Review: Empty Room at Camden People’s Theatre

Named for the only song her parents wrote together, which opens and closes the performance, Miriam Gould’s Empty Room is a deeply personal one-woman show that explores her family history and the important part music has played – and continues to play – in that story. A courageous, soul-baring performance, it’s by turns funny, poignant and surprisingly educational; I certainly know a lot more now about Dmitri Shostakovich than I did going in.

Empty Room at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

The show features one performer but four characters, all of them real people. There’s Miriam herself, aged 14, breathlessly giving a classroom presentation about her favourite composer. Then there’s Rachel Gould, her mother, a sophisticated jazz singer sharing personal anecdotes with her audience in between numbers. Next there’s fast-talking Sal Nistico: jazz saxophonist, self-confessed heroin addict, and Miriam’s father.

Finally, there’s Miriam again, but here and now, revealing directly to the audience that her teen obsession with Shostakovich is in fact representative of something far more personal – the loss of her father, an event she acknowledges she’s still processing nearly two decades later. With the benefit of hindsight, she can admit that for all his genius as a composer, as a man her teen idol had his flaws. In the same way, her father wasn’t perfect, and neither Miriam, her mother nor even Sal himself ever try to pretend otherwise.

Even so, and despite the fact we’re never able to see them directly interacting, the show always overflows with a feeling of deep mutual love and pride, not just between daughter and father but between all three family members. And what we do see is how their separate personas – each represented by an item of clothing – begin to intermingle as the show goes on, finally ending up arranged neatly on the ground around Miriam’s own violin, which takes centre stage throughout. It’s a simple but highly effective way of bringing the family together for the show’s moving finale.

It goes without saying that music plays a huge part in the show. The track list is made up of several numbers written by either Rachel or Sal, and just as we’re invited by the teenage Miriam to hear the hidden story in Shostakovich’s work (which also features prominently in the track list, unsurprisingly), so her parents’ music offers us greater insight into the people who created it. The impact of music on teenage Miriam is obvious, but while adult Miriam admits wryly that that younger version of herself was pretty intense, the passion that goes into her performance and presentation of her parents’ work live on this stage makes it clear she feels that impact no less powerfully now than she did back then.

Empty Room by Miriam Gould at Battersea Arts Centre
Photo credit: India Roper-Evans

Empty Room is the kind of show that makes you feel privileged – not only because it’s so well performed, but because the story it tells is so very personal. The final monologue is delivered with charm and humour, but also an intimacy and raw honesty that’s genuinely moving. Beyond that, though, the show also really makes us think about both the nature of family and the power of music within our own lives (after the show, each audience member is invited to contribute to the Survival Playlist). An eloquent tribute and an engaging hour of entertainment; with her first solo show, Miriam Gould has set the bar high.

Empty Room continues on tour – see for details.

Review: Adventures in Black and White at Camden People’s Theatre

The theme of displacement has become increasingly topical in recent years, largely as a result of the intense media coverage of the refugee crisis. It’s important to remember, however, that displacement didn’t start there; it’s been happening for centuries, all across the world – and its effects are often felt down the generations.

Photo credit: Nina Carrington

Such is the case for Miriam Gould and Judita Vivas, also known as Double Trouble, the creators and performers of Adventures in Black and White. Inspired by their grandparents’ diaries, this is the story of Stasys and Lilly – the former exiled as a child from Lithuania to Siberia, the latter sent to England from Austria on the Kindertransport. But it’s also the story of Judita and Miriam, and of all those trying to figure out where they fit within a world that seems ever more obsessed with the invisible borders between nations.

The show combines projected images, improvisation and physical theatre to tell these stories, and as a result it becomes an intriguing mix of poignant and bizarre. Some anecdotes are related in a straightforward way through the reading of letters or diary entries, or in one case a simple monologue direct to the audience, delivered with the help of a particularly appealing visual aid (which only slightly softens the blow of the story’s tragic conclusion). These memories are often supported by photos of the real people involved, displayed on an old-school projector which is set up early on in the show, even as the reliability of some of them is called into question; at one point Lilly swears that the letters in her hand aren’t real, despite acknowledging that they contain many accurate facts about her life.

