Review: Fox Hunting at the Courtyard Theatre

With the soaring rate of knife crime in London making almost daily headlines, David Alade’s Fox Hunting couldn’t be any more topical. Based on transcripts of interviews with south Londoners, this verbatim piece explores the multiple and far-reaching effects of knife crime on the lives of five young men, and in doing so turns faceless statistics into an urgent human crisis.

The five guys in question have gathered to pay their respects – although to whom, we don’t yet know. When one of their number recounts an incident on the way in which he had to swerve to avoid a fox in his path, a surprising debate is sparked over the nature of innocence, and what it is and isn’t okay to do if you think your own safety might be at risk. From there, it’s a small side step to get to the heart of the play, as each member of the group shares his own unique experience. Some of them were victims of knife crime, others were perpetrators; all have had their lives changed irrevocably by what happened, and it’s only now that they’re starting to wonder what it was all for.

It’s a cleverly constructed piece of writing from 21-year-old Alade, who also performs – alongside Chris J. Gordon, Devante Mavour, Joshua Lewis and Quinton Arigi. Each of the five stories stands alone, with the other actors stepping in to play supporting roles, and yet they’re united by a strong discursive thread that allows those most affected by knife crime to be part of finding the solution. What emerges very clearly from the play is the realisation that for many young people, in London and elsewhere, the idea of leaving home unarmed is as unthinkable as heading out without their phone, keys or wallet. There’s a constant fear of violence which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s this attitude, Alade argues, that needs to be addressed if there’s to be any hope of halting the increasing rate of knife crime.

Despite the heavy subject matter and some moments that are genuinely quite frightening (particularly if you sit close to the aisle), the play also contains a surprising amount of proper laugh out loud humour. These aren’t hardened criminals; they’re just five young, normal, likeable guys, who all have plenty to live for – education, career, love, faith – and are just going about their everyday life in the best way they know how. It just so happens that everyday life involves carrying a knife, and being prepared to use it.

Photo credit: David Alade

The five actors all perform with energy and conviction, unafraid to engage directly with the audience, and creating characters who are as believable in moments of violence as of reflection. Their stories might not always be the ones that make headlines – with nearly 40,000 knife crime offences recorded in the UK last year, it’s no wonder we only tend to hear about the most serious – but that doesn’t make them any less devastating to that one individual whose life has been changed forever, and that raw emotion really comes through in each of the performances on stage.

What is clear from reading the papers is that something needs to be done, but first it’s important to try and understand the root causes of the problem. Fox Hunting is a clear and powerfully effective attempt to do just that – let’s hope both the play and its talented writer have the successful future they deserve.

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… 😉

Review: Happy yet? at the Courtyard Theatre

“Why can’t you just be happy?” asks one of the characters in Katie Berglöf’s debut play, Happy yet? To people who’ve never lived with depression or anxiety, they can be difficult concepts to understand – particularly, perhaps, in Sweden, which is famous for being one of the happiest countries in the world.

Enter Torsten Sandqvist. He’s nearly 40, unemployed, and living in his brother and sister-in-law’s attic room in Stockholm. For as long as anyone can remember he’s been writing a play, but between staying in bed until 3pm and going out with a new girl each night, he’s not getting much work done. As his family grow ever more frustrated, the only person Torsten can really talk to is his young niece, Nina – but she never goes to school, and nobody else seems aware of her presence…

Inspired by the traumatic personal experience of losing her uncle to suicide, Katie Berglöf has written an enlightening, often troubling but just as often unexpectedly humorous depiction of what depression looks and feels like from both sides of the story. The most important lesson we learn is that depression doesn’t necessarily mean you’re miserable all the time. On a good day, Torsten is hilarious, wildly optimistic and everyone’s best friend (at one point, he convinces a police officer who’s come to arrest his brother to go drinking with him instead). Unfortunately he also can’t stop lying to make himself look good, and after one crazy scheme too many, it’s no surprise his brother’s patience is starting to wear a little thin.

