Review: Boom at Theatre503

What would you do if you knew the world was about to end? Call your loved ones, spend all your money, ditch the diet…? All good answers – unless you’re marine biologist Jules, who has a different approach. He’s predicted the imminent apocalypse by observing the behaviour of his fish, but having failed to convince anyone to take him seriously about the threat, he’s made his own arrangements: luring unsuspecting student Jo to his lab/bunker for what she thinks is a fun night of no strings sex. It’s only when she discovers a drawer full of diapers that it dawns on her Jules’ promise of “intensely significant coupling” might have been more than just good marketing…

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is a play of two halves. It begins as an enjoyably off the wall romantic comedy about two people thrown together in the most extreme circumstances. Will Merrick and Nicole Sawyerr are great as the unlikely couple – he’s an earnest nerd who genuinely can’t understand her reluctance to be Eve to his Adam; she’s a wannabe journalist with a sharp tongue, dismayed by her latest disastrous life choice. They’re so terrible together that it actually works… at least to begin with.

Then the world ends, and things take a bizarre and mildly baffling turn with the sudden intervention of Barbara. Up to this point, Barbara’s been sitting in the corner, pulling levers and providing enthusiastic percussive sound effects for what we now learn is a museum exhibit several millennia from today, educating future generations about “the Boom”. Barbara’s not supposed to talk, she informs us, before going on to do exactly that – frequently, and at great length.

It’s here that the play seems to lose its way a bit, as Barbara, played with joyous abandon by Mandi Symonds, goes pretty quickly from amusing and lovable to verbose and more than a little irritating as she constantly interrupts proceedings to talk about her own issues. Some of her monologues are utterly surreal (in particular the bit where – a propos of absolutely nothing – she decides she must tell us how she was conceived; and no, it’s not in the way you might think) and her behaviour increasingly erratic, which is entertaining but gets in the way of the play actually making a point. As a fan of dystopian fiction who’s fascinated by the psychology of survival, I was looking forward to a juicy exploration of Jules and Jo’s evolving relationship, but we spend less and less time with them as Boom slowly but surely becomes Barbara’s story instead. Having enjoyed the randomness because I assumed it would all make sense in the end, I left 90 minutes later with very little idea what I was meant to be taking away other than a feeling of slight bewilderment, and a new respect for fish.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli
All this doesn’t mean the play isn’t funny; it is, and all three members of the cast give great performances. But the humour lies mainly in the awkward relationship between Jules and Jo, and in Barbara’s lively personality, rather than in the end of the world story itself. There are fewer laughs in the second half of the play – partly because, well, the world’s ended and our characters find themselves in dire straits; and partly because by this point things have got so bizarre it’s difficult to know how to respond to anything that happens.

For this reason, it’s difficult to give a conclusive opinion on Boom. It may be that in a few days’ time, something clicks into place and I suddenly get it. Right now, though, I’m still trying to figure out what hit me.

Boom is at Theatre 503 until 26th August.

Interview: Claire Rammelkamp and Danica Corns, A Womb of One’s Own

The founding members of emerging all-female theatre company Wonderbox – who include Danica Corns, Carla Garratt, Claire Rammelkamp, Holly Bond, Larissa Pinkham and Olivia Early – met as members of the National Youth Theatre. “We got so comfortable with each other that we started oversharing about sex, periods, emotions, mental health, politics, relationships, wanking… the list goes on,” admits Claire. “So we decided to carry on doing that as a theatre company, and turn it into art. We want to explode taboos and share unheard stories with some filthy, fabulous feminism.”

They’re turning their attention first to the issue of abortion in their debut production A Womb of One’s Own, which runs at The Space from 15th-19th August.  “The play follows the story of Babygirl, an eighteen-year-old fresher who was raised Catholic by two strict elderly women and ends up getting pregnant the first time she has sex,” says Claire, who wrote and performs in the play, as she and fellow cast members Danica, Larissa and Carla bring Babygirl to life, revealing different aspects of her personality and an absurd cast of characters. “It starts off as a coming of age comedy; she’s learning how to flirt and get drunk, she’s exploring her sexuality, she’s trying not to embarrass herself on a date. Then all of a sudden she’s facing much bigger challenges.”

