Review: Knock Knock at RADA Festival

Now in its seventh year, the annual RADA Festival brings together past graduates and a network of theatre-makers from different backgrounds in a ten-day celebration of new writing, emerging talent and the possibilities of theatre today. Key among the aims of the festival is to ensure that theatre is open to all; in line with this objective, tickets start at £5 and the three headline shows each place a strong emphasis on accessibility.

For Hot Coals Theatre, this is nothing new: since 2008 the company has specialised in work that’s fully accessible to d/Deaf and hearing audiences, and their latest show Knock Knock is also designed to be accessible to all ages. highly visual performance style, combining comedy, clowning and physical theatre, removes any need for spoken word or sign language while still ensuring the story and its message are easy to understand.

Photo credit: Hot Coals Theatre

Modern fairy tale Knock Knock tells the story of a woodcutter whose solitary existence is interrupted when a woman he’s never met before knocks at his door. It’s love at first sight, but when they both succumb to the pressure to live up to “traditional” gender roles, the happiness of their perfect union is threatened. Can they see past what’s expected of them and live the way they want to, or is their relationship doomed?

It’s impossible not to be charmed by the story’s loveable characters, who are brought beautifully to life by Hot Coals founders Jo Sargeant and Clare-Louise English. Spoken word proves to be unnecessary as the two communicate their thoughts and emotions through movement and facial expressions (Sargeant’s twinkly eyes above her bushy beard are a particular highlight). We share all their joy and heartbreak, and also enjoy some moments of cheeky humour that lift the characters out of the two-dimensional fairy tale world and make them real, imperfect human beings we can relate to.

A meticulously observed set also aids the storytelling, dividing the stage in two so the characters can move easily between their cosy living room and the mysterious, magical woods just outside their door. The structure of the show is based around the establishment of patterns; the opening sequence takes turns to introduce the two characters in their individual routines, while the second half of the story shows how their domestic activities change little by little as each day passes. Visually this works very successfully to demonstrate the gradual transition in their lives – we can see the way things are going long before they do – although the musical soundtrack does start to become a bit overbearing by the third or fourth repetition.

Photo credit: Hot Coals Theatre

Sweet, funny and with a powerful and very topical message for audiences of all ages, Knock Knock packs a surprising emotional punch. Within minutes, I was completely caught up in the story and rooting for the characters to resist the stifling social expectations that stand in the way of their happy ever after, both as a couple and as individuals. All in all, it’s a very worthy headliner for the RADA festival, and hopefully a show with a great future.

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: Kat Bond, Loo Roll

Actress, writer, comedian and clown Kat Bond is stocking up on loo rolls in preparation for the debut of her first solo character comedy show at Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard next month. “Kat Bond: Loo Roll is a character comedy show about a woman trying to find her family who left her in a bin,” she explains. “There are interactive Loo Roll props, human size bins and colourful characters to boot.”

The show began as an idea on the way to the Leicester Comedy Festival: “I thought that it would be good to make a show where every prop is made out of Loo Roll. I had a cold at the time!” says Kat. “I was in a short film about a female cult, and played a character called Pat who didn’t have a family; she was a sad clown and I thought it would be fun to bring her to life.”

In addition to her extensive work in theatre and TV, Kat is also half of critically acclaimed comedy duo That Pair, and won the Vault Festival Comedy Award 2017 for Loo Roll – so it’s fair to say she knows a bit about being funny. “I would say for me comedy is about being relaxed, so a good dollop of preparation; getting the audience to trust you, so a half pint of listening to them; being present in the room is important, so a full litre of sleep with a sprinkle of insanity. I think this is a comedy smoothie.

“Loud laughers are who I’m targeting, of any age,” she adds. “I think there’s a universal sentiment to the show and so I hope all adults from 16 onwards would like it. How many other shows have a full size bin on stage and use 50 loo rolls a show? I like to think that my show is original, funny and heartwarming, so people should come if they like those three things.”

Kat’s looking forward to being part of the Fringe 2017: “I love performing everyday and seeing the show change and evolve. It’s the only routine I get all year. Seeing some beautiful, funny, awful shows is always a thrill. I feel very inspired after leaving. After I’ve slept, that is.

