Review: 100% Chance of Rain at Chickenshed

Since 2017, Chickenshed have used their annual spring show as an opportunity to tackle important issues affecting young people. Following the success of Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, last year’s Offie-winning take on climate change, this time around the inclusive theatre company is exploring mental health in new show, 100% Chance of Rain.

Conceived and directed by Lou Stein, the ambitious production doesn’t follow a “traditional” narrative thread, but instead is made up of several individual pieces, each depicting a different aspect of mental health through music, movement and storytelling. Linking these together are monologues from the show’s single recurring character, Liz Abulafia (Belinda McGuirk) – an arts therapist who reflects on her own mental health journey through creative expression, and encourages us to do the same.

100% Chance of Rain at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer

Taking this instruction to heart, the production practically bursts with creative talent. The use of colour, light and movement make for a visually stunning combination, the songs are beautifully performed by Chickenshed’s Vocal Voices (their a cappella rendition of Back to Black is a particular highlight), and there’s effective use of projections and video to supplement the action on stage. Though some of the pieces are a little more abstract in their presentation, they remain (with one possible exception) accessible to the audience, never losing sight of their message amidst the spectacle.

One of the things that makes the performance a success is that the diverse and predominantly young cast clearly have a deep understanding of the issues they’re portraying. Each of the seven aspects of mental health explored – which include self-harm, panic attacks, the pressures of being a single parent, and the growing obsession with online gaming – has been workshopped extensively, to ensure that the voice of its performers comes through loud and clear in every case. And as always, it’s a joy to see the Chickenshed spirit of inclusivity and community represented so completely on stage. Just as mental health can affect anyone, so this production has a place for everyone in its cast.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 100% Chance of Rain is not always an easy watch; it’s both startling and saddening to realise how many different ways young people are suffering, and the decision to add an interval (the performance was originally advertised as 90 minutes straight through) offers a welcome respite. Similarly, the show’s upbeat ending comes at just the right time to save us from descending into a pit of gloom, with the acknowledgment that though things may seem dark right now, at some point the clouds will part and it will get better.

100% Chance of Rain at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Mental health has become an increasingly topical issue in recent years, but it’s still one that individuals can find difficult to discuss on their own behalf, because of embarrassment, denial or simply not realising that what they’re going through “counts” as a mental health problem. Some of the issues covered in 100% Chance of Rain are well-documented – self-harm, for instance, is a serious problem that we know affects many young people. Others are less so; one piece explores the impact of leaving the family home for the first time, and the feelings of isolation and abandonment that it can cause on both sides. Taken as a whole, the show seeks to open up the conversation, and to encourage anyone who’s suffering – in any way – that it’s okay to reach out for help.

100% Chance of Rain is at Chickenshed until 30th March.

Review: Monolog 2 at Chickenshed

Following the success of last year’s inaugural event, Chickenshed’s Monolog is back in 2019 for a second outing. Seven very different pieces of new writing, all for solo performers, have been split into two groups and will be performed on a rolling basis for the duration of the run. On press night, however, we were treated to the full showcase – a varied, thought-provoking and entertaining selection covering a broad range of themes, including pregnancy, prison life, mental health, race and identity, and political protest.

The seven monologues were selected from a wide range of submissions, and each stands out in its own way. In Barbara Bakhurst’s poignant The Hostel Angel, directed by Grace Coulson-Harris, fourteen-year-old Sunny (Sophie White) reflects on life in a hostel with her stepdad. Determined to make the best of their grim living situation, she decorates a chart with stickers and makes cups of tea for the neighbours, as she watches her stepdad quietly fall apart – all while clinging with heartbreaking optimism to the belief that one day her absent mum will come back to them and everything will be okay.

The Hostel Angel illustrated by Martha Vine

There’s more youthful optimism in Face The Strange by Matthew Patenall, directed by Sydney Burges and Bradley Davis. Lee (Alex Murtinheira), a young man with autism, seizes the opportunity to join the protests against Donald Trump’s visit to the UK – but the day doesn’t go quite as planned. The piece asks some searching questions about the nature and effectiveness of public protest, and taps into the growing political engagement of young people across Britain.