A charismatic David Beatty does a great job of navigating Torsten’s highs and lows, in a world that tries its best but never quite gets to grips with what it’s like to be him. This world is represented by Piers Hunt, Molly Merwin and Lucinda Turner as his brother, sister-in-law and girlfriend, who clearly love him and want to help but have no idea how. The play aims to explore the impact of mental health issues not only on the individual but also on those closest to them, and is careful to make clear that Torsten’s family are suffering too. In fact, the only entirely unsympathetic character in the play is the mental health professional who aggressively questions Torsten about his problems, but offers no answers – unless you also count his unseen parents and other siblings, who we learn rejected him long ago for what they saw as his weakness.

It’s a shame that the play’s ending leaves a few too many unanswered questions – particularly surrounding the ever-present Nina, played by Minnie Murphy. It’s obvious from the start that there’s more to their relationship than meets the eye, but the (almost) complete lack of clues as to how or why she became Torsten’s confidant is a bit frustrating, and I found myself waiting for a revelation that never came.

Even so, the play’s message and intention come through loud and clear. It’s so important to keep talking about mental health, and Happy yet? plays its part by offering a very personal insight into one family’s struggle to find an answer to an unanswerable question. In particular, the play challenges the misconception that happiness is something which can be turned on or off at will, and encourages understanding instead of judgment. And if it feels a little unfinished, that’s okay – this is, after all, a conversation that’s far from over.

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… 😉

Review: Care at the Courtyard Theatre

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

Funny, but is it?
It’s all lovely and nice to have children but what are the stories not told?

Care was first performed at the Royal Court Upstairs, with its first revival by the Angus Mackay Foundation at the Courtyard Theatre in Shoreditch. Set in a young couple’s living room, the play looks very intimately at the narratives of Terry and Cheryl, who seem to be dealing with something. It is this something that drives the narrative. An it – a she – something or someone hidden centre stage in a cupboard, which forces spectators to engage.

Terry, played by Marc Benga, is very charismatic and seems at first to be unaffected by the whole situation. Karen Mann’s Cheryl instead is distressed from the start. She is suffering from some pain of her own, trying to get attention from Terry and a love which is not given back. The TV glares throughout the scene as we watch their daily life over the course of a long weekend. The story is simple, but interesting; it gives actors more responsibility to deliver the script.

Throughout the performance, their friends David (Leo Shirley) and Cathy (Jaana Tamra) come round to the house. The relationships between the couples are strong, and create a comical scene in which Terry and Cheryl are in distress but cannot find the courage to tell Cathy and David to leave. The Polish stereotype of Cathy’s character is overly rude and sexual, and her lack of social understanding of the situation is made comical by the hilarious body language during the scene of her husband, who seems to have given up on her.

From what seems like a normal domestic, it escalates into what instead looks like an abusive relationship. Who is abusing who is unclear though. It begins as a physically abusive relationship from Terry’s part, to then shift to a loving relationship, to then seem like it is her who is abusing him. Slightly confusing, perhaps on purpose, who in the relationship was causing troubles. Terry seems to be innocent; he makes all the jokes and seems to be stuck in a house and situation he doesn’t want to be in. Or is Cheryl right in saying that he doesn’t respect her?

The playwright Roy Mitchell was a member of the National and Birmingham Youth Theatres, trained as an actor at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre, and more recently has been participating in the creation of BBC1’s New Tricks drama. He touches upon very difficult topics in this play, making the audience work to understand the motifs behind the characters’ actions by not giving much away until the end.

Perhaps the simple narrative at times needs a bit more tension as this is lacking. Conveying a constant distress creates a slightly lamenting voice, which becomes uncomfortable after a while, and accents are slippery at times. The intentions between the two main characters are slightly unclear, and the grief of a baby’s loss is not conveyed as deeply as it could be in moments of despair. However, overall the performances are believable, and it was really lovely to engage with an ethnically diverse cast with such a powerful taboo topic which is death.

My favourite moment must be when Terry and Cheryl come back drunk from the pub and start watching a horror on TV. It is amazing to see how something so simple can be made into something so entertaining. The performance is overall touching upon very delicate topics, but is presented also with light moments of comedy and an obscurity as to what is happening, which might intrigue spectators.

