Review: The House of Yes at The Hope Theatre

Bringing to a close Matthew Parker’s critically acclaimed tenure at The Hope, The House of Yes is a jet-black comedy drama that very much sees the theatre’s outgoing artistic director leave with a bang. Deeply twisted in a variety of ways, Wendy MacLeod’s story of the dysfunctional Pascal family is both horrifying and hilarious, and in this production it’s performed exquisitely by the cast of five.

It’s Thanksgiving, and Marty (Fergus Leathem) is bringing his fiancée Lesly (Kaya Bucholc) home to meet the family. The problem? His family… By their own admission, the Pascals have never had a guest before, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever have one again once the dust settles on this particularly eventful 24 hours. Marty’s twin sister Jackie-O (Colette Eaton) has two obsessions: her namesake, the former First Lady; and – unfortunately for him – Marty. Younger brother Anthony (Bart Lambert) is a college dropout whose eye falls rather too enthusiastically on his brother’s future wife. And through it all, their mother (Gill King), a self-professed “free spirit”, wafts around the house, seemingly taking little interest in her children’s lives… but in reality paying just a bit too much attention to what they’re getting up to.

What’s particularly enjoyable about this production is the care each actor puts into their performance. It’s impossible to choose a standout performance when each of them is so captivating. Every detail – the way a line is delivered, the movements and gestures, the facial expressions and eye rolls – feels perfectly timed and judged. The characters are, to put it kindly, not normal people – and yet somehow they come across as three-dimensional and 100% believable, particularly in the setting of their gloomy, claustrophobic house, with the power out and a hurricane raging outside. Rachael Ryan’s set design perfectly captures the essence of a home whose former splendour has now well and truly faded, even if that message hasn’t quite reached the Pascals themselves. It’s all a bit Addams Family meets Hotel California; both house and residents seem to have a way of ensnaring those who step inside, and the thought of anyone ever leaving becomes increasingly remote as the evening goes on.

Photo credit: lhphotoshots

As hard as it may be to believe, this dark and twisted tale is also very funny, despite that constant creeping sense that all will not end well. Much of our laughter is the result of surprise; these are characters who just say whatever’s on their mind, whether or not it’s considered appropriate – and as dysfunctional as they undeniably all are, there’s something quite refreshing and enjoyable about that openness.

The House of Yes may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who are willing to let themselves be drawn into the Pascals’ crazy little world, there’s so much to enjoy about this expertly put together production. It’s a fitting and suitably offbeat farewell from Matthew Parker, a play that will make you laugh, recoil, and possibly have a nightmare or two. But don’t panic – they do let you out at the end. Honest.

The House of Yes is at The Hope Theatre until 26th October.

Quick Q&A: This Is It

Where and when: Etcetera Theatre, 28th at 9pm, 30th and 31st October at 7pm

What it’s all about… Presented by Blue Glass Theatre, This Is It is non-gendered and non-aged, meaning that this play will be able to have many and varied lives. Focusing on identity and where we hinge our identity in a world shifting under our feet, change is all around us.

This Is It is a dark comedy set at the end of the world. Three have survived this far…

You’ll like it if… you like Hot Fuzz, Black Summer, Noises Off!

You should see it because… it’s dark and funny and talks about how we communicate with each other. This Is It asks you to look at identity and how we view ourselves and what would happen if the world turned upside down. Annnddd it’s funny!

Anything else we should know…: It’s 60 minutes of sharp comedy and some scary bits too!

Where to follow:
Twitter: @glass_theatre
Facebook: @glasstheatre

Book here: www.citizenticket.co.uk/event/this-is-it

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Review: Moth Hunting at Cockpit Theatre

The first full-length play from writer Phil Ball, Moth Hunting is a comedy that very much sums up the expression, “You can’t choose your family.” Sisters Ann (Charlotte Baker) and Sue (Kathryn McGarr) are about as different as two women can be, and their relationship is on decidedly shaky ground – despite the best efforts of their mum Gill (Verity Richards) to smooth things over. When the three of them find themselves on a girls’ night “mothing” in the woods, tensions inevitably begin to boil over.

With Greg Spong’s attractive woodland design setting the scene, Rosie Snell’s production is a perfect fit for a drizzly autumn evening, and provides an enjoyable hour of entertainment that most of us will be able to relate to on some level. It’s also educational; who knew that moth hunting was a thing? Not that our characters have a lot of success on the mothing front – they’re generally too busy bickering to pay much attention to their surroundings, and it’s only when something bad happens that they’re forced to pull together and tentatively begin to build some bridges.

Though it’s undeniably a comedy, and largely a very successful one, the play does also delve into some more serious territory as it unpicks the family history and gets to the bottom of their troubled relationships. Bereavement, marital problems, and references to alcoholism and both physical and mental illness, are handled sensitively within the script – and although the play ends on a positive note, there’s no unrealistic suggestion that in one night the characters have managed to clear up years of resentment, or that all their problems have suddenly gone away.

The fraught relationship between the three women, with all its ups and downs, is well portrayed by Kathryn McGarr, Verity Richards and Charlotte Baker. While the differences in their personalities ensure plenty of laughs, there are moments of connection too, which makes it much easier to picture them as a family – however messed up that family might be. They’re also joined briefly, but memorably, by Gareth Turkington as Sue’s amiable husband Sid, whose arrival is as unexpected as it is entertaining.

If the play has a flaw, it’s in the way it frequently removes one character from the stage so that the other two can talk in private. While this works, it begins after a while to feel a bit contrived, particularly since the third character has a way of always reappearing just at a crucial moment in the conversation. The play’s conclusion, too, comes very suddenly, leaving several unanswered questions in its wake about the events of the evening.

