Review: LOOP at Theatre N16

Few things prompt more heated debate than our taste in music (it’s definitely the source of most tension in my office). We all think our own favourites are the best, and anyone who disagrees with us is automatically wrong. Yet our passion for music – any music – can also bring us together like little else, whether it’s casual banter with a stranger at a gig or a huge one-off event like last weekend’s One Love Manchester concert.

BoxLess Theatre’s LOOP takes us through three generations of one family, set to a soundtrack of the music that both unites and divides them. In the 1960s, a young woman leaves behind her home in London and sets off for a new life in Manchester. In the 80s, her teenage daughter comes home from a gig with a new boyfriend in tow – and in 2017, that same couple struggle to find common ground with their own 19-year-old son, who ultimately finds himself returning to his grandmother’s hometown in search of answers.

Though music is the common thread that links all three stories, it doesn’t dominate or overwhelm Alexander Knott’s script, which is very much character-driven. In a fast-moving introductory monologue delivered by Emily Thornton, we experience all the hopes and fears of The Woman as she leaves home for the first time and ventures out into a scary new world. Later, she returns as both mother and grandmother, perfectly capturing not only the physical changes but also the lifelong emotional fragility of a woman whose life hasn’t gone the way she hoped it would. James Demaine closes the show as the Young Man, with an equally powerful story of teenage angst and artistic ambition, but perhaps the most enjoyable – and humorous – scenes are those between the Boy and the Girl, played by Aaron Price and Rubie Ozanne, whose fledgling teenage romance is adorably awkward and very believable.

Completing the show’s finely tuned balance of words and music is the movement, directed by Zöe Grain. Working with a set that consists of just a few boxes that are rearranged for each new setting, the cast travel on trains, dance in clubs, and walk the busy city streets in this highly physical piece of theatre. In one effective scene, an act of violence becomes strangely beautiful as it unfolds in exquisite slow motion. Each of the four-strong ensemble performs these moves with precision, energy and perfect timing to bring their characters and the world around them to life.

LOOP has a little bit of everything; it’s funny and heartwarming yet not without moments of poignancy, and nostalgic but also very current – and by combining storytelling with movement and music, directors Alexander Knott and Zöe Grain have given the company an opportunity to demonstrate their broad range of talents. This is an exciting debut from BoxLess Theatre, and definitely worth a visit for music lovers of any generation.

LOOP is at Theatre N16 until 10th June.

Review: Legends: Monsters, Mead & Mayhem at Blue Elephant Theatre

If you hear the name Thor and think of Chris Hemsworth (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?), you may be in for a shock at the Blue Elephant this week. Having previously tackled the Arabian Nights and Greek mythology, Hammer & Tongs Theatre have now turned their attention to the Vikings. Legends: Monsters, Mead & Mayhem is a fast-paced and very funny tour of the nine worlds of Norse mythology, in which elves dance unwary travellers to death, Thor keeps losing his hammer, and dwarves like to murder visitors and turn them into beverages. All of this is watched over by the guardians, armed with a pair of magic binoculars, who have the thankless task of keeping the peace, whilst drinking a lot of tea and sorting the mail.

Written and directed by Jennifer Rose Lee, this work in progress may be at an early stage in its development, but it’s already shaping up to be great fun for the whole family. Three actors (Oliver Yellop, Charlotte Reid and Philippa Hambly) play all the parts – so many I lost count – with a variety of accents from American to Brummy to Scottish, and with music and some occasionally rather too graphic sound effects supplied by George Mackenzie-Lowe, who’s installed in a corner for the duration of the show. Though the actors themselves seem occasionally on the verge of laughter, they all give energetic and enjoyable performances, keeping each role distinct from the next and somehow managing to keep up with the rapid pace of the story.

Though it’s essentially a sketch show, dropping in on all the different worlds and their eccentric inhabitants but always returning to the three guardians at the centre, there is a main plot thread linking everyone together. This revolves around the story of a poet created by the gods, whose skill makes him famous throughout the nine worlds… but he’s about to discover that fame isn’t always a good thing.

Perhaps we could have lingered a little longer on some of the stories; the show’s certainly entertaining enough that it can stand to go beyond its current 50 minutes, and though transitions between scenes are smooth, the brevity of some of the sketches currently means the show feels a little bit choppy. The characters are well-drawn and intriguing, deliberately going against our expectations; we have a friendly sea monster, inelegant elves – and Thor, who’s not only definitely not Chris Hemsworth, he’s also not the sharpest knife in the drawer, bless him. This subversion of what we think we know about Norse mythology supplies most of the dry humour of the evening, and makes me wish not only that the show was longer, but also that I’d seen what Hammer & Tongs did with the more familiar world of Greek legend in their previous production, MYTHS.

This family show reminds me a little of Horrible Histories, in that it’s definitely not based in any kind of fact, but still gives the audience enough info to whet our appetites and make us want to learn more, whilst keeping us well and truly entertained. Already a lot of fun and with great performances from an engaging cast, I look forward to seeing how the show develops from here.