The shortest piece in the programme is Belinda and Wendy Sharer’s poetic Mirror Me, directed by Loren Jacobs and Belinda McGuirk. A young woman (Celie Johns Main) dreams of being a dancer, and of being admired by the audience for her talent and tenacity – but a cruel twist reveals those dreams can exist only in her mind. The piece blends words and movement in a beautifully wistful performance. And in We Are All In It Together by Peter Hastings, directed by Rachel Yates (assisted by Ashley Driver), a prisoner (Kieran Faye) sits in his cell, thinking about life behind bars and eagerly anticipating his wife’s visit the next day – even though she missed the last one, and she’s just sent him a letter… Written from first hand experience, this is a keenly observed account of prison life and all the emotions that come with it.

Even, Odd… Odd, Even by Hannah Smith, directed by Sarah Connolly, is set in a dystopian society where everyone’s required by law to wear a number rating their current emotional state from 1 to 100. For one young woman (Sabina Bissett), though, there’s a big difference between the number she displays and how she actually feels. This was one of my favourite pieces of the evening – a powerful and very topical exploration of mental health and the damage that can result from keeping our feelings hidden away.

The panel received and reviewed all submissions for Monolog 2 blind, without knowing who had written what – and it’s both refreshing and encouraging to realise that five out of seven pieces in the resulting showcase are female voices. The final two of these are possibly the strongest of all. In Milly Rolle’s My Exploding Universe, directed by Tiia-Mari Mรคkinen, a young woman has just discovered she’s pregnant after a one night stand. Milly Rolle gives an excellent performance; her panic and confusion are palpable as she contemplates her uncertain future, looks back at lessons learnt from her own mum, and confronts the responsibility she now faces of bringing new life into the world.

Stranger illustrated by Ryan Gough

And last but by no means least, Stranger, written and brilliantly performed by Alesha Bhakoo, delves with warmth, humour and insight into the writer’s experience as a second-generation immigrant in the UK, and her struggle to reconcile her two cultures and figure out who she is. Directed by Milly Rolle, Stranger concludes with a surprise twist that reminds the audience what we’re watching isn’t a story but real life.

Monolog makes a dramatic contrast to Chickenshed’s recent Christmas production, which – as is traditional – featured a cast of hundreds. But despite the simple staging and intimate venue, there’s just as much diversity, talent and food for thought to be found in this very enjoyable showcase championing powerful new writing. Who’s up for Monolog 3?

Monolog 2 is at Chickenshed until 2nd March. Check the website for the schedule and to find out which pieces will be performed on each date.


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Review: A Christmas Carol at Chickenshed

Of all the many, many versions of A Christmas Carol on offer in and around London this festive season, few could be more heartfelt than the one that opened last week at Chickenshed. Charles Dickens’ much-loved message of compassion and generosity is a perfect match for Chickenshed’s own ethos of inclusivity, and presented here by a rotating cast of 200 (per show – 800 in total), the result is both spectacular to watch and joyously festive to experience.

Photo credit: Ava de Souza

The story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (Ashley Driver), who sees the error of his ways one Christmas Eve after being visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, has been updated slightly in Lou Stein’s production to take place not in Victorian London, but in the 1930s. This allows for an element of social commentary on the economic and political climate of the time (and not just of that time; an inadequate welfare system and women demanding equal pay both feature prominently), an attractive Art Deco style set designed by William Fricker, and an enjoyable jazz-inspired feel to Dave Carey’s original musical numbers. But it also, importantly, drives home the timeless relevance of Dickens’ novel and the lessons it imparts; whatever century we’re in, the need to look out for each other never goes away.