A Womb of One’s Own was inspired by Claire’s own personal experience: “I had an abortion at university, and I had no idea how to handle it because no one had ever spoken to me about abortions. Fortunately, I have a very supportive Mum and friends. Babygirl doesn’t have a mother, and she’s only been at uni a few weeks, so the play explores what it would be like to go through an abortion feeling totally alone.”

One of Wonderbox’s aims is to break the taboos surrounding abortion and get people talking about what’s traditionally been a difficult subject. “We’re still oddly hung up on old-fashioned notions of propriety when it comes to discussing abortion,” says Claire. “It used to be the same for divorce and homosexuality. Even periods. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion at some point, and yet people are largely silent about it. If we all spoke about it more then women wouldn’t feel scared or ashamed. We’ve still got a lot of education work to do to give women control over their own bodies and we need to make sure we don’t go backwards – like with Trump’s abortion gag order.”

Despite the heavy topic, Claire and her co-founders are quick to point out that the show is at times irreverent and laugh-out-loud funny: “I’m a firm believer in laughing at essentially everything, especially myself. We didn’t want to be didactic – an audience will pay much more attention to a comedy full of sex jokes than a lecture. It also helps to humanise a character; once the audience have shared a joke with Babygirl they’ll have more empathy when she starts having a hard time.”

And it seems to be working; they’ve been thrilled with early responses to the show, which include an endorsement in February from actor Paul McGann. “Our first performance was to a bunch of queer, feminist, theatre-lovers, so we were really preaching to the choir,” says Claire. “But then our second audience had middle-aged people, older people, Tories, and a vicar. The vicar was especially fond of it.”

Of course, starting a theatre company isn’t always easy, and co-founder Danica has no hesitation in identifying their biggest challenge: “Money! We’re a young, unfunded theatre company so this is of course the first and biggest obstacle we are having to overcome – but we are getting creative with how we do this. Finding rehearsal space free of charge has been and remains one of the biggest challenges we face, and so far we have been getting round this by using gardens, living rooms and empty classrooms at our universities/previous places of study. We even once did a voice warm-up on Clapham Common. Social media has also been a great alternative to a website for us in the first instance to help build our online presence while funding is scarce.

“Around 90% of the work we put into the company and the show is not in the rehearsal room,” she adds. “We’ve all had to turn our hands to other things and use our skills and knowledge effectively and efficiently. We’re lucky enough to have a photographer, a designer, a marketer and members with lighting technician knowledge within our company, so we haven’t had to hire anyone in yet – which would come with a cost. However, while we’re all working hard on this to get things off the ground, we have found it difficult balancing being creative and making the art with the admin and running the business side of the company – it’s a bit of a juggling act at the moment, and we’re still figuring this out. One of the things we are finding so important is timetabling separate rehearsals for creativity and meetings about important business stuff.”

Claire’s hoping that the show will speak to everyone, whether or not they have personal experience with abortion: “I hope if they’ve had an abortion, they’ll feel a sense of community, and that anyone who needs an abortion in future won’t feel so alone. I hope it encourages people to share their own experiences, and I hope it will make other people more understanding. I also hope everyone will wet themselves laughing.”

A Womb of One’s Own is at The Space from 15th-19th August.

Review: America’s Number One Detective Agency at the Drayton Arms

Written by Liv Hunterson and directed by Anna Marshall, Fatale Femme’s debut production America’s Number One Detective Agency is an enjoyably silly and suitably atmospheric – if a little more convoluted than feels strictly necessary – homage to the film noir genre.

Our heroine Vivian O’Connell (Fleur De Wit) is fighting to reclaim her crown as America’s top private detective, recently lost to her ex-boyfriend Bobby (Hamish Adams-Cairns) in a high profile case. But he gets all the best clients these days, so Vivian and her partner Joey (Siobhan Cha Cha) are reduced to helping out irritatingly perky aspiring actress Betty Channing (Alex Hinson), who seems to have acquired a stalker. Throw in a deranged gangster (Oliver David-Harrison), a dapper English gent (Iain Gibbons), and something about a gorilla(?), and the stage is set for a mystery caper that will take the gang all the way to Las Vegas. But will they all make it out alive…?