Legends: Monsters, Mead & Mayhem is at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 27th May, then follow @HATtheatre for future performances.

Interview: Haste Theatre, Oyster Boy

After award-winning performances all over the world, Haste Theatre’s Oyster Boy is back for a new UK tour. Kicking off last week at London’s Blue Elephant Theatre, the revamped show will travel to venues around the country between now and May, finishing up with four dates at the Brighton Fringe.

Oyster Boy is a dark comedy told in a light-hearted and quirky way, about the struggles of a boy living with an oyster shell for a head,” says Jesse Dupré, co-founder of Haste. “We use puppetry, clowning, dance and music to tell this strange story.”

Oyster Boy is based on a 1997 poetry book written and illustrated by Tim Burton: “Initially, we were drawn to the stories in his book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy because they were so strange, and although short in length, seemed to say a lot and evoke much reflection and thought. We saw potential in the material and in the small number of characters he created, knowing we could inject comedy and humour into this rather sad tale.”

The show has been enjoyed on previous tours by audiences of all ages. “There is something in it for everyone!” says Jesse. “Because we are a physical theatre company, the story is told with a whole range of different performance styles, such as live music with ukulele and a cappella harmonies and choreographed movement and dance sequences. It is high energy and will leave you feeling revived, but also will provoke questions to do with the subject content.

“Primarily, we’d like audiences to have a good time watching the show, as it’s an action-packed performance full of colour, vibrancy and music. We want them to be engaged and to laugh, even though the story has dark undertones. 

“We’d also like to encourage a sense of questioning amongst the audience, especially in terms of morality and judgement of others. The character of Oyster Boy is subject to a lot of harsh criticism from society because of the way he looks, and this acts as a mirror to show the reality of some people’s lives today. We hope that audiences will sympathise and become attached to the puppet of Oyster Boy, and therefore be more inclined to empathise with people who are different without pre-judging them.”

Those who’ve seen the show before will notice some changes this time around. “We’ve performed our original version of Oyster Boy since 2013, and have toured it all over the world including America and Italy where it’s won numerous awards,” Jesse explains. “We know that it worked well how we first made it, but we wanted to challenge ourselves to tweak and change parts that we knew could be better and more developed. We also wanted it to represent our work now as a company rather than 3 years ago when we were just starting out. 

“Many things have changed this time around – in fact with the help of our Associate Director, Kasia Zaremba-Byrne, we’ve done a full overhaul of the story, the characters, the props and the set. Kasia helped us breathe new life into the show and expand on what we had before, bringing out new elements in us as actors as well as in the narrative itself.”

One stop on the tour is the Marlowe Studio in Canterbury, where Haste will be performing for one night only on March 30th. “The Marlowe Studio is a wonderful place to perform,” says Jesse. “We toured another show there in 2015 and had a great experience. The team who programme shows in the studio are very on the ball in terms of new theatre and emerging companies, and so it’s an exciting space to perform in.

“Local audiences should come along to check out smaller productions as well as large touring productions, in order to experience other types of shows. The studio is a great modern space with a decent sized stage and raked seating, and so audiences are guaranteed to have a good experience, especially if they come to watch Oyster Boy!

“Last time we performed in Kent, we had supportive and receptive audiences who made us feel encouraged and appreciated, and so we are really looking forward to bringing a different show to the same theatre. We felt we attracted a wide cross section of the community around the Marlowe and judging by the feedback we had, they thoroughly enjoyed our previous show. We are hoping that the same magic will work again this time!”

Catch Oyster Boy on tour – visit Haste Theatre’s website for dates and venues.

Interview: Catherine Lomax, Gordon Craig Theatre

It’s nearly Easter, and at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage that means one thing: a new family musical. This year, it’s a fresh take on classic fairy tale Rapunzel, featuring original songs and brand new characters created by Catherine Lomax, Phil Dennis and Khiley Williams – and it’s proved so popular that extra dates have already been added for later in the year.

Rapunzel was one of my favourite stories when I was a little girl, so following the success of last year’s Easter Musical, Alice in Wonderland, we knew we wanted to select another literary classic or fairy tale, and Rapunzel instantly came to mind,” says Catherine, who’s also directing the show.

Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre
Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre

“Everyone knows the basic story of Rapunzel but Phil, Khiley and myself loved the idea that we would have freedom to create a whole host of characters to develop the story. We all read as many different versions of the fairy tale as we possibly could and then discussed what we loved the most; we were really keen on creating a production that appealed to children but also entertained parents and adults, and I don’t doubt that’s what we have created. The story may be a classic fairy tale, but we’ve created characters with lots of one liners for the parents so that they can enjoy their trip to the theatre just as much as their children!”