In between these scenes of reminiscence are moments that feel deliberately alienating. One such scene includes many words, but not one of them in English, and though we can get the gist of what’s being said, there’s still an uncomfortable sense that we’re missing something – much as it must feel to arrive in a strange country as a young child. This isn’t the only moment where it’s difficult to say with certainty what exactly is happening, but there’s a playfulness to the performance of these scenes that means we remain engaged and entertained even when we don’t quite know what we’re watching. Poignant and thought-provoking the show may be, but it also has a great sense of humour, found not only in the characters and their stories but also in the interactions of the two performers as they wrestle for the spotlight and our attention.

Photo credit: Nina Carrington

Much like the two performers’ patchwork outfits, the idea of displacement is portrayed in the show as far more than just a single, universal experience that everyone goes through in exactly the same way. A humorously awkward conversation between Stasys and Lilly reveals that each knows little about what happened to the other; nor are their lives as grandparents in any way similar. Adventures in Black and White shares two families’ stories, whilst reminding us there are many, many more out there waiting to be told – in fact Double Trouble are in the process of collecting these memories from their audiences and others, for a new online archive launching in 2019 as a continuation of their work on this show.

At a time when we’re more aware than ever of the idea of displacement, but still lack so much understanding of what that actually means, this timely and well performed piece provides much needed food for thought*.

* And also actual food – although I won’t ruin it by giving away the details…

Interview: Theatre Counterpoint, Am I Pretty?

Theatre Counterpoint produced their first show, Don’t Turn the Lights On, in 2015. The following year, with the arrival of two new members, work began on Am I Pretty? – an original devised performance which examines current issues around the self, body image, and cosmetic surgery. After months of development, the company will be presenting Am I Pretty? at Camden People’s Theatre from 6th-8th April, and are also seeking touring opportunities to share the work with more people.

The London-based company’s made up of director Dadiow Lin, producer Johanna Coulson, Mira Yonder, Valentin Stoev, Tori Zdovc and Jay Walker, who’ve worked closely together on the show. So where did the idea come from? “It started as a joke, or what we thought was a joke really. We were in a cafe, thinking about what our next project’s going to be, and Dadiow said, ‘I always wanted to have a chin’. And we looked at her and said ‘Well, you do Dadiow, you have a chin!’ We kept talking about appearance, what it means to us, and to what extent it’s linked to who we are. Having these thoughts in mind made us curious about all the people who’ve had cosmetic surgeries and what it feels like for them before and afterwards. Do they change their perception of themselves? What psychological journey might a person go through when applying this operation to their bodies and faces?

Photo credit: Jost Franko

“Cosmetic surgery is so many things, has so many dimensions. Most people dismiss it as an unnecessary vanity but it is a scientific marvel, a form of self-expression like tattoos and piercings, a complete life changer, in both good and bad ways. Some of our members’ perception of cosmetic surgery was completely changed from even just the first workshop we did. Am I Pretty? aims to start a conversation about this growing, evolving phenomenon, and to provide an opportunity to think about cosmetic surgery in all its complexity.”

The show’s been in development for about nine months. “The creative team was formed in June 2016, and that’s when we started developing the work. As we’re using jazz composition to shape the work, we firstly created a small piece, presented at Rich Mix in August 2016, to test out how we may establish a sense of jazz in a theatre performance. It was an important experience as we not only performed something jazzy but also gathered the comments and feedback about how this piece was perceived. After the trial of the jazz structure, we then delved into research on cosmetic surgery in order to form a ‘theme’ of this show.

“Our initial research into cosmetic surgery involved speaking to people who’ve experienced it as well as reading articles and journals about the whole process, both from the perspective of the patient and the medical people involved in the procedures. We broke down this research and data to see how it made us feel and understand the different viewpoints of those involved in the procedure. This led to us presenting a work-in-progress examining the journey of getting a nose job done at Goldsmiths, University of London in October 2016.

“Improvisation is the most important part in jazz music; therefore, after the presentation in October, we worked a whole week at The Old Vic Lab in November to seek our improvisational tools in a theatrical realm. From November until now, we’ve been generating material based on our ‘theme’ and refining our improvisational approaches, and now the performance is evolved into a three-act show with six scenes in each act. It’s huge and exciting!”

The team are clear that they’re not looking to preach about the pros or cons of cosmetic surgery: “We’d like people to leave with a more in-depth understanding of cosmetic surgery and the motivation behind people’s choice to undergo what can be a very painful, expensive and dangerous operation. However, we’re not giving a position to our audience, as it’s a very complex issue and there’s no black and white answer to it. Instead, we would like to intrigue you with more questions, challenge the superficial perspectives about cosmetic surgery, and reveal the intricate stories of the journey of becoming ‘prettier’.”