“I’m excited to see lots of great theatre at Summerhall. Comedy-wise – Spencer Jones, Tessa Coates and Lorna Shaw, James Rowland, Adam Riches, John Kearns… it’s a long list, but pop me on yours if you use Loo Roll!”

Catch Kat Bond: Loo Roll at the Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) from 2nd-28th August (not 16th) at 5.45pm.

Interview: Abi Roberts, Anglichanka

Stand-up comedian Abi Roberts has the honour of being the first UK comic to perform in Russia… in Russian. In her show Anglichanka – which means Englishwoman in Russian – she talks about living in the former Soviet Union in the 90s, and returning after 18 years to perform.

“I speak Russian, I studied opera there in the mid 90s and I come from a family of Russian speakers,” she explains. “I’m a pro stand-up now and I was approached after a gig in 2016 and asked to go to Moscow to do four nights at the only stand-up comedy club on Moscow. The inspiration for the show was going back there and seeing just how much it’s changed since I had to leave in a hurry in 1993.

“So in this show, I discuss my time in the former USSR, gay rights and censorship in modern Russia, the consequences of drinking hardcore vodka, studying opera, using outdoor loos in -20 temperatures, and a dog that uses a human loo. You’ll see how Russia has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union and discover what we need to know about Putin, the meerkat with nuclear weapons and the country described as ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’.”

Photo credit: Karla Gowlett

Abi’s found her show attracts very diverse audiences. “I wrote it as a comedy show, so primarily its targeted at stand-up comedy fans… fans of funny,” she says. “I do get a lot of Russian speakers, Eastern Europeans and politicos in the audience – but then since the show’s been on tour, I’ve played diverse audiences from Glasgow to Barnstaple, via Neath and Newcastle, and the variation in audiences is enormous! I get students in, millennials, older 65-plus people who remember the Cold War, and people of all shapes and sizes. I have developed a wee following from both previous shows and club stuff, so people come and see it because they know it’s going to be me doing a funny show, not a piece of performance art or a TED lecture.”

Abi believes the secret to good comedy is jokes, being funny and working a room: “I see too many shows labelled as ‘comedy’ and too many people labelling themselves as ‘comedians’ nowadays that are neither. You’re not a comedian if you don’t play comedy clubs as a pro comic on a regular basis, however much you tell yourself you are. And if your show is one of the aforementioned pieces of performance art, theatre, a lecture, a pep rally or a TED talk, then it ain’t comedy. People come to comedy shows to laugh and be entertained…that’s the primary purpose of a comedian: to make people laugh. If I make them think about something more deeply along the way, then that’s great. But my primary job is to get folks laughing.

“In terms of individual comedians – well, there are two routes into comedy. One is doing it the hard way great comedians do, working their way up in comedy clubs and venues. The other way is doing it via the medium of comedy competitions. Comedy is not a competition. Competitions do not make you a funny stand-up or a great stand-up…they just make you good at doing competitions. My aim is, and always will be, to be the best stand-up I possibly can. I’m really not bothered about being famous or on TV. If that happens, great. I’m very happy making 500 people laugh every Friday and Saturday.”

Abi will be performing Anglichanka at Edinburgh’s Underbelly Cowgate in August – and is keen for festival-goers to check out her acclaimed and unique show. “It’s very funny, you’ll leave my show uplifted and laughing, not depressed and wondering why you just wasted the last hour,” she promises. “It also contains Stalin, Hyacinth Bucket, a shitting dog and a finale that has been described as ‘absolutely not to be missed’. So come along and see why this show has been pretty much given 5 star ratings across the board!”

It’s not the show’s first Edinburgh outing, though, and Abi’s excited by the opportunity to share it with more people this summer. “I did a first version of it last year on the Free Fringe to a smaller audience, and it got such good reactions from critics and audiences alike that I knew I had to bring it back. Then I got an offer to bring it to the famous Underbelly Cowgate, so here I am! It’s also the anniversary of the Russian revolution this year, so it couldn’t be more timely. Scotland has very strong historic links with Russia, especially Edinburgh, and there’s a big Russian presence in Scotland, so that adds an extra dimension for me.”