Nevertheless, as a lighthearted comedy about a dysfunctional family, Moth Hunting is a great watch. It’s skilfully directed and performed and with plenty of belly laughs to be had – though I’m not sure it’ll have me running off to the woods to try moth hunting any time soon…

Moth Hunting‘s final performance at the Cockpit Theatre is tonight – you can follow @BuddingRoseProd for details of future productions.

Review: Macbeth the Musical at White Bear Theatre

If you’ve ever watched a production of Macbeth and thought the protagonist seemed like a bit of a muppet, then Stage Splinters’ irreverent new adaptation of the famous tragedy is the show for you. Leaving Shakespeare’s verse well and truly at the door, this musical adaptation performed by puppets playfully pokes fun at both the play and its characters, with the murderous monarch taking the brunt of the humour.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

Following an unsettling encounter with three flirtatious witches called Agnes, Breanna and Madison, Macbeth heads home to his wife, who promptly bullies her spineless spouse into murdering the nice old king. Several fumbling attempts later, Duncan’s finally dispatched, and the Macbeths turn their attention to the loyal Banquo and an unexpectedly repellent Macduff – which would all be fine if their intended victims didn’t keep escaping. Elliot Moore and Eloise Jones make a hilarious double act as the enthusiastic but incompetent killers, with performances so expressive and engaging that it’s easy to find yourself watching them rather than the (albeit expertly handled) puppets.

The discarding of the majority of Shakespeare’s original text allows writers Chuma Emembolu and Ruth Nicolas to tell the well-known story from a fresh perspective. John, Rose and Conleth are servants in Macbeth’s household, who witness, discuss and occasionally participate in their bosses’ bloody goings on. At the same time, they put the Macbeths’ problems well and truly into perspective by sharing their own harrowing life stories: John has a bit of a drinking problem and only narrowly escapes having Duncan’s murder pinned on him as a result; Rose was sold into servitude by her father; and Conleth is a former soldier with a traumatic past.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

The result of all this is a curious mix: a laugh out loud comedy (the Duncan murder scene is particularly fun, as is Macbeth’s death) punctuated by some really dark moments, which are not only not at all funny but also have a tendency to happen very suddenly, and then be over with just as quickly, leaving the audience feeling slightly off balance. Both Bryony Reynolds (Rose) and Red Picasso (Conleth) give excellent performances in unexpectedly complex roles, and it’s frustrating that having worked hard to establish them as major characters, the show doesn’t then tell us how their stories end.

Having said that, Macbeth the Musical is still a very funny, very silly evening of tongue-in-cheek comedy, which you don’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to appreciate (though if you are one, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the countless in-jokes levelled at the source text and its gaping plot holes). The cast are impeccable, the songs are witty and enjoyable, and the puppets are great. Who knew murder could be this much fun?

Macbeth the Musical is at the White Bear Theatre until 7th September.

Review: 10 Things I Hate About Taming of the Shrew at Greenwich Theatre

It is a truth universally acknowledged (if you’ll pardon the mixing of literary references) that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is, at best, problematic. It’s the story of a man torturing his wife into submission, after all, and to be honest there’s not really any easy way to sidestep that fairly significant plot point without completely rewriting the play.

While most of us would probably be willing to admit that Taming of the Shrew is far from Shakespeare’s best, Canadian actor, writer and comedian Gillian English has gone a step further and made a list of everything that’s wrong with it. And I give you fair warning: that list will take down not only Taming of the Shrew but also beloved teen romcom 10 Things I Hate About You (in spite of the manifold and much-missed charms of Heath Ledger, which are acknowledged more than once). Also A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare in general. Friends. Big boobs. Justin Trudeau. In fact there are very few people, places or things that make it out of this very funny but also very angry show unscathed.

And that’s because while Taming of the Shrew may be the starting point, it actually opens the door to a much wider conversation – about our obsession with reviving Shakespeare plays, even the bad ones, just because of who wrote them. About the damaging impact of romanticising misogyny and turning it into a Hollywood teen movie or a banging rock anthem. About the dangers of pitting women against each other, or telling little girls that boys are only mean to them because they like them. In a show peppered with hilarious personal anecdotes, self-defence classes and a demonstration of the opening number from Get Over It – which I’ve never seen but now desperately want to – it turns out there’s also a lot of serious stuff for both women and men in the audience to unpack and peruse at our leisure.

As a performer, Gillian English quite literally roars on to the stage, making no secret of her anger not just that Taming of the Shrew exists, but that everything bad within this 500-year-old play still needs to be discussed in 2019. She’s loud, in your face, and not afraid to be a bit confrontational, and yet there’s something about her enthusiasm and frank acknowledgment of her own failings that makes her irresistibly likeable (at least I thought so – I can’t speak for how the men in the audience felt about being taught the best way to rip off a penis). Add to that the fact that what she’s saying – even, or perhaps especially, the shoutiest bits – makes a huge amount of sense, and you’ve got the recipe for a show that’s a lot of fun to watch in the moment, but that also stimulates an ongoing discussion and a desire for change going forward.

Not everyone will love it; die-hard Shakespeare fans will no doubt take offence at the way their idol’s work is dismissed, and ironically the kind of men – and women – who most need to hear the show’s messages will probably steer well clear. But for those willing to open their minds, and who are okay with witnessing one of their favourite teen movies being ripped brutally to shreds, this is definitely one to see if it passes through a town near you.

10 Things I Hate about Taming of the Shrew is touring the UK, including heading to Edinburgh – for full dates, and details of Gillian English’s other shows, visit gillianenglish.com.