Review: Spiked at Pleasance Theatre

Three mothers face a nightmare scenario in Félicité du Jeu’s Spiked; their teenage children have been admitted to A&E, along with the rest of their class, after being struck down by mysterious symptoms at school. It’s a strong premise, with the potential for plenty of drama and suspense, and which opens the door for discussions about themes including race, class and what constitutes “good” parenting. As individuals, Joanna, Rozhin and Karen could hardly be more different, but as they sit together waiting for news, they begin to find some common ground in the struggles that come with being mother to a teenager. That is until they discover that their children ate a cake deliberately spiked with drugs, at which point the inevitable speculation and finger-pointing begins in earnest.

Photo credit: Félicité du Jeu

The fault lines that divide the three are obvious from the start: Joanna (Charlotte Asprey) is well-off and a bit of a drama queen, while Karen (Daniella Dessa) is a straight-talking single mum and Rozhin (Katie Clark) is a sweet but naive immigrant from Kurdistan. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see which direction the accusatory fingers are pointing in – but what is unexpected is how on the money they turn out to be. It’s a confusing outcome given that the play clearly sets out to challenge these stereotypes, and slightly undermines an eloquent and passionate speech from Rozhin in defence of her family. It also, unfortunately, means that the play ends on a bit of an anticlimax, especially after what looks like it’s going to be a dramatic twist in the tale doesn’t actually go anywhere.

It’s in its exploration of what it means to be a mother that both script and performances are most assured, as the three women try their best to identify with their teenage children in a world that’s moved on in unfathomable ways since their own adolescence. In particular, their attempts to grasp how social media works bring a note of humour to the play, although their lack of understanding also means they react surprisingly calmly to revelations of cyberbullying and sexting amongst their kids.

Photo credit: Félicité du Jeu

Charlotte Asprey, Daniella Dessa and Katie Clark also play the three teenagers, in intermittent scenes that offer us a further insight into the relationship they have with their mums and with each other. Because of the simple but necessary costume changes required, however, these scenes break up the flow of the action in Gemma Kerr’s production, and don’t really tell us anything about the teens that we haven’t already learnt from listening to their mothers’ conversation in A&E.

It’s the mothers, though, that are at the heart of the play, and a final direct address to the audience proves that despite all their differences, these three women have one thing in common: a wish to keep their kids safe, happy and healthy at all costs. Echoing those words and aspirations with recorded clips of other real-life mums is a nice touch, and ensures that despite any unpleasantness that’s gone before, Spiked concludes on a heartwarming note.

Spiked is at Pleasance Theatre until 28th April.


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Review: Odd Man Out at The Hope Theatre

The two shows that make up Odd Man Out – Dominic Grace’s Rabbitskin and Lesley Ross’ Diary of a Welshcake – weren’t written to be performed together. Nor are they similar in plot, character or even performance style. But what unites these powerful monologues is the themes of love, loss and isolation explored by their two protagonists: Joe, a sensitive book lover struggling to live up to the expectations of his father and four older brothers; and Ralph, a gay Welshman on a journey of self-discovery and unexpected romance in Hong Kong.

The first character to take the stage is Rabbitskin‘s Joe, who quickly wins our hearts with his shy smile, childlike innocence and obvious affection for both his family and his favourite books. His is a story that can only be told by dipping into others, and Grace’s script skilfully weaves episodes from Joe’s life together with the yarns spun by his father. Like both Joe and his dad, Luke Adamson proves himself a masterful and thoroughly engaging storyteller, who slips effortlessly between characters – one moment a wide-eyed seven-year-old Joe, the next his Irish father telling the legendary tale of Cu Chulainn, the next his bullying brother Cal. He even manages to make something as mundane as the washing up sound utterly magical.

Photo credit: Luke Adamson

But stories will only protect you from real life for so long – and as sympathetic as Joe undoubtedly is, there’s a darker side to this character that refuses to stay hidden behind his defensive wall of fantasy. As the story begins to come together, and Joe’s placid demeanour cracks with increasing frequency, we know something is coming… yet the end of the story, when we arrive there, still shocks with its sudden brutality.

Gregory Ashton’s Ralph – also known as Tom – in Diary of a Welshcake is a somewhat different character; while still very likeable (and not just because he begins by handing out food) he doesn’t have Joe’s innocence, or feel quite so much a victim of his circumstances – perhaps because he ultimately acknowledges his own guilt over how the story of his Hong Kong adventure ends. Despite this, his is a much more openly comic tale, with a lot of the humour stemming from cultural differences, and particularly the absolute inability of characters from outside the UK to understand the difference between England and Wales.