She also hopes to find time to see some of the other comedy talent at the Fringe this year. “I’m doing two shows – Anglichanka and a very early stage work-in-progress show called Fat Girl Dancing, so my time is limited, but if I can, I want to see fellow Underbelly stable mates Paul Foot, Jason Manford and John Bishop, who all have shows in the Underbelly. I never get to see as many shows as I’d like to due to sheer exhaustion – the first week is pure slog, the second week you’re recovering from the first and by the third week, you just want to do you show, go back to your flat, eat crisps and go to bed!” 

See Abi perform Anglichanka at Underbelly Cowgate (White Belly) at 6.40pm from 3rd-27th (not 14th) August.

Review: HerStory 4 at Theatre N16

Guest review by Jemima Frankel

What might you expect from a feminist theatre festival at a small fringe theatre in Balham, in June 2017? What issues, events, people, stereotypes – laws, even – might compel feminist theatre makers to, well, make theatre right now? The more cynical amongst us might expect a hipster-infused horde of angry, “snowflake” millenials shouting loudly about the “pale stale male”.  What they would find, however, is a potent and welcome remedy to such limiting cynicism. HerStory, founded by Nastazja Somers, was born out of frustration at the repetitive, singular storyline of female characters in theatre and wider society. She invites feminists to perform work that platforms the untold stories – the real faces of intersectionality – that are so routinely trampled over in the charge for more palatable voices. HerStory does not just demand our attention; it grabs it, with consent, by the pussy.

The second of two nights at HerStory 4 (the big sister of the HerStorys 1, 2 and 3 in preceding years) was a showcase of eight richly varied solo performances. We heard the female voice on topical issues such as abortion, domestic abuse, child rape, LGBTQ issues, sexual harassment, social media, war and… Iranian mothers. What shot through the hurt, the anger, the raw and gutting sadness of several of these stories was the resounding support buzzing from the audience. Huge cheers, belly laughs and tenterhooked-gasps filled the air – testament, of course, to the quality of the performers who took to the stage.

As expected, some of the work made emotional viewing. Dannie-Lu Carr’s Just Another C*nt told the incredibly moving story of a toxic relationship with an alcoholic man who encouraged an abortion. The Twilight Zone by Suzy Gill tackles cultural discrimination and homophobia, as a young woman’s Muslim girlfriend is called away again to fight for the American army in Iraq. In one of Tolu Agbelusi’s powerful spoken word performances she spoke of the rape of a seven-year-old girl at the grabbing, angry hands of two young boys. In Mission Abort, directed by Claire Stone and performed by Therese Ramstedt, the Pro-Life words of Donald Trump – “there must be some form of punishment” – seared through the graphic re-enactment of a painful and intrusive abortion. The audience was left open-mouthed and wide-eyed, shocked into reflective silence before roaring applause acknowledged the bravery and resilience of these women.

Humour rippled in welcome and powerful moments through the evening. Amanda Holiday’s The Art Poems took artworks by diverse female painters as the inspiration for witty words, and the ridicule at the price of a handbag (that she will use as a hat, thank you very much). Social Media Suicide by Clare McCall showed us the behind-the-scenes of a very special, perfectly set up, live streamed 27th birthday party, at which she – for the benefit of you lucky viewers – was going to kill herself after much cam-girl style foreplay. The show goes out, quite literally, with a bang as the likes come rolling in. Shahbanu brilliantly performed by Lydia Bakelmun (and written, directed and produced by Melina Namdar, Anna Jeary and Penny Babakhani) revisits the childhood of a girl raised in London to an overbearing Iranian mother and English father. In the nostalgic tales of Iranian princes and (always – eye roll) beautiful princesses, we unravel the feeling of loss, displacement and desperate need to reconnect to heritage and culture. Roxanne Carney’s I’m the Hero of This Story tickled the audience with Tinder one-liners and the jaw-dropping realisation that these were lifted from real conversations with real men, probably within about five miles of you.

The Museum of Women, the poignant closing poem of Tolu Agbulesi’s set, speaks of the great women “quietly shaping” her. “This body is a monument of many women; I was not built alone,” she speaks; a perfect beacon of support and solidarity that resonated with the diverse mix of men and women in the audience. As the audience left chattering and tweeting, I was reminded once again of the power of performance – if not as a way to change the world, then as a way to get the conversation well and truly started.