In what Chickenshed regulars will recognise as a typically ambitious Christmas production, Ashley Driver confidently and very competently leads the core cast as Scrooge. The success of any production of this story depends on having a central character who the audience both dislikes and believes is capable of change – and this one delivers on both counts; at first every inch the villain, as the story moves on Driver proves he can do fear, bemusement and finally infectious joy just as convincingly. Alongside him, Finn Walters is a very likeable Bob Cratchit – doting father to a humorously excessive number of children – and Paul Harris a suitably spooky Marley (though not as chilling as Will Laurence’s Ghost of Christmas Future; think Dementors on rollerblades and you’re not far off). In one of many magical moments, Ghost of Christmas Present Michael Bossisse makes an unexpected entrance that delights the audience, while Gemilla Shamruk hits all the right notes – in every sense – as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

What makes Chickenshed’s A Christmas Carol truly unique, though, is the huge supporting cast. Just as everyone who comes to see a show at the theatre receives the warmest of welcomes, there’s a place too at Chickenshed for anyone who wants to perform, and this is reflected in the diversity, enthusiasm and cooperation we see on stage. Despite the daunting numbers of young people involved, everyone is exceptionally well organised, and there’s a real sense of shared purpose from them all, however big or small their role. And while I’m singing Chickenshed’s praises, let’s also mention it’s great to see a show that not only features signing but places it proudly at front and centre of the performance.

This is theatre for everyone, by everyone – and if it doesn’t get your Christmas spirit going, then frankly I suspect nothing will. I generally make it a rule to try and see only one A Christmas Carol per year; I’m glad this is the one I chose for 2018. It might not be as polished as some, but there’s no doubt it’s got the biggest heart (not to mention cast) of them all.

A Christmas Carol is at Chickenshed until 5th January.


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Review: Jekyll and Hyde at Chickenshed

Like the gothic novella on which it’s based, Chickenshed’s new musical adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde is short and to the point. Storming through Robert Louis Stevenson’s story in around 70 minutes (plus interval), Jonny Morton’s highly physical piece takes the original plot and adds a modern twist to the performance, along with a strong theme of social responsibility that feels particularly resonant today.

The studio space at Chickenshed has been transformed by set designer Constance Villemot into a smoky, dimly lit Victorian London street, where the poor huddle in corners while the more well-to-do go about their business, blind to the suffering around them. The story’s opening incident, which sees Hyde trampling a young girl in the street, has been upgraded in this version from a moment of carelessness to a deliberate and prolonged attack, which is observed but not interrupted by passing lawyer Utterson (Demar Lambert) and his companion Dr Lanyon (Finn Kebbe). Their chief concern in that moment is not for the nameless girl who’s beaten and left for dead in the street, but for their friend Dr Jekyll (Nathaniel Leigertwood), who they fear is being blackmailed by the perpetrator of the attack, Hyde.

Utterson’s anxiety grows when he’s informed by Jekyll’s household staff, led by butler Poole (Will Laurence), that their master seems changed – but it’s only much later that he learns the truth: Hyde is Jekyll, transformed by a potion of the doctor’s own invention into a villain. Over time, this side of Jekyll has seized control and gone on the rampage, climaxing at the end of Act 1 with the brutal, unprovoked murder of philanthropist Sir Danvers Carew (Ecevit Kulucan) as he tends to the poor.

Both Jekyll and Hyde are played by Nathaniel Leigertwood, and while he gives a good performance as both, it’s as the more interesting of the two – Hyde – that he really comes into his own. His transformation from the elegant and mild-mannered Jekyll into Hyde (further enhanced by Andrew Caddies’ particularly atmospheric lighting) is frighteningly convincing: appearance, voice and personality all change beyond recognition as he’s wracked by spasms and emerges a hunched, animalistic figure with an evil cackle and an absolute lack of remorse.

Strong individual support comes in the form of Demar Lambert and Finn Kebbe as Utterson and Lanyon – the former a commanding presence, the latter ultimately a broken man destroyed by the knowledge of his complicity in Hyde’s crimes. In reality, however (and in keeping with Chickenshed’s inclusive philosophy), this is an ensemble piece; a diverse, hard-working and vocally impressive chorus perform the majority of the physically demanding musical numbers and provide commentary on events as they unfold.

