Review: The Open at The Space

2050. Brexit is (finally) done. The environment is (predictably) a mess. And Britain’s been sold and turned into a giant golf course owned and run by “The Organisation” – a.k.a. Donald Trump, who at 100 years old may or may not still be alive, and who’s taken on such God/Voldemort-like status that nobody even says his name out loud any more. The Great British Golf Course promises citizens, or at least the ones born in Britain, the opportunity to “live, work, thrive” – but three friends are about to discover what really goes on behind closed doors…

Photo credit: Kit Dambite

As with any dystopian drama, the central idea of Florence Bell’s The Open – the GBGC itself – sounds far-fetched, but the foundations on which it’s built aren’t all that implausible: a future in which money continues to be the source of power, social status is dictated purely by nationality, and any resistance is dismissed as “fake news” or simply made to disappear. Arthur (Priyank Morjaria) has bought into the dream 100%, particularly after bumping into one of the GBGC’s chief architects, Bella (Emma Austin). Such is his devotion to his employer that he’s even willing to consider betraying his closest friends, Estonian immigrant Jana (Heidi Niemi) and her boyfriend Patrick (Tom Blake), when they dare to question everything he thinks he knows.

Through the play’s four characters, we meet the full range of people who make up the GBGC community – and they’re all recognisable figures to a 2019 audience. Emma Austin’s Bella is self-involved, manipulative and absolutely lacking in remorse. At the other end of the scale, Heidi Niemi steps into the role of hero as straight-talking Jana, who’s willing to risk everything in defence of what’s right. She’s come back for Tom Blake’s innocent, almost childlike Patrick, who has his doubts – and certainly shows little loyalty to The Organisation – but would quite cheerfully continue to do and say nothing without his girlfriend there to push him into action. And then there’s Priyank Morjaria as Arthur, the embodiment of a good man turned bad by a combination of fear, promises and false information.

It’s a clever and intriguing premise, and executed well by a strong cast, so it’s surprising that The Open never completely takes flight; the ingredients are all there, but the play as a whole lacks balance. A complicated plot and back story mean that Act 1 has to spend a lot of time explaining how we got here, often through slightly circular conversations between the characters. The pace of the show starts to lag as a result, and even then it feels like there’s a lot we still haven’t quite pieced together. All the action then happens rather suddenly in Act 2, which feels rushed by comparison and, oddly, raises more laughs than Act 1, even though it’s only after the interval that the true horror of the GBGC is revealed.

Photo credit: Kit Dambite

Looking at the current state of the world, it’s not hard to imagine a situation like the one in The Open – the play essentially takes characters and attitudes that already exist and puts them into an extreme scenario to see what they’ll do. This has the potential to work really well, but the pace and structure of the unfolding drama needs some work in order for the play to fully capture the audience’s imagination.

The Open is at The Space until 12th October.

Review: Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Barons Court Theatre

I briefly considered writing a 140-word review of Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, but quickly decided against it. For one thing, if the play proves anything it’s that working with such a limited quota is difficult. Also, I just wasted five on the title.

So, in significantly more than 140 words: what’s it all about? Well, it’s a dystopian drama in which the British government – for reasons that are never really made clear – has just imposed a new law that limits everyone to 140 words of communication a day. The political and personal ramifications of this play out through the eyes of a young couple, Bernadette (Jemima Murphy) and Oliver (Charlie Suff), who only realise once every word counts how much they’ve so far left unsaid.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Barons Court Theatre
Photo credit: Maximilian Clarke

The plot has many frustrating gaps in it (why the ban was imposed, what types of communication it covers, how it’s monitored, what happens if you go over the limit, or if it’s even possible to do so…) but nonetheless the play does raise some fascinating questions about how we communicate with each other and the way we use language. Oliver, a musician and staunch opponent of the ban, points out the social and economic value of words; 140 words means a lot more to someone who has to go out and find work than it does to someone who’s already financially stable – like, for instance, his lawyer girlfriend. Then there’s the way words become a symbol of how much each values the relationship, as Bernadette repeatedly arrives home each evening having saved fewer words than Oliver has, and how the ban forces them to be creative and come up with their own private “couple’s code”. It’s particularly interesting to note that in some ways the two of them actually communicate more after the ban, revealing truths that were always avoided before, when it was easy to change the subject or “talk about it later”.

