friends and colleagues realised they’d rather be on the stage than in front of it. “I wanted to be on stage so I asked Callum to write me a play – that’s it!” says Liam. “Over time, we’ve seen PLUTO and ultimately our ethos grow and change, but our aim is to create ‘Now Theatre’, dealing with issues that society’s happy to brush under the rug. We don’t want to solve them, we want people to be aware of them and be able to engage and debate these issues.

“The whole process has been a huge surprise. We only wanted to put a play on and now it’s turned into a successful theatre company with fans and regulars. We were surprised about how many people wanted to see PLUTO at the Baron’s Court and how well it was received by the reviewers.

“All in all, to be able to perform at the King’s Head Theatre, the most prestigious gay theatre in the world, and The Cockpit this summer, we’ve done and achieved a lot more than we’d ever hoped for. The future is ours!”

See PLUTO tonight (1st August) at the King’s Head Theatre or book for the Cockpit Theatre from 14th-17th August.

Interview: Ashley Winter and Christopher Montague, Skin Deep

Attila Theatre’s Skin Deep was first performed last year at the London Horror Festival, where the festival’s patron Nicholas Vince commented, “This is physical ensemble theatre in its purest form and will haunt me for days.” This week, Attila bring their gruesome true story to the Camden Fringe, opening tonight at the Lion and Unicorn.

Skin Deep is the origin story of real-life historical figure Erzsébet Báthory – branded the world’s most prolific female serial killer,” says Ashley Winter, who plays her. “We explore her childhood, marriage to soldier Ferenc Nadasdy, and the events that led to her very first murder. It’s also a love story between Erzsebet and her handmaid Lucie.”

The show is an obvious must for horror fans, “but also fans of ensemble theatre, feminist theatre, physical theatre…” says Ashley.

“All the above, but especially female theatre makers,” agrees director Christopher Montague. “We may have stumbled upon an iconic female character from history, so underrepresented and interesting that people will want to explore her life for years to come. Ashley plays her brilliantly, and it is a very desireable role in my eyes; hopefully in twenty years’ time we’ll be talking about the character Báthory in the same way we talk about Richard III.

“We’ve slapped a 14+ recommendation on the play, purely because of foul language and violent imagery – we don’t want to warp any young minds. That will happen without our input. The play is nowhere near as gruesome as it could’ve been, so even if you’re a bit squeamish, you’ll be fine!”

Ashley’s hoping audiences will come away as obsessed with Báthory as she is: “I think the most interesting thing about her is that her actual real-life existence is so removed from the image of the sexy, vampish killer that pop culture has bestowed upon her. She’s been appropriated by the goth community as this macabre pin-up, but we really have no way of knowing what she was like, what motivated her, what she wanted from life.

“I think it’s important to look at how history represents those in the past; Erzsébet’s name was considered a curse word for 100 years after she died – but her husband Ferenc, ‘The Black Knight’, is still considered to be a national hero in Hungary, despite being known for his horrendous and brutal torture of Turks in the Ottoman war. Gender inequality presents itself in many ways and Erzsébet Báthory – the most famous woman of her time – has not escaped it. We wanted to present an Erzsébet that was a product of the brutal time in which she existed, but try to steer clear of culturally presented clichés about ‘dangerous women’.”

The first version of the show, produced in late 2016 for the London Horror Festival, was developed in just three weeks. Since then it’s changed quite dramatically: “We brought director Ailin Conant on board, whose experience working in physical theatre, mask and puppetry helped us develop the physical language and the multiple ‘worlds’ of the play,” explains Ashley. “We’ve introduced a chorus of maids to the piece too, who are present on stage most of the time; you get to see much more of the immense dichotomy between the rich and poor of the time. Erzsébet’s story has become more about the struggle to break free from societal constraints relating to gender and social status.”

“The show is a little less sensationalist this time around,” adds Christopher. “Last year, performing the show on Halloween weekend and with little time to really explore the story we wanted to tell, we opted for a version of the show that was overall darker, included more torture and more blood. Don’t worry gore-fans, there’s still a fair bit, but in the interests of creating a dramatic story arc, we’ve focused more on the character’s relationships and making them all fully developed, rather than just victims.

“Also, I no longer perform in the show as ‘Percy’ the pigkeeper boy, much to many people’s dismay. It was decided my skills could be used elsewhere.”

So why should people come and see Skin Deep? “Because we worked really hard on it?” suggests Christopher. “Brush away the Edinburgh blues and see some of the amazing work that’s right on your doorstep at the Camden Fringe!”

Ashley expands, “Firstly, it will defy expectations about who Báthory was. We have an amazing female-heavy cast who have incredible energy and passion for the show. The music is totally brilliant – designed by the talented Ross Kernahan – and gives the whole show this creeping tension that builds to a furious ending. It’s surprisingly funny too! It’s a fast-paced physical show with really taut dialogue, so if you’re not into stuffy history plays then it’s definitely for you.”

“I’d love for audiences to see something of a contemporary ‘history’ play,” adds Christopher. “A lot of plays you see that explore historical figures tend to include large monologues and elaborate set design that mirror the time of their life – whereas being an emerging company with training in ensemble theatre, our instincts led us to this stripped back design, which allows us to fully utilise the large cast and their talents. Plays about history don’t have to simply be biopics. We’ve definitely taken liberty with the truth at times, but always in the interest of making a better show. Hopefully audiences will forgive us for that!”

Ashley and Christopher started Attila Theatre after graduating from the University of Reading. “We didn’t start with any aims, other than to start making our own work and see what naturally came out of that,” Ashley explains. “We’ve discovered that we’re interested in telling stories about women in traditionally male realms. We’re very much inspired by companies like Told by an Idiot – irreverent, funny, daring and devised!”

“After making a few shows and having a decent network of friends with theatre companies in London, my main goal is to stay in amongst these people and keep making work,” says Christopher. “Sounds simple, but there’s a huge amount to be said for companies like us being ‘in the same boat’ as all the others who are struggling to get funding, working two jobs alongside rehearsals etc. The knowledge that we’re all still doing it despite the difficulties, for me, is a testament to the artists who make the work and the support they provide each other.”

Skin Deep opens at the Lion and Unicorn on 31st July and runs until 6th August.