Like the rest of the production, Dave Carey and Hanna Bohlin’s up-tempo rock musical score has a distinctly modern flavour. With no spoken dialogue, the show moves swiftly from one number to the next, managing to pack an impressive 21 songs (albeit with several reprises) into its 70-minute duration. There are occasions when the vocals struggle to compete with the volume of the pre-recorded soundtrack, and combined with the pace of some of the songs, this can make it difficult to catch every word. Perhaps in recognition of this, the “penny dreadfuls” that are distributed as we arrive contain a handy synopsis of the plot, while the title of each new chapter is projected on the wall to help us orientate ourselves and fill in any plot gaps.

With this production, Chickenshed proves once again that it knows how to entertain audiences with a good story. But the show also asks us to consider some pertinent and rather topical questions about the importance of the choices we make – for ourselves, for others and for society as a whole.

Jekyll and Hyde is at Chickenshed until 20th October.


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Review: Mr Stink at Chickenshed

Chickenshed is an inclusive theatre company that celebrates diversity in all its forms. Mr Stink is a story about a homeless man who’s befriended by a 12-year-old girl – the only person who ever bothers to stop and talk to him. Put the two together, and it’s pretty much a perfect fit.

The second novel from best-selling children’s author David Walliams is a heartwarming tale of friendship, loneliness and the social responsibility we all have to look out for our fellow human beings… even if they really, really stink. Adapted as a musical by director Lou Stein, it’s a colourful, funny and thought-provoking show for all ages, with songs that are so catchy you may well find yourself still singing them the next day, whether you want to or not (trust me on this, I speak from experience). And really, how can you not fall in love with a show that opens Act 2 with a musical number about sausages?

Mr Stink at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer for Chickenshed

Mr Stink (Bradley Davis) is an old “vagabond”, to use his word, who arrives in town one day and takes up residence on a bench. He and his dog are ostracised by the local community because they smell so bad, until one day Chloe Crumb (Lydia Stables) stops to say hello. Chloe has a nice house and a family; she goes to a posh school and always has enough to eat. But she’s also lonely and feels unloved by her exhaustingly perfect sister Annabelle (Maddie Kavanagh) and above all by her mother (Belinda McGuirk), a determined social climber running for election as a local MP. One of her campaign promises is to get “soap-dodgers” off the streets, and so to protect her new friend, Chloe moves him into the garden shed – but he doesn’t stay hidden for long…

Chickenshed never fail to impress with the quality of their productions, and Mr Stink is no exception, showcasing some excellent performances from the whole cast, and in particular Bradley Davis and Lydia Stables (sharing the role with Lucy-Mae Beacock) as Mr Stink and Chloe. Their blossoming friendship is a joy to watch, with each of them helping the other in ways they could never have predicted. Alongside them, Belinda McGuirk and Maddie Kavanagh (sharing her role with Courtney Dayes) are enjoyably loathsome as Mrs Crumb and Annabelle, while Ashley Driver plays the hapless Mr Crumb – who spends most of his time hiding from his wife – to great comic effect.

There’s also a delightful appearance by Goutham Rohan as Raj, the local shopkeeper, who’s always on hand with some helpful advice or a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stationery set. Oh, and did I mention Mr Stink marks the professional acting debut of a certain Jeremy Vine, who appears in a pre-recorded video segment as Sir Dave, the host of TV show Politics Today.

Mr Stink at Chickenshed
Photo credit: Caz Dyer for Chickenshed

The show looks amazing, too, with colourful and exceptionally detailed set and costumes designed by Keith Dunne, all of which are beautifully lit by Andrew Caddies. The musical numbers, written by Lou Stein and Dave Carey, may not add much to the story but they do provide a visual treat, and allow for the inclusion in the show of a small chorus ensemble, who execute Dina Williams’ choreography in the group numbers with flair and the boundless enthusiasm that’s such an irresistible feature of Chickenshed performances.

Like all good family shows, there’s something for everyone in Mr Stink; it’s a lot of fun and occasionally very silly, with humour that will tickle kids and adults alike. But it also makes a powerful point; while I don’t for a minute believe David Walliams wants us all to go out and find a homeless man to hide in the garden shed, what his story does show us is the importance of reaching out to help others, without making judgments about who they are or what they do. And that, I think, is a lesson we can all benefit from – whether we’re 8 or 80.

Mr Stink is at Chickenshed until 5th August.


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