Unsurprisingly given the subject matter, the spaces between words carry just as much weight as the words themselves, and this comes across very effectively in director Hamish Clayton’s production. The play’s script is made up of a dizzying number of very short scenes, some of them merely seconds long, and every action that takes place in between – even something as simple as moving a chair or getting into bed – feels carefully considered to ensure that not a single moment of the 80-minute run time is wasted. The performances given by Jemima Murphy and Charlie Suff are similarly meticulous, the two of them saying just as much with their movements, gestures and facial expressions as they do with their dialogue. Meanwhile Gareth Rowntree’s set differentiates with admirable simplicity between the play’s different timelines; post-ban, a light is illuminated for each character, which goes from white to red when they hit zero.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Barons Court Theatre
Photo credit: Maximilian Clarke

Though written in 2015, the play’s parallels with Brexit are plain to see: the debate over the ban splits the nation, nobody really expects it to go through, and when it does there are a host of unforeseen consequences, most of which affect the poorest in society. The programme acknowledges this relevance, but there’s more than enough going on here to ensure that the play stands on its own, and that even those who are sick of hearing about Brexit (which is, let’s face it, most of us) shouldn’t be put off. A polished and carefully directed production, Lemons is the kind of thought-provoking play that keeps giving, with plenty of material to ensure an excellent debate in the bar afterwards.

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… ūüėČ

Review: Where the Hell is Bernard? at The Space

I love a good bit of dystopia. Hard to say why, although I think what I find most fascinating is the psychology of it all. What is it that’s led humanity to this point? What keeps them there? And what happens if someone suddenly sees another way to go?

Where the Hell is Bernard? from Haste Theatre addresses¬†two of these three questions. We never find out what happened, but somehow we find ourselves in The Vine, a walled city from which it’s forbidden to leave. Tannoy announcements explain that productivity is the ultimate goal; that citizens will be executed on their 80th birthday (but hey, at least they get to choose how they die); that young women should keep having regular sex in order to keep the population stable. It’s a terrifying, stark environment governed by unseen¬†leaders, in which every action is monitored, and any protest brings the death penalty.


Inside a towering office¬†block, four identical blonde women from the lost property department¬†go about their daily work, reuniting items with their owners through a bizarre combination of physical sense and mental deduction. They know what needs to be done, and it never occurs to them not to do it; productivity is, after all, the ultimate goal. When the returned belongings of a man called Bernard¬†bounce back, the women are given 24 hours to head¬†out into the city and find him – but it soon becomes clear Bernard doesn’t want to be found…

The show combines physical theatre, puppetry, song and dance to bring to life the grim world of The Vine and the contrasting beauty that still exists outside its walls. We see each new location through the eyes of the four performers, whose initial confidence ebbs away to be replaced by discomfort, fear and wonder as they venture further and further from what they know. Elly Beaman Brinklow, Valeria Compagnoni, Jesse Dupré and Sophie Taylor work well as a unit, powerfully conveying their emotions through facial expressions and movement; in one particularly effective sequence we feel their panic as they search for Bernard with increasing desperation, while in another we sense their peaceful resolution. Lighting and sound effects from Katrin Padel and Paul Freeman also play a big part in establishing each setting, and especially in highlighting the different environments on either side of the wall.

Where the Hell is Bernard? offers us an extreme¬†example of a society so influenced by its leaders that it’s lost all identity. It’s¬†a glimpse into a disturbing future, but there are also echoes of an equally terrifying past (and a more than slightly worrying present). In this scenario, Bernard’s quiet rebellion and the women’s enlightenment offer a¬†faint glimmer of hope that all is not completely¬†lost.

The only problem is that said enlightenment and peaceful resolution¬†seem to come a little too easily. The implication is that the women have been governed by¬†The Vine for at least as long as they can remember, if not their whole lives, and it didn’t sit right with me that such deep-rooted obedience could be overturned so quickly. The show’s certainly enjoyable enough to be longer than its current 50 minutes, so¬†it would be fascinating to explore more deeply the conflict between the characters’ new-found knowledge¬†and everything they’ve ever been told.

All that said, Where the Hell is Bernard? is still a work in progress, and will I’m sure only get better¬†over time. The show’s already both entertaining and thought-provoking in its content and performance, and it has the potential to develop even further into something really special.

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… ūüėČ