Interview: Lydia Rynne and Caley Powell, Hear Me Howl

Hear Me Howl is the first project for new theