Review: Big Guns at the Yard Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

Big Guns at The Yard is a new play by Nina Segal, after her debut at the Gate Theatre in 2016, with In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises). Featuring a cast of two, Debra Baker and Jessye Romeo, and skilfully directed by Dan Hutton, Big Guns is a nerve-shreddingly uncomfortable watch about the anxiety of living in our modern western world where everyone is emotionally isolated but obsessively cyber-connecting.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

The plot of the piece is somewhat difficult to pin down without writing a thesis on the script, but it is perhaps best described as a dramatic poem, in a modern style, split between two voices, dealing with the growing fear of terrorism or attack, from the perspective of a forum board commenter, or serial tweeter. This ever-present sense of foreboding and threat is symbolised verbally by the oft-repeated phrase “The man with the gun…” This means that there is a third presence in the room with these women, invisible to us, unknown beyond his gender and the fact that he is armed, but still demanding that they validate, investigate and justify their own existences.

The style of the show is perhaps a visual radio play. The beauty and power of the production is in the smooth and meticulously paced patter between the two unnamed speakers, and a gorgeous horror soundscape designed by Kieran Lucas. At multiple points the stage is plunged into darkness and all we experience is either the amplified and sometimes distorted voices of the actresses, playing over a series of ominous chord progressions or precise and stilted sound effects. There is very little blocking to speak of, and the production makes no apologies for that. The performers are static and seated on the floor of the sloped stage for almost all of the production, but the whirling stream of consciousness style of the poetic text cares neither for naturalism nor visual pieces as we’re thrown somewhat chaotically through a series of interlocking vignettes, and provides all the movement that we could wish for – we just hear it instead of seeing it.

“Big Guns,” the back of the programme states, “is the prickling at the back of your neck, the faint taste of blood on your teeth, the could-be sounds of a strange figure in the semi-darkness. The YouTube clip you hope doesn’t load but can’t help watching.” And yes, Big Guns is all those things, however due to the jarring and whirling speed at which the script is delivered, as well as how the writing leaps over and through narratives with complications, contradictions and repetitions, you emerge from the play’s conclusion with not a lot more understanding of the play’s subject than when you went in.

Segal’s script is packed full of details and imagery, whipped through by Romeo and Baker with a delicious enjoyment of diction and a verve of delivery. It is confusing, mesmerising and captivating. You may not understand every second – hell, there was a good ten minutes where I possessed not a clue what was happening – but it’s done well and with enough grace that you go with it in the hope that the message might permeate your eardrums via some kind of verbal osmosis. Perhaps to some people’s tastes this might be too abstract and pretentious in terms of the script’s ambivalence for conventional narrative or character – the actors are deliberately non-characterised and are in essence interchangeable in terms of their delivery and viewpoints, but what matters is the poetry and meter of Segal’s verse, and here Baker and Romeo shine as pure masters/mistresses of their craft. Baker is in equal parts gleeful and nonchalant, but possesses moments of unbridled pathos in the face of Romeo’s antagonism and provocation. The stunningly beautiful Romeo allows Segal’s words to trip and fly from her mouth, her eyes glittering in the red darkness, drawing us in and devastating us with emotion in the final fourth-wall breaking moments of the production.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

There is an element of the production that speaks about our over-reliance on technology and social media, and our inability to restrain ourselves from online obsessions, and though I didn’t quite get how that ties into the afore/ever-mentioned “Man With The Gun”, in general the atmosphere and tension created by the piece is phenomenal. It plays to our own paranoia and fears, of violence, of disruption and chaos, and it does this wonderfully well.

Obviously the topical timing with the recent attack in London pushes the subject matter’s concerns right to the front of our minds, but the writer is skilful enough to not languish on gratuity. The similarities between us and the speakers may be narrowing with every passing crisis that we face, as unfathomable violence keeps breaking into our consciousness, but ultimately the play’s message is one of positivity and togetherness. There is a way to beat the Man With The Gun. Lose the fear. Embrace acceptance, and – ironically considering the play’s lack of visual elements – open your eyes to who exactly the Man With The Gun is.

Big Guns is a powerful piece of writing that makes a good play – but potentially an even better podcast.