Photo credit: Gregory Ashton

These other characters – male and female – allow Ashton to demonstrate his versatility as a performer; Ralph’s “predominantly heterosexual” American flatmate Matthew is a particular highlight, and there’s even a bit of (unfortunately inaccurate) Chinese in there at one point. Ashton’s been performing the show for over ten years, and it shows; his delivery falls somewhere between stand-up and theatre, so much so that the show begins to feel like it could actually be a true autobiographical account. The easy rapport that quickly develops between actor and audience is taken full advantage of later in the show as we’re invited to help recreate a dream of Ralph’s, a bizarre but very funny moment that deliberately steers us off course in the build-up to a shocking revelation.

Each of these stories could – and does – stand alone as a skilful portrayal of a man who doesn’t quite know who he is or where he belongs. Put together, they make for an evening that’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and quietly heartbreaking, featuring two engrossing solo performances. If nothing else, come for the free food; you won’t regret it.


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Review: Mumburger at Old Red Lion Theatre

First, a word of warning: don’t go and see Mumburger on an empty stomach. It’s all kinds of confusing.

Now that we’ve got that out the way, let’s discuss Sarah Kosar’s play. Andrea just died in a horrific car accident on the M25, leaving behind her devastated daughter Tiffany (Rosie Wyatt, reprising her Offie-nominated role) and husband Hugh (Andrew Frame). What begins as a seemingly straightforward story of two people struggling to process their grief in very different ways (she’s made a Google spreadsheet and is looking at urns on Amazon; he just wants to read the messages of condolence on Facebook and watch his wife’s favourite movie) takes a surreal and grisly turn when a mysterious delivery arrives. Inside the greasy bag are burgers – an odd enough sight in a house of committed vegans, even before we learn that they’re in fact a “Digestive Memorial” arranged by Andrea as a way to sustain her family after she’s gone.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

If it’s visceral theatre you’re after, you’ve come to the right place; it’s impossible to watch Mumburger – which follows Tiffany and Hugh’s horrified attempts to abide by Andrea’s final wish – without feeling some kind of physical reaction. Director Tommo Fowler has obeyed to the letter the writer’s instruction that “the actors should consume food when it says they eat”, so there’s no getting away from either the consumption or the various bodily functions that accompany it. (Or indeed the smell of cooking burgers, which explains the confusion I mentioned earlier.) It’s disgusting and messy and uncomfortable to watch, particularly when you add into the mix a series of video projections against the curtain at the back of the set, which verge at times on motion sickness inducing.

But let’s put the meat to one side for a second. At its heart, Mumburger is a story about a family coping with the loss of the person that held them together. Though we never meet Andrea, Kosar’s script paints a detailed picture of her; it’s clear from listening to Tiffany and Hugh argue and reminisce that she was the common link between them, and that without her they’re almost strangers who have no idea how to communicate. Both are also pretty annoying in their own ways; Tiffany, played by Rosie Wyatt, is shrill, domineering and self-involved, while Andrew Frame’s Hugh would rather play Candy Crush on his iPad than deal with anything even remotely difficult. Each believes that they knew Andrea better and therefore has more right to grieve, and the mumburgers become a physical manifestation of that competition. All of which begs the question: was Andrea’s intention really a noble wish to help her bereaved daughter and husband go on, or was it prompted by her own selfish need to maintain her position at the centre of the family for as long as possible?

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Many plays about bereavement go for the emotional jugular, encouraging us to feel sympathy for the characters and move us to tears as we watch them bond over memories of their loved one. Mumburger is not one of these plays. You’re more likely to come out feeling slightly sick than overwhelmed with emotion (though the play certainly has its moments) but that doesn’t make it any less real, and in this regard it’s actually oddly refreshing. Death – particularly of the sudden, violent kind – is not romantic or glamorous, but messy and painful. Not everyone who dies is perfect; nor are the people they leave behind. Grief can drive us apart just as much as it brings us together. These may not be truths we want to hear – or see, or smell – but they’re truths all the same. Not one for the faint-hearted (or vegetarians), maybe, but Mumburger certainly makes a lasting and powerful impression.


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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.


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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.


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