The show tells the story of Sophia and Karl, who are desperate for a child of their own. “One night Karl breaks into Gothel’s garden looking for a herb that will help his wife fall pregnant,” explains Catherine. “Gothel discovers Karl and agrees to help him but on one condition – Gothel must be given the child when she turns sixteen years old! Desperate Karl agrees to the demand and so on his daughter’s sixteenth birthday, when Gothel arrives to stake her claim, Karl and Sophia are powerless to defeat her.

“Two years pass with Rapunzel locked away in a tower, with only a bird, Viktor, for company. Despite using her imagination to create adventures in her head, Rapunzel longs to be outside having adventures of her own. Fortunately Prince Freddie overhears her singing and discovers her trapped in her tower, but can he –  and true love – save the day?”

Catherine’s loved joining forces with Phil Dennis and Khiley Williams again: “We’ve all worked together as creative teams on various musicals and pantos over the last five years. It’s quite a privilege to work with your best friends and create something you are truly proud of.”

She’s also more than a little excited to be working with the show’s recently announced cast. “Samantha Noel will be playing Rapunzel; she has a fantastic voice and a real warmth and friendliness that definitely comes across on stage. She is the perfect Rapunzel and we all fell in love with her at the audition. Craig Armstrong and Cameron Leigh are two of the most versatile performers who have both worked at the GCT before, they’re back for Rapunzel and I don’t doubt that their larger than life characters will make this show sensational!”

Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre
Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre

Catherine’s been resident director and producer at the Gordon Craig for seven years, having moved into the role after running her own touring production company. “I think the Gordon Craig is unbelievably special because of the people who work here. Our backstage crew are fantastic, they will explore every option possible to make sure all of our shows are the very best they can be. The FOH teams, Box Office, Marketing department and all of the teams really get behind all our projects.

“And we’re only 20 minutes from Kings Cross, which does mean audiences can just as easily travel to shows in the West End – but it also means we get some fabulous stars who discover the Gordon Craig is really commutable.”

The Easter run of Rapunzel at the Gordon Craig Theatre has already sold out, but tickets are now on sale for additional dates 27th-30th July. Get them while you can…

Review: Sister at Ovalhouse

How to describe Born Mad’s Sister? It’s a tricky show to review, actually, because there’s no easy way to sum up what goes on without it sounding a bit… eccentric. So let’s just say this: Sister is beautiful, powerful, inventive, moving and heartwarming. It will make you laugh. It will almost certainly make you cry. It’ll make you hear sounds in a whole new way, and it’ll send you home reflecting on your own relationships – with sisters, if you have them, and with family in general.

The show is made up of many different memories, all of them collected from real women. Some make only a brief appearance, while others resurface throughout the hour-long production. Through these recurring stories we meet Mira, who was separated from her sisters for 15 years by the Albanian civil war; Tara, “a bit of a pyromaniac”, whose earliest memory of her younger sister is the day she accidentally burnt their house down; and Annabel and Jessica, who are best friends as well as sisters. Some of the memories shared are of life-changing events, while others are totally mundane, but together they build up a picture of what it means to have – and be – a sister, with all its highs and lows.

Photo: Ludovic Des Cognets
Photo: Ludovic Des Cognets
The identically dressed Daisy Brown and Nia Coleman are in perfect harmony throughout – and not just when they’re singing (beautifully), but also in their movements and even the way they speak. They’re so in sync, in fact, that at times it becomes hard to believe we’re watching two individuals. The pair present the verbatim accounts that make up the show, bringing to life women of all ages and backgrounds, keeping each persona distinct and instantly recognisable when we return to them later.

Directed by Rebecca Hanbury, Sister is a very visual show, both in terms of the performers’ body language and facial expressions, and in Ben Jacobs’ incredible lighting effects (at one point I genuinely thought the theatre was on fire). But what makes this production unique is its use of sound and music, composed by Alex Groves and all created live on stage by the performers, then amplified by the microphones that cover the set. Gentle opera combines with the simplest of sounds – a hesitant ‘um’, the sound of tea being poured (and the satisfied sigh after that first sip), a crying baby – looping and soaring to build a sort of audio patchwork quilt, each sound bringing to mind a particular story or character, and reminding us once again that life doesn’t always have to be glamorous or exciting for it to mean something.

Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets
There are a few moments when the sounds intrude and make it difficult to hear the performers – on at least one occasion this is clearly very deliberate (and spine-tingly effective in a climactic scene), but there are also a couple of times when it’s not so obvious, and we find ourselves straining to hear the spoken words over the speakers above our heads, without really knowing if we’re supposed to be.

But I’m nitpicking. Sister really is a beautiful production, and packs quite a punch emotionally, too – one story in particular, towards the end of the show, very nearly broke me. Ultimately, though, this is a celebration of a unique bond. It doesn’t matter if you have sisters, brothers or neither of the above; if you’re interested in human relationships and enjoy unique, creative theatre, Sister is well worth a look.

Sister is at Ovalhouse until 10th September.