Importantly, Am I Pretty? has something to say to everyone, whether or not we’ve ever thought about cosmetic surgery. “It’s a work about how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves. Cosmetic surgery is a complex issue that we use as a lens to talk about who we are and how we might change in society. It should be interesting to anyone, as we all have some opinion on cosmetic surgery but our knowledge is often ‘skin deep’ – we know ours was until we started researching for this show. It involves a lot of issues and these go to the core of who we are as individuals, even if we have never considered having surgery.”

Photo credit: Jost Franko

And for anyone who is thinking about surgery, what would be the team’s advice? “We think it’s essential to figure out why you’d like to have cosmetic surgery – for instance, trying to discover if you will actually be ‘happier’ afterwards. If you have made up your mind, please consult the surgeon in detail, be aware of all the risks and complications, and prepare for the recovery thoroughly. We might ignore the ‘recovery period’ when seeing the effective before and after images, however, the recovery period could be very dreadful, and painful for both mental and physical status.”

What’s unique about Theatre Counterpoint, the team explain, is that they use analysis of music structures for the composition of their devised performances. “As we’ve been hosting workshops for theatre students who are also interested in devised theatre, we will keep sharing this method and developing it by expanding the scale of workshops and inviting more and more theatre practitioners to them.

“The jazz structure we take for Am I Pretty? is from ‘All the Things You Are’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. We made the basic sections in the music into different acts of the work, and the chord progressions into the scenes in each act. However, we’d like to keep some secrets about how we create these scenes, and how we interpret and deliver the sense of ‘jazz’ when making Am I Pretty? This jazz interpretation is not literal, the show does not involve music or singing. We’d love to have people come, see the show, find out, and question us about the shaping of the performance!”

Catch Am I Pretty? at Camden People’s Theatre from 6th-8th April.

Review: Ctrl+Alt+Delete at Camden People’s Theatre

Ctrl+Alt+Delete, written and performed by Emma Packer, is a solo show introducing us to Amy Jones, a bubbly, optimistic young woman who adores her granddad, loves the Spice Girls, and writes repeatedly to her idol Nelson Mandela, never once considering that he might not reply. But there’s a darker side to Amy’s story; she’s been mentally and physically abused by her manipulative, violent mother throughout her childhood and teenage years, for reasons that she’s never been able to understand.

Photo credit: David Packer
Photo credit: David Packer

The piece is beautifully written, reflecting Amy’s love of creative writing; the language evokes some stunning images and often sounds more like poetry than prose. At times, the show flows almost like a stream of consciousness, jumping back and forth in time as both Amy and her mum share their memories with the audience. Packer plays both women, keeping the two totally distinct in accent, tone of voice and even appearance; while Amy has a wide-eyed, earnest expression, her mother wears a constant snarl as she remembers the many people who’ve angered her – above all, her young daughter – and the cold, calculating way she’s taken her revenge. Even when she finally reveals her motivation, there’s very little redemption in store for this character.

Alone at the centre of a bare stage, with only a chair for company, Emma Packer’s compelling performance absolutely commands our attention. Whether she’s laughing with her friend about Simon Cowell’s trousers, or tearfully remembering the death of her grandad (an event hinted at but never fully explained), we’re with Amy all the way. It’s at the end of the show that things start to go slightly off course, as the focus suddenly switches from Amy’s personal journey to a broader political statement, in which parallels are drawn between the betrayal of an abusive parent and the lies of those in power that have led to everything from the London riots to Brexit. It’s not that the metaphor doesn’t make sense – it just happens very suddenly and, frustratingly, interrupts a story that isn’t quite over yet, and in which we’ve become increasingly absorbed.

Photo credit: David Packer
Photo credit: David Packer

As the story of a young girl struggling to understand why her mother – the one person who should love her unconditionally – seems to despise the very sight of her, Ctrl+Alt+Delete is a powerful show. As a political statement, though there’s no doubting Emma Packer’s passion, it feels slightly clumsy and a touch heavy-handed in its conclusion. That said, there’s a lot of food for thought in this story about abuse on many levels, and an important message in there if it could only be worked in a little more smoothly from the start of the show.

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… 😉