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: Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio

Macbeth: the story of a man driven by personal ambition to destroy his friend and leader, and seize the crown for himself. Sweeping aside anyone who gets in his way, he ultimately leads his nation into civil war…

There could not have been a more pertinent day to see Arrows & Traps’ production of Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio. Macbeth isn’t an easy watch at the best of times, but the events of the previous 24 hours lent last night’s performance an extra intensity that nobody could have foreseen, and took Ross McGregor’s adaptation from pretty dark to full-blown horror. (A brief addition to the script referencing the shock EU referendum result met with a split second of laughter, until we all remembered it was based in reality, and not actually very funny.)

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

The irony of Shakespeare’s play is that Macbeth isn’t a totally bad guy (though not a particularly nice one either, obviously) but rather someone who allows himself to be led onto a dark path and discovers too late there’s no way back. As Macbeth and his wife, David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann are genuinely frightening – he’s full of violence and rage, while she’s cold and calculating, and together they spin a web of lies and commit crimes that are increasingly bloody and shocking. And yet the revulsion we feel is not without more than a hint of sympathy; both characters ultimately break under the weight of their guilt, and their passionate relationship of the opening scenes disintegrates into one of tension, fear and suspicion. It’s in these moments of vulnerability that Paisley and Baumann are at their most compelling; the pain they feel is palpable and devastating to witness.

It’s not just the Macbeths that are out to scare us, though; McGregor wanted his Macbeth to be one that’s all about fear, and he’s got his wish. The three witches, played by Elle Banstead-Salim, Olivia Stott and Monique Williams, are part-demon, part-seductress, and their regular appearances on stage throughout the play remind us who’s really in control of events. There’s no shortage of blood and gore from the start, and a few jumpy moments just to keep us on the edge of our seats. And then there’s Banquo’s ghost…

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

In the kind of original twist that we’ve come to expect from Arrows & Traps, in this production almost all Macbeth’s victims are female – most notably Duncan (Jean Apps) and Banquo (Becky Black) – as are his hired assassins. Seeing this violence both from and against women is a shock to the audience, hammering home the depths to which Macbeth is driven in his thirst for power. And it puts a fresh perspective on the relationships in the play – both Duncan and Banquo are loving mothers who share tender moments with their sons, while we’re also led to wonder about the exact nature of Macbeth’s friendship with Banquo as the play begins.

Like the company’s previous production, Anna Karenina, the show’s a visual feast; there’s smoke and blood galore, and some intense physical scenes from fight director Alex Payne. The climactic scene of Macbeth’s death is particularly stunning, with choreography, movement and music coming together to turn a moment of violence into something quite beautiful from which it’s impossible to look away.

The set is simple – just a table at the centre of the stage – and without the need for elaborate set changes, the production moves along at a rapid pace. The overlapping of some moments is particularly effective, as is the use of freeze frame during the dinner scene, contrasting Macbeth’s dark intentions with the merriment of his guests. And music is used to great effect to add drama, giving the play a very cinematic feel that seems to extend far beyond the theatre’s small stage.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza

This is the third Arrows & Traps production I’ve seen, and each time I’m surprised and delighted by their unique, inventive take on classic works. Their Macbeth is a political and supernatural thriller that’s as gripping as any episode of Game of Thrones (the body count is about the same, too), and reminds us once again of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance 500 years after his death. As depressing as that relevance may occasionally be.


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: Ross McGregor, Arrows & Traps

Earlier this year, they took on Tolstoy, condensing the epic novel Anna Karenina into a gripping three hours, and somehow making the story manageable without losing any of its complexity or intensity. And for their sixth production, Arrows & Traps are returning to their Shakespearean roots with Macbeth, which runs from 14th June to 9th July at New Wimbledon Studio, and opens the company’s ‘Broken Crown’ season.

Arrows and Traps, Macbeth

The Macbeth cast reunites actors who’ve worked on previous productions – among them David Paisley and Cornelia Baumann (Anna Karenina), Jean Apps (The Taming of the Shrew) and Alex Stevens (Titus Andronicus) – and introduces several new members of the company. Director Ross McGregor welcomes this mix of old and new faces:

“We’re one of the few operating rep companies in the fringe, in that we have a base of returning actors that we use in every show. It’s delightful to have actors from last year’s Taming Of The Shrew, Titus Andronicus, and this year’s Anna Karenina coming back to work on Macbeth alongside our new blood. This is great for me as a director as it builds a shorthand in rehearsal, but it also gives actors just starting out in their careers a home to come back to hone their craft on some classic drama. They know that there’s always a place for them in Arrows & Traps, and for me there’s no greater honour or compliment than when an actor asks to work with you again. This may seem like a cliché, but six shows in, it does feel like a little theatre family.”