Arriving at the theatre is like stepping into an early 20th century jazz club, with a live band and singer playing in the corner while the actors lurk in the shadows, smoking and looking moody. The musical accompaniment works particularly well in maintaining the film noir atmosphere throughout the play, with singer Isabella Bassett taking on a very different role on occasion as Betty’s thuggish ex-husband, Freddie.

Under the direction of Anna Marshall, the cast of six give good individual performances but also work very well as an ensemble, keeping the action moving at a rapid pace throughout. (If anything it’s all a bit too fast – in such a complex plot where every detail counts, it’s easy to blink and miss something important.) Even when not directly involved in a scene the actors all remain on stage, either as secondary characters or as part of the set; the moment in the car is particularly well executed. I’m still not 100% sure if the problem with the door was part of the script or a set malfunction, but if it was the latter, then the cast are also to be congratulated on smoothly working around a frustrating technical glitch and turning it into a running gag.

With an even male/female split in the cast, it’s refreshing to see the women taking charge and driving the story forward, while the men are busy pining for lost lovers, cowering under tables and getting punched in the face. Fleur De Wit’s Vivian is a feisty heroine, keeping her cool despite the chaos unfolding around her, with strong support from Siobhan Cha Cha as Vivian’s trusty associate Joey, and Alex Hinson as Betty, the Hollywood starlet with hidden depths. Meanwhile the three men provide some of the best comedy moments, particularly Iain Gibbons as Teddy, who just can’t help putting himself in harm’s way whenever he feels a lady’s honour needs defending – even though the ladies are more than capable of taking care of themselves.

America’s Number One Detective Agency is good fun, particularly for fans of the film noir genre; it certainly looks and sounds the part. The plot could benefit from being a little less complex, or the pace of the production taken down just a touch so the audience can keep up with the various twists and turns (and jokes). That said, this is still a very entertaining show, and a promising debut from Fatale Femme.

America’s Number One Detective Agency returns to the Drayton Arms on 6th and 7th August.

Review: Flood at Tristan Bates Theatre

Funny, heartwarming and a little bit damp (though not, to the bizarre disappointment of one of my friends, actually flooded), Tom Hartwell’s Flood is the first outing for newly formed Paper Creatures – and it’s fair to say they’re off to a flying start.

Set in a remote rural town, Flood is the story of Adam, who’s having a really bad day. It’s the morning of his mum’s funeral, his house is flooded, and he’s just found out his sister and best friend are having a baby (not to mention driving a Skoda), and that his ex-girlfriend’s now dating a guy who used to stab people with protractors. Anyone could be forgiven for hitting the secret whisky in those circumstances; the only problem is that Adam, like his mum before him, has been doing a bit too much of that just lately…

Photo credit: Toby Lee

Though this is a story about five characters and the various directions their lives have taken, Jon Tozzi’s Adam naturally takes centre stage as the one character who stayed at home, and now becomes the focal point for their return. Effortlessly charismatic, with a dry wit and an appealing vulnerability, it’s easy to root for him despite a frustrating refusal to address his various issues. Nathan Coenen and Emily Céline Thomson are perhaps the most relatable as Jess and Michael, a young couple taking their first clumsy steps into responsible adulthood, while Molly McGeachin makes a relatively brief but highly significant appearance as Adam’s ex Laura, who may have moved on physically, but has left a little of herself behind nonetheless. Finally, you get the feeling writer Tom Hartwell might be venting a few frustrations in his role as Ben, whose six-month stay in London has apparently converted him into a vegetarian, gluten-free, green tea drinker with a posh accent, but quickly reverts to type when he returns home.

In Flood, as in his previous plays, Hartwell demonstrates a talent for zeroing in on human experiences we can all relate to, and tackling them with humour and empathy. Moving away from home, leaving behind – or being left by – friends and family, and then attempting to reignite those relationships later as different people is something almost all of us have gone through, and the play is marked by a recognisable blend of tension and nostalgia between the five old friends. Under the expert direction of Georgie Staight, it’s easy to believe the five actors really have known each other all their lives, and to get caught up in the familiar struggles that form an inevitable part of growing up.

Photo credit: Toby Lee

Although much of the flood water exists only in our imaginations, the underwater theme is subtly present in the production’s design: characters who’ve been out in the rain actually look wet; dripping sound effects remind us that the waters are still rising; even the choreographed set changes include slow-mo moments where the characters appear to be floating across the stage. It’s clear that a great deal of care has gone into the production, and proves yet again that big budgets and fancy effects aren’t always necessary to create something special.

