Review: What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors at the King’s Head Theatre

Ask pretty much anyone, and if we’re really honest we’ll probably admit to some preconceived ideas about the causes of homelessness. We might mention drugs, alcohol, mental illness, criminal records, domestic abuse… All problems we don’t – and assume never will – face ourselves.

It’s not entirely our fault; the media plays a significant role in shaping society’s view of homelessness, and the more horrors someone has been through on the way to losing their home, the more sympathetic – and therefore interesting – their story. But it also places the homeless at even more of a distance from those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads and a nice warm bed to go home to. We may shake our heads at the sadness of the story; we may even buy someone a coffee or make a donation to a homelessness charity – but then we go on our way, safe in the knowledge theirs isn’t a problem we’ll ever face ourselves.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

The truth is, though, homelessness isn’t necessarily the result of a dramatic crisis; sometimes it’s simply the product of a wrong move here or there. Molly, the central character in What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, doesn’t quite know how she ended up homeless; she didn’t even fully register that she was for a good two weeks after being evicted. Maybe it’s because she was bullied at school. Or because she didn’t go out with that guy from her class. Maybe because her dad left, or her mum died, or she decided not to go to uni. Maybe it’s because of a combination of these, or something else entirely.

Molly’s played by Emma Bentley, who wrote the show along with Calum Finlay, and whose engaging performance quickly wins us over as she attempts to make sense of where she went wrong. Articulate, funny and resilient, Molly’s completely honest about her own lapses of judgment and the slow disintegration of her life – even before she ends up on the street in a thunderstorm, messaging a random guy on Tinder just to have somewhere to stay the night. While not solely a victim of circumstance, she also doesn’t do anything obviously wrong; she’s not a drug addict, or a criminal – she’s just like anyone else, and this relatability is both enjoyable and rather unsettling.

The Tinder scene is just one reference to technology in a show that makes frequent use of it. Images from Molly’s phone are projected on to a sheet at the back of Rasa Selemonavičiūtė’s set, and there’s inventive use made of a webcam to take us on a tour of the home that exists now only as a memory. Katharina Reinthaller’s production also introduces several other characters to the story through the use of audio clips, with which Molly interacts throughout the play. It’s an ambitious project, and not without an element of risk, but it pays off; the inclusion of these extra characters helps to build up a more complete picture of Molly’s life and relationships, and also emphasises her loneliness once all those voices fall silent.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

Developed with the benefit of Emma Bentley’s volunteering experience at St Mungo’s, the play also has a feeling of authenticity, particularly when Molly starts sharing details about her current state of “purgatory”, as she waits to find out if she’ll get permanent housing or end up back on the street. In a series of short scenes, we also learn about the lengthy, repetitive bureaucratic process she had to go through just to get temporary accommodation. With her fate out of her hands, all she can do is wait and hope for the best.

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors clearly aims to make us think, but resists the temptation to preach or tell us what to do. Instead, by sharing one person’s story, the show invites us to process for ourselves the uncomfortable home truth at its heart: but for a different decision somewhere along the road, Molly could have been – and could still be – any one of us.

Catch What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors at Playbox Theatre, Warwick, on 16th March and at Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford Playhouse, on 19th and 20th April.

Interview: Emma Bentley, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors

Emma Bentley is co-artistic director of Joue le Genre, an emerging theatre company based in London and Lille. Her last show, one-woman play To She Or Not To She, addressed gender equality within the theatre; her latest project, What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, addresses a different but equally weighty topic: homelessness. Following a successful run in Edinburgh last summer, in February the show embarks on a spring tour that will take it to venues including Yvonne Arnaud Theatre’s Mill Studio and the King’s Head in Islington.

Closed Doors is about Molly Brentwood, a young woman who is feisty and argumentative and gets on better with boys than girls,” explains Emma, who plays Molly. “We meet her in her bedroom in a homeless hostel, and she tells us about all the moments that she thinks might have led her to that point. That’s what she’s trying to figure out, anyway.”

 

The play, written by Calum Finlay, began life as a small scratch piece for Pleasance in June 2016. “Calum and I wanted to tell the story of how homelessness can happen to anyone – although I’m very cautious about using the word ‘homeless’ when talking about the show, because I think people get a very specific vision of the type of scenes it’s going to explore,” says Emma. “So that’s why it was important to show it from the perspective of a young woman. To break that expectation. Plus because that makes me happy as an artist and a feminist to make work about women. And women in situations that we don’t get to see very often on stage – not being glamorous, not in a relationship, from a working class background.

“Since I moved to London, homelessness has been on the forefront of my brain and I would always try to learn more about people’s stories. Then in 2016 I started volunteering at St Mungo’s. The amazing work they do to give people a home inspires me a lot. People that come and see the play will probably have an interest in the homelessness sector, but if they’ve been dragged along and they don’t, I hope that it allows them to empathise more with people living on the streets. The way that people who beg or sleep rough are treated is horrendous and people don’t realise you don’t have to give money every time – just say ‘Sorry I don’t have anything,’ instead of just ignoring them or getting angry. People complain that they’ll just spend it on drugs when they don’t know the first thing about being an addict; it makes me really angry. Although I think part of it is fear as well.”

Emma wrote a first draft of the script, which was staged at Pleasance in February 2017. “Then after that Calum said, ‘I’ve got this idea for the script,’ and he sent me the first couple of pages in this new style – a lot more lyrical, weird and mysterious and I said ‘I love it, do it to the whole thing please.’ So he did and it’s a beautiful, haunting script.

“We’ve worked with Anna Beecher on the dramaturgy of the piece, and for Edinburgh Anna Souter did our set design. For this spring tour of the show I’m working with Katharina Reinthaller, who directed me in To She Or Not To She for the Lyric Hammersmith, and a designer she works with called Rasa Selemonavičiūtė. It’s fantastic to work with Katharina again because we have a shared language, and I think Calum and I both knew that we needed someone’s fresh perspective on the script. Plus Calum is in Mary Stuart at the mo so he’s a bit busy!”

Closed Doors has been significantly re-worked since Emma last performed it in Edinburgh in 2017 – though she admits it can be difficult to make big changes to material she’s personally invested in: “When you change things you think, ‘Hold on wait, was there anything wrong with it in the first place? I can’t even remember now’, and that’s why it’s useful to work with a bigger team.

“We started with the script. We didn’t have a video of the show post Edinburgh so we couldn’t look back on it. I’d like to say we went on gut feelings. We met up and talked a lot about the main framing device, which now we’ve completely changed. As it’s such a tech heavy show this framing device needed to be simplified so that the complexity could lie in the language and images on stage.”

With this new tour, Emma’s looking forward to meeting more audiences, hopefully sharing the play with some young people who have or are experiencing homelessness themselves, and hearing what they think about it. “In Edinburgh, quite a lot of people who I spoke to after the show thought it was about me, which I guess is a massive compliment – it was also sad though as they looked worried about saying goodbye at the end. The best response though was that some teenagers were heard on a bus in Edinburgh talking about the show and about what they could do individually to help people who are homeless.

“The dream would be if someone came after seeing the show on tour and said something like, ‘I never really thought about how it actually could happen to someone – I thought they were just lazy, and now I realise they’ve just taken a few wrong turns.’

“Maybe the show will even help people from ever getting into a situation like Molly’s themselves. Through making the show, I’ve learnt what to do if I were to ever be in that position; if I didn’t have a supportive group of family and friends to help me, then I would know where to look for help. It’s useful information. We’re all only a few steps away from homelessness, especially in the theatre industry. Who knows if it might help someone spot the signs, before they or a friend become close to sleeping rough.”

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors opens at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on 9th February. For full tour dates and venues, visit the Joue le Genre website.

Review: To She Or Not To She at Lyric Hammersmith

About ten months ago, I was at a scratch night at Morley College, where I watched the first fifteen minutes of a very funny one-woman show about a teenage girl who wants to be Hamlet in her school play, but is devastated to see the role going to an inferior actor – who just happens to be a boy.

Five months later, I was back at Morley to review the full show before it went up to Edinburgh, and was surprised by the direction it had taken. Instead of a riotous comedy about a woman playing Shakespeare’s men, the piece had developed into an honest and brave (but still funny) account of the difficulties faced by female actors in the theatre industry through one woman’s personal experience.

Last night, Joue le Genre‘s To She Or Not To She was back in London, playing to a sell-out crowd as part of Evolution at the Lyric Hammersmith, and I was keen to see how it had developed both during the Edinburgh run and since, under its new director Katharina Reinthaller.

To She Or Not To She, Joue le Genre

To She Or Not To She is the story of actor Emma Bentley, who plays various versions of herself at ages 14, 19, 23 and 24, as well as a host of other colourful characters from her past. Emma’s a natural comedian, and has no problem with joining the audience in laughing at herself – although even she seemed taken aback last night at how popular some of her one-liners were. Much of these are in-jokes for either the theatre crowd or the women in the audience, but none are so specialist that they can’t be appreciated by anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those categories.

Emma’s confident, natural performance and openness about her own shortcomings and disappointments – as an actor and a woman – mean that by the time we arrive at the serious heart of the show, the audience is fully invested and willing to listen, not just to Emma’s story but also to the other female actors who’ve supplied verbatim accounts of their experiences in the industry, for a scene that marks the show’s turning point from pure comedy to something much darker.

Under its new director, To She Or Not To She has been reworked – so gone is the record player that used to open the show, and instead we see Emma indulging in a bit of secret Shakespeare fangirling whilst mopping floors at the coffee shop where she works to pay the bills. This, it turns out, is the present day, and acts as a sobering backdrop to the younger Emma’s optimism as she chats excitedly to the audience about her future prospects.

It’s a privilege to have seen To She Or Not To She develop from its very early days into the show it is now – one that’s really fun to watch, but also has a clear and powerful political message. At a time when equality in acting is a hotly debated issue, it’s also very timely, and while Emma herself recognises that her own disappointments may not be the most shocking or serious, they nonetheless pave the way for an important discussion that needs to take place.


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: Emma Bentley, To She Or Not To She

One of the first shows I reviewed for LondonTheatre1 was a scratch night at Morley College. The five companies performing were all preparing their work for Edinburgh, and competing for rehearsal space and the opportunity to return to Morley for a full-length performance before heading to Scotland.

My personal favourite – and the ultimate winner – was a one-woman show by Emma Bentley of Joue le Genre, called To She Or Not To She, about the challenges faced by women in the acting industry.

After a successful run in Edinburgh, Joue le Genre are now preparing to bring To She Or Not To She to Evolution at the Lyric Hammersmith on 23rd January. I was really excited to see it’s coming back down south, and got in touch with Emma, who was lovely enough to talk to me about the show. Thanks Emma! 🙂

What inspired you to write To She Or Not To She?

Both me and Holly Robinson, who co-wrote the show and directed the Edinburgh version, wanted to stick the finger up to casting directors/writers/directors putting women in shit roles. And in doing so write something ourselves where we could reclaim this exciting idea of getting to do whatever you want and not being judged for it.

Shakespeare at drama school had been a really wonderful experience because I had got to play a load of men: Feste in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Comedy of Errors. Not the big dogs like Macbeth or Richard III or anything but it was good fun. And with Feste in particular, it was refreshing to play a character whose relationship with the other characters in the play was not focused on romance and/or sex. I wanted to continue playing roles like this and exploring Shakepeare’s men. Luckily I started doing some work with Smooth Faced Gentlemen, the all female Shakespeare company based at the Greenwich Theatre, so I did get to play a murderer in Macbeth. Working with SFG made me want to write it even more.

Sophie Wu is Minging She Looks like She’s Dead and La Merda, both at Soho Theatre, were two shows that inspired the style of the show for me.

And then one of my teachers from LIPA, Gillian Lemon would always say, ‘What are you gonna do Emma? Just sit around on your arse waiting for the phone to ring? You’ve got to make your own work!’ So I had her very stern Northern Irish voice egging me on too.

Can you sum up the show in one sentence?

Shakespeare’s biggest fangirl falls in and out of love with the Bard and the acting industry, whilst growing into a young woman of no fame or fortune (yet) but some comedy potential.

To She Or Not To She, Joue le Genre

You’re playing yourself – how close is show Emma to real Emma?

I’ve been working quite a bit on distinguishing the different Emmas within the show with Katharina Reinthaller, who is directing the show for its Lyric reincarnation. There are four different Emmas in total, you meet her (me) at 14,19, 23 and then there is also ‘Show Emma’, which is me on stage right now talking to the audience, trying to be as honest as possible.

The other Emmas are a bit of twist on the truth. I like to think 14-year-old Emma is a little more embarrassing than me actually as a teenager but I’m sure my friends would beg to differ.

Emma at drama school is probably a little more hopeful and bouncy than I really was at LIPA, I feel like I took everything quite seriously.

How has the show developed since you first wrote it?

The show has gone through 10,289 drafts. Or something like that. It’s changed a lot. Even in the last few days there are things where we say, do we really need this? And that’s just script wise, then there are lots of physical and spacial changes that we decide on with every rehearsal. The cynical voice of ‘Show Emma’ has definitely manifested herself a little more for this run of the show. And because we’re in a bigger space than Edinburgh at the Lyric there is more physicality to it. I’m going to push over a chair whilst standing on it at one point which I’m very excited about – I get to have my Frantic Assembly moment.

Has it taken any unexpected directions?

Originally I thought the show was going to be me playing a variety of Shakespeare’s men. Then, one day when I was showing Holly a scene for a scratch night I had written, where I played Hamlet on a tinder date (which sounded hilarious to me), she said to me why don’t we just write a play about you? Why don’t we write your story so far of wanting to play Shakespeare’s men? Then you can play a load of men, but also a load of women and yourself. With some made up bits of course to make it more Shakespearean. I’m not a very private person anyway, so I didn’t find it shocking or anything writing my story to share, but I guess I just never thought of it being dramatic. It turns out stick a few gags in and a bit of lighting and you’ve got a show.

What’s been the highlight so far?

In Edinburgh there was a girl who came to see the show, who sat on the front row and who had come up to do a production of Comedy of Errors. In the preshow I played Shakespeare Top Trumps with someone from the audience, so I spotted her and asked, ‘do you wanna play Shakespeare Top Trumps with me?’ She looked at me and was just like ‘YEAH’. That was a good show.

Aaaand getting to be a part of Evolution at the Lyric. I used to work in the café. Now I’m getting to perform my play there. I like the old-fashionedness of it – a feeling of working your way up by getting to know people. Makes you feel part of a theatre family somewhere.

And finally… if you could play any Shakespeare role, which one would it be?

Hammmm ….

Catch To She Or Not To She at the Lyric Hammersmith on Saturday 23rd January at 8.45pm.

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Theatre round-up: 10 Aug 2015

Although I just had one theatre trip this week, you may recall I’ve been to a couple of Edinburgh previews over the past couple of weeks. And unlike some national publications that I won’t name, I honour requests to keep quiet until opening night. (I also don’t use grainy photos taken on a hidden camera phone, but that’s a whole other story.)

Anyway, since the Fringe is now well and truly underway, my reviews have been published, so I feel comfortable talking about them here. Beginning with:

To She or Not To She

I was excited to see how this one-woman show, written and performed by Emma Bentley of Joue le Genre, had turned out, after getting a brief glimpse at the Morley College scratch night a few months ago. And I wasn’t disappointed – what began as a research project into female actors playing Shakespearean characters has turned out to be a very funny yet deeply thought-provoking piece about the very current topic of sexism in the acting industry. Emma Bentley is enthusiastic and likeable, and at the same time clearly very passionate about her message; the show is evidently a labour of love and one that I feel privileged to have seen in its early stages. With plenty of in-jokes for the actors and the women in the audience, it’s a very inclusive show – and there’s a fair bit of Shakespeare fangirling too, which is never a bad thing.

To She or Not To She review for LondonTheatre1

A Fine line

The second preview was also a one-woman show, but couldn’t have been more different. Ronnie Dorsey’s new work, about the six-decade relationship between two best friends, is a moving and incredibly powerful piece. In just an hour, the story of Rita and Angie takes us on an emotional journey that covers puberty, sex, babies, infidelity, love and loss. Judith Paris gives an intimate performance as she shares one elderly lady’s rambling memories; at times it feels like the audience is intruding on a very private moment as she addresses her monologue to her absent friend. Ultimately, the play reveals itself to be much more than just an assortment of memories; it invites us to consider the different kinds of love, and the fine line between expressing our true desires and conforming to society’s expectations.

A Fine Line review for LondonTheatre1

These shows are currently being performed in Edinburgh, and I’d recommend them both if you’re lucky enough to be there.

As for my one ‘official’ theatre trip of last week…

Dirty Dancing

If the two Edinburgh previews were thought-provoking, Dirty Dancing is anything but… and that’s why we love it. Any fans of the movie will also be fans of the stage show, which I saw at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, because they’re essentially the same, bar a few really minor changes. The music, costumes, props – including that watermelon – and the script are all pretty much identical, and there’s something quite relaxing about going to see a show you know so well you can quote the lines along with the actors. And yes, I’ll admit I’m still daydreaming about Lewis Kirk, who plays Johnny (with or without his shirt). It’s a feel-good show; the cast look like they’re having a great time, and it sends you away with a smile on your face… and you can’t really ask for more than that.

Dirty Dancing review

Theatre round-up

This week’s theatre

Blood Wedding (Dreamcatcher Theatre), The Bread and Roses Theatre

The Backward Fall (Penny Productions), Hen and Chickens

Consolation (Theatre Voliere), Bridewell Theatre

The Two Gentlemen of Verona / Hay Fever (Changeling Theatre), Boughton Monchelsea