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… 😉

Interview: Karen Mann and Roy Mitchell, Care

Roy Mitchell, co-creator of BBC’s New Tricks, wrote Care when he was a student at Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre in 1977. Last performed at the Royal Court in 1983, this “powerful and provocative” work is about to be revived with an ethnically diverse cast by The Angus Mackay Foundation, and will run from 9th-14th May at the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton.

“In essence it’s about a young couple in 1970s Birmingham who end up putting their baby in a cupboard,” summarises Roy. “Why they do so takes about two hours of stage time to explain.”

Karen Mann, who plays central character Cheryl, adds, “They’re a young couple who love each other, but have found themselves in an awful circumstance trying to navigate a secret that could alter their life.

“The sense of disenfranchisement and isolation is really relatable. These are good people who are trying so hard but they have never been given amazing opportunities; how can anyone survive and grow without support?”

Karen jumped at the chance to be involved in reviving Care for a new generation. “The producer introduced me to the play and I just knew I had to be a part of it, although I knew it would be very dark,” she explains. “He told me it looked at a relationship that was so raw and real, but the play was so physical, and as someone with physical theatre training but who loves straight plays with strong narratives, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. And when I got my hands on that script I thought to myself I will give anything to play Cheryl; her journey is astounding.

“When I opened the script I saw two humans who are very much in love and trying to make the most of the situation handed to them. I never perceived them as bad people – I thought WOW I can understand how that happened and why they have created this bubble to exist in. The play although dark is so funny and so full of love, and that to me is really interesting because I think all of us can relate to this play in some type of way.”

For Roy, seeing Care performed again after all these years is a surreal experience, and has come with a few surprises. “I’m not the young man who wrote it any more – and yet of course, I am,” he says. “It’s been surprising to see how well the cast and director are able to understand and recognise the characters’ behaviour.

“It’s also great fun hearing the Birmingham accent and language of my youth – it has become very diluted. What is new is the multi-racial casting element; it actually makes much more sense of a couple of things that have occurred in the back story, and perhaps one or two in the play itself. What it has to say about spiritual poverty and materialism I think seems a lot more prescient than I once thought. 

“The idea was inspired by my upbringing; I was very happy but a lot of the world around me wasn’t. Children were invariably seen and not heard – though not in my case! And in particular, the play was inspired by Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata.”

Karen, her fellow cast members – Marc Benga, Jaana Tamra and Leo Shirely – and director Emily Marshall have been working closely with Roy on the play’s revival. “Roy has been so generous with his time and I’ve learnt so much about the world of this play because of him,” says Karen. “He’s allowing all of us actors to own our characters, but he is so intuitive when we don’t understand certain quirks and is so sensitive when explaining it to us. Roy is an actors’ writer and having him be a part of rehearsals has been the most enjoyable experience – especially considering all the experience he has!”

As for what audiences take away from seeing the play? “That’s up to them,” concludes Roy. “Despite the content and subject of the play, it will make them laugh in places – otherwise we’re buggered.”

Care is at the Courtyard Theatre from 9th-14th May. Tickets are just £9 with code Monkey16.

Theatre round-up: 26 July 2015

Not a lot to talk about this week, as I just had two theatre trips and one I’m not really allowed to talk about yet, as it was a preview – so I’ll include that in a future round-up. But one I can talk about is…

A Land Without People

A new play by Brian Rotman and staged by Palindrome Productions, A Land Without People charts events between 1939 and 1945 leading to the creation of the independent state of Israel. It doesn’t try to suggest any answers, instead focusing its attention on a factual retelling of history. The production, at the Courtyard Theatre, contains some truly haunting moments, and the closing scenes leave a lasting impression, reminding us that this conflict is far from over, nearly 70 years later.

The play’s cast of five take on a range of characters – almost all of them real people – to explain the origins of the conflict from a variety of perspectives. While 85 minutes is hardly long enough to make sense of something so complicated, Rotman’s script successfully pulls out both the main facts and the primary players to produce something that is at once moving, powerful and informative.

A Land Without People review for Carn’s Theatre Passion

A Land Without People (Palindrome Productions)


Impossible, Noel Coward Theatre

American Idiot the Musical, The Arts Theatre

A Fine Line, New Diorama Theatre