In addition, the cast will work once again with Offie-nominated Movement Director Will Pinchin, who’s been a member of the creative team on all of Arrows & Traps’ previous productions. “It’s an honour to have Will back for a sixth time, working with the witches and ghosts for the show; he’s producing some incredible work in rehearsal. I’ve known Will for almost seven years, and I’d never consider directing a show without him now. We work well as a pair, he sees things I don’t, and I can structure his creative mania – there’s very little wasted time in rehearsal because each of us has a good sense of what the other wants to do. He’s also a new father, so the fact that he can still devote time to the company when he should be fast asleep is a testament to his generosity.”

Photo credit: Beth Gibbs
Photo credit: Beth Gibbs

Following on from last year’s gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew, this version of Macbeth is a gender equal production – in fact, in an intriguing twist, McGregor’s cast includes more women than men. “Macbeth is normally a bit of a sausage fest in terms of casting, so it’s great to be able to offer so many roles to female actors. Both Duncan and Banquo have been made into female roles, and we’re loving the new opportunities and relationship impacts that these changes are making. For example, in our version, Banquo is a mother. Lady Macbeth has lost her child. How does that impact the relationship between the two women? Is there more of a connection between Banquo and Macbeth than just friends? Exactly who is jealous of whom?

“Duncan also has been opened up in so many interesting ways. She has that Margaret Thatcher feel to her: a bold, brave women in a cabinet of men who want her dead. Plus the thought of murdering Duncan is made even more harrowing if it’s an elderly woman in her bed. I was watching rehearsal a few days ago and was struck by the fact that the murder of Banquo is almost an entirely female staged spectacle of combat, and it’s a refreshing thing to be staging, even in an age when we’ve seen it all. I personally think it’s been a boys’ club for long enough. Give a girl a dagger.”

So what can audiences expect from this new version of a well known play? “Arrows & Traps has always been about making commercial entertainment that doesn’t lose its intelligence. I want to make shows that sell (name a theatre director that doesn’t), plays that people will have heard of, but that don’t lose their intellect or beauty for the sake of making it easier or shorter.

“I’m always struck by a common response I hear from people when asked if they go to the theatre. So many people say “I should. I should go more.” Like it’s the dentist. Like watching Hamlet is the theatrical equivalent of a root canal. Why is intelligent classic theatre seen as a dry duty for most people? It shouldn’t be. If Shakespeare had to compete with bear baiters and prostitutes and merchants all selling their wares in the theatre, his lines had to grab their attention. They had to fly. It’s our company goal to make commercial theatre that is as intelligent as it is entertaining. It’s got to be a live event. It’s got to be exciting. And if it’s Shakespeare and it’s done well, you’ve got to understand what they’re all saying. My hope is that Macbeth strikes this balance – both serving the beautiful text as well as being a rollercoaster ride.

Photo credit: Beth Gibbs
Photo credit: Beth Gibbs

“I also wanted to make a genuinely frightening production of the play, because for me it’s all about fear. A standard GCSE answer is that Macbeth is all about ambition, and whilst that’s true, the word ‘fear’ is mentioned more times in Macbeth than any other play in the canon. It’s the story of a man who literally unleashes fear into the world. It’s a story where people believe in ghosts and witches and damnation and spirits. This is not our world, this isn’t reality, it’s a different playing space, a place where Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and Norman Bates live. A place where things go bump in the night, and all our worst nightmares come and sit down beside us whilst we’re having dinner.

“Olivier said that if you don’t believe in witches then there’s no point in doing Macbeth – and I think he’s right. I think you have to create a world where witches can feasibly exist and take the audience on a journey into the belly of the beast. It feels like a horror film to me. Full of jumps and bumps and frights and somewhere in the midst of the darkness is a cautionary tale about the dangers of desire. But then again, and this is the genius of Shakespeare, Macbeth is also about a couple on the verge of breakdown, and the lengths that two people will go to in order to save their marriage. So there’s a lot to love about the text, and everyone is operating in a shade of grey. I didn’t want there to be villains or clear cut baddies. I think in many ways the Macbeths are more likeable than the ‘heroes’ of the story, Macduff and Malcolm, even though they do despicable things. It’s really the great-great-great grandfather of House Of Cards.”

Book now to see Macbeth at New Wimbledon Studio from 14th June to 9th July.