Follow @HerstoryFTF for details of upcoming events and performances, as they move to a more central London location.

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: Cath Mattos, Wandsworth Fringe 2017

Cath Mattos is producer of the Wandsworth Fringe, which launched last week in South West London and continues until 21st May. Now in its eighth year, and four years old as a standalone festival, the Wandsworth Fringe came out of the Wandsworth Arts Festival, which originally started in response to Black History Month. “The festival is a spotlight on creativity in Wandsworth, as well as being a testing ground for new work,” explains Cath. “We moved toward a Fringe model as there was so much grass roots support and the creative companies in the area wanted to be a part of the festival in May.

“I started working on the 2014 festival for exactly this reason, to bring more knowledge and experience of Fringe Festivals and to work with the Enable LC Arts Team and the WAF steering group to help carve a model that would work for the area and its cultural economy.”

As always, the festival offers a varied programme of events and entertainment. “There is so much on offer – we’ll be shaking up South West London with an eclectic programme of arts and culture that will thrill, move and inspire audiences from across the city,” promises Cath. “We have many talented local artists and producers but also performers who are bringing their talent from around the UK, Europe, North America and beyond to entertain and bring excitement to the streets and venues across the Borough.

“The festival is emphatically inclusive and welcomes participation from artists across all art forms – including outdoor arts, theatre, music, dance, comedy and everything in between. WAF provides the opportunity and support to try something new, take creative risks, test new ideas and reach new audiences.

“As a non-curated festival, the themes that have emerged reflect the world in 2017. Identity and difference plays a large part in the line up, as do environmental and current political concerns. There is a significant amount of work being presented by inclusive arts companies about disability issues, as well as work that explores gender and feminism.

“We also try and bring the arts to people, by literally leaving our own comfort zone and going into those hard to reach places. For example, during WAF you can see quite a few performances that focus on issues of mental health or disability, and certain shows will be supported by British sign language as a way to make the festival relevant and accessible to all.”

Unsurprisingly, preparations for the festival start early, and go on for most of the year: “We start the planning for the Fringe year during the evaluation of the previous festival in June,” explains Cath. “Then we start our first networking events in September and open an expression of interest phase, which we use to encourage as many interesting and unusual artists and producers as possible to come and find out about the festival and think about taking part.

“We advise artists and emerging producers on suitable venues and potential funding avenues. WAF has a dedicated grants funding scheme and we advise artists with their applications to this. It’s an open access festival, so anyone can register to take part as long as they have a venue sorted. Once all the artists are registered we then put a brochure together and the listings on our website, and start to sell tickets to the shows and promote the free events.

“We aim to make the festival as accessible as possible to both artists and audiences by having affordable options and many free events.”

So what are some of the many highlights to look forward to at the Wandsworth Fringe 2017? “Fragility Takeover The Arches at St. Mary’s Church under Putney Bridge and The Cat’s Back Pub in Wandsworth Town, and are hosting some cutting edge theatre and quirky Edinburgh previews,” suggests Cath.

“There’s also Super Hamlet 64: Parody DLC – armed with an ocarina, a ukulele and a thirst for revenge, Lecoq-trained Edward Day battles four decades of video game nostalgia, in an explosion of Shakespeare, live music, video projection and 16 bit mayhem. Odjo – King of the Ocean is a new show from The Comedy Cats, about a reporter who spent three months living at sea with an idiot fisherman named Odjo, witnessing bizarre martial arts practices, unruly animal impressions and unhealthy absurdities that reduced him to tears of laughter.

“Hidden Heathbrook is a weekend of outdoor arts in Heathbrook Park; we have leading large scale puppet makers Puppets With Guts, orchestrating the largest giant rampaging rhinoceros stampede in South London, and Hikapee’s brand new show Home weaves together slapstick comedy with breathtaking aerial acrobatics, to create a ‘house’ for you to explore. This weekend is one not to miss!

“And An Elemental Cycle of Life and Death in Four Acts is an intense and intimate experience encircling art, theatre, ritual and shamanic story weaving of the Fabulous and the Magickal, and of all that lies Betwixt and Between. The Transience create doorways to worlds which may or may not exist and are inviting you into an initiation where you are likely to lose or find yourself, for there is never any telling which. Sssh, secret locations!”