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.

Review: Beautiful Little Fools at the Cockpit Theatre

Beautiful Little Fools is the debut production from all-female company Optic Theatre – and it’s clear they mean business. Intense, brutal and with a conclusion that’s genuinely quite traumatic, the show takes an everyday situation to the ultimate horrifying extreme, showing what human beings are capable of when exposed to a relentless stream of hatred and lies.

Three young women wake up in a room, with no idea of how they got there or even who they are. There’s no way of leaving, and each of them is wearing an electric ankle bracelet that delivers a painful shock every time they step out of line. Every day they’re forced to listen to disembodied voices – which we recognise as those of public figures including Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump – discussing the danger posed by immigrants. And then a new girl arrives…

I’d love to say this story is far-fetched – and of course it is, in the sense that the British government doesn’t really have bunkers full of terrified prisoners who are being slowly radicalised (or at least let’s hope not). But the way in which the girls are manipulated in their torture chamber/Big Brother house is unnervingly familiar, and with people like Katie Hopkins advocating “final solutions” in the mainstream media, the play’s shocking climax doesn’t seem like such a wild stretch of the imagination.

Anna Marshall’s production successfully depicts the passing of time (though exactly how much is hard to tell), with movement sequences between scenes that demonstrate the captives’ mind-numbing routine. Each time we come back to them, they’ve lost a little more of their humanity, as they play mind games, form alliances and turn on each other in their desperation to survive the ordeal. In 60 gripping minutes, Jemma Burgess (who also wrote the play), Sophia Hannides, Isabel Goldby-Briggs and Jessica Collins take us on a rollercoaster ride through shock, fear, anger, hysteria and hatred – but also some deeply moving moments of vulnerability that remind us these young women are human beings just like us, whatever they may find themselves driven to do.

The play unflinchingly exposes its audience to the same treatment as its characters. We listen to the same abhorrent recordings at least three or four times, and endure flashing lights, high-pitched tones and crackling electricity (courtesy of sound designers Dan Bottomley and Davide Vox). It’s deeply unsettling, even for just an hour, and makes it easy to believe that after days, weeks or even months of this treatment, the girls might be willing to do just about anything to gain their freedom.

Beautiful Little Fools is an exciting debut from Optic Theatre, a thrilling and disquieting reminder of the power of words to change hearts and minds, for better and for worse. It would perhaps have been easy to dismiss as impossible a couple of years ago – but with hate crimes on the rise, Brexit going ahead and Trump in the White House, the play is not only timely; it’s terrifying.

The Cockpit Theatre run of Beautiful Little Fools is now over, but visit Optic Theatre’s website or follow them on Twitter for updates.

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: Jemma Burgess, Beautiful Little Fools

“We want audiences to leave the performances asking questions. To be even more curious. To spark debate. To think about their own beliefs and other people’s beliefs and ask why…”

Jemma Burgess, the founder of Optic Theatre, makes her playwriting debut at the Cockpit Theatre next month with Beautiful Little Fools, a piece inspired by recent political events. “Beautiful Little Fools is an all-female, new writing piece exploring how media can manipulate the human mind,” she explains. “With Trump, The Iron Lady, Mrs Strong and Stable, The Bush and more. We see if three girls can be brainwashed to adhere to the government’s demands. In today’s turbulent times, this couldn’t be more relevant.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Jemma outlines her inspirations for the show, the recent UK general election and the rise of Donald Trump top the list. “But also documentaries and programmes such as Hypernormalisation by Adam Curtis,” she adds. “The Handmaid’s Tale. Big Brother. Black Mirror. Books: The Great Gatsby and 1984. Social experiments: Pavlov’s Dog. MK ULTRA and The Stanford Prison Experiment. Lastly, just listening and observing people that I know. Their views on the world and why they believe what they believe.”

Jemma set up the company with a clear goal in mind: “Optic Theatre was founded to give more opportunity to women within the Industry, without writing a play specifically for women or revising a play and gender swapping the roles,” she explains. “At the end of the day, we are all human; raw, messy, caring, beautiful humans. I want to make theatre that is both challenging and exhilarating to perform. Stories that come from our guts and our impulses.”