Paper Creatures’ focus is on making theatre for and about millennials; as a member of that demographic (just…) who’s still figuring out how to be a grown-up, it’s perhaps not surprising that I really related to and enjoyed Flood. It’s a shame that the play has such a short run this time, but hopefully it’s not the last we’ll see of this excellent production – and if you can get there before Saturday, it’s well worth a visit.

Flood is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 5th August.

Interview: Juan Echenique, Red Button

“It’s out of this world!” says actor and writer Juan Echenique. “I’ve seen nothing close to what we are doing. We have so many elements, working together in harmony: drama, social commentary, live music, physical comedy, dark humour, sharp wit, science fiction, cloned kittens, pansexual au pairs, radio dramas, and… well… the red button that destroys the world. It’s a 60-minute adrenaline ride, where there’s little time to breathe or blink. Daring, out there, and incredibly energetic.”

He’s talking about Horatio Theatre’s play Red Button, a science fiction comedy about love and the end of the world: “It’s about a young couple, who are mostly bored with their lives. They decide to apply to a charity programme, thinking they will be given the task of taking care of adorable kittens and puppies, but instead they receive the red button that destroys the world. All of this is framed within a futuristic world, where TV and films are forbidden, and the only radio station blasts news, commercials, and propaganda everywhere, and at every minute.

“It’s a story about love and rebellion, about people who make the strangest decisions based on the ones they love, and their desire to be free. Love involves compromise, as well as struggle, sacrifice, altruism and egotism. It could be argued that the red button – that terrifying object that would end it all – represents parenthood, as it can be seen as the end of childhood. The fun fact here is that the play was originally written as a gift; born out of love, all about love, full of dark humour. The peak of cheesiness for the lactose intolerant.”

Juan co-founded Horatio Theatre with director and producer Fumi Gomez, with whom he’s worked since 2009. Their goal is to produce new writing and original storytelling, with a particular focus on using the language of science fiction to discuss social issues.  “Science fiction has often been regarded as a genre made for film and literature,” he says. “The preeminence of movies where special effects are the real protagonists gives us a somehow misleading picture of what this genre can achieve. However, when talking about science fiction, you are talking about imaginary worlds, about a future that could be, and about how history is doomed to repeat itself. Talking about the world around us from the perspective of an imaginary future, gives us the chance of tackling social issues that would be incredibly dry and off putting if discussed in a different way. In other words, science fiction allows us to make some sharp social commentary, while still making unique and entertaining shows.”

Red Button, which opens on 14th August at Edinburgh’s theSpace on North Bridge, has been going through various stages of development since 2014: “The play was originally written as a three hander; two leads and another actor playing several roles. It evolved into a much more complex and layered story, for a cast of seven, when it was ‘scratched’ at the Cockpit Theatre. Its next incarnation was last year in a much more compact and concise format: six actors, 90 minutes. It was performed at the Lion and Unicorn as part of the Camden Fringe.

“The version we are taking to Edinburgh is a huge leap forward from that point. The cast has been reduced to four, and it’s only 60 minutes now. It is a nice compromise between the original script and all the new material, keeping the best and getting rid of all the superfluous passages.”

Juan and the team are excited to share this new version of the show with Edinburgh audiences: “Being a part of the Fringe is a fantastic reward in itself. We really want to share what we are doing with as many people as possible. So far, all audiences have been amazed, and we believe we have something worth showing.

“On top of that, we really want to enjoy the whole festival vibe. So many incredibly talented artists, gathered in the same city for a month… so many amazing shows to watch, and fascinating people to meet… It’s the true fantasy of any self respecting theatre maker. The show SCI-FI? by Sleeping Trees sounds like something we are going to enjoy a lot. It’s very hard to choose. There are so many things going on at the same time… We are just over the moon with anticipation!”

And as for the future? “Red Button is moving forward and up. After the Fringe we’ll move towards doing a full run in London and, potentially, touring. As the cast and the story is quite international, we are already trying to find ways of showcasing it overseas. Performing Red Button in international festivals would be a dream come true.”

Red Button is at theSpace on North Bridge (Venue 36) from 14th-19th August.