True to that vision, Beautiful Little Fools is presented by an all-female team. “Our director Anna Marshall recently graduated from the Ecole
Internationale de Theatre de Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and also has a BA Hons from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in Puppetry. With a vast and outstanding CV, we are so chuffed to have her directing Beautiful Little Fools,” says Jemma, who trained at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, and will also perform as SUBJECT A in the production. “Sophia Hannides, who plays SUBJECT D, trained alongside me and went on to sign with Cole Kitchen after graduating; she’s recently appeared in Doctors. 

“After graduating from Guildford School of Acting, Izzy Goldby-Briggs, who plays SUBJECT C, moved to London and is hoping to set up a writing group for actors, mainly looking into short films that could be used for show reel material. And lastly is Jessica Collins, who plays SUBJECT B. Jessica has trained at the BRIT school since she was fourteen and has gone on to perform in programmes such as the BBC’s Silent Witness and Doctors.”

Beautiful Little Fools doesn’t only mark Jemma’s debut as a writer – it’s also her company’s first time at the Camden Fringe. “We’re all looking forward to pretty much everything,” she says. “It’s an exciting process and we are constantly learning. It’s a fantastic festival and we hope that it can open opportunities for future development of the play.

“Ours is a show for anyone interested in all-female work and female equality. Physical theatre lovers. Anyone who’s curious about how the world is run. From students to your grandma, if you have an opinion on the ‘system’, then come and see our show.”

See Beautiful Little Fools at the Cockpit Theatre on 7th and 8th August.

Review: Suddenly…! at the Cockpit Theatre

I always imagine it must be pretty terrifying making theatre for children. Grownups will (usually) at least pretend to look interested, but with kids there’s no such guarantee. Fortunately, Really Big Pants Theatre’s Suddenly…! had its young audience at the Cockpit Theatre spellbound from the start… and the adults had a pretty good time too.

Photo credit: ID Photography

Suddenly…! takes elements from different fairy tales and mixes them together in an original, exciting and heartwarming story about the importance of friendship. Red Riding Hood, Mr Wolf, a faulty genie and a wicked stepmother all make an appearance, as a young boy’s well-intentioned attempt to get his dad’s attention goes horribly wrong, and we set out on a quest to recover three special items and help Grandma save the day.

The show’s written and performed by Really Big Pants’ Joe Bromley and Willow Nash, who play all the characters with the help of assorted interesting headwear and a variety of accents, not to mention boundless enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment. It’s thoroughly entertaining, but there’s also a strong educational element to the show; besides its core message about how friendship and spending quality time together are more important than having lots of stuff, there are also brief lessons in history and science, a bit of feminism (no princesses waiting around for a man to rescue them in this story, thank you very much), and – to my delight – a tribute to the late great Roald Dahl. Afterwards, children can take away worksheets and even enter a story-writing competition for a chance to see their work published in the Ham & High newspaper.

Not surprisingly for a kids’ show, audience participation is encouraged, but in a gentle, positive way that means nobody feels singled out or uncomfortable – and it’s a testament to how enjoyable it all is that everyone’s more than happy to join in (yes, even I was up on my feet doing the genie dance). Judging by the enthusiasm of our relatively small audience at the Cockpit, I can only imagine the noise levels when the show’s performed in a school hall full of excited children.

Photo credit: ID Photography

The show is also very funny, and like any good kids’ story contains jokes for both children and adults, so everyone stays engaged and entertained throughout. But the humour isn’t the only thing that works on two levels – as the story itself points out, it’s not just children who need to be reminded that material possessions aren’t everything, or that we should put down our phones once in a while and spend some time with the people we care about.

Suddenly…! is a great story and a lot of fun for the whole family, performed with an infectious energy and enthusiasm by two ladies who clearly love what they do. It’s educational but never boring, and enjoyably silly without being patronising. And because Really Big Pants encourage their audience – young and old – to go away and write their own stories, the fun doesn’t have to stop when the show ends.

Really Big Pants Theatre perform at theatres, festivals, schools and community venues. For all upcoming dates or to book them for an event, visit reallybigpants.co.uk or follow them on Twitter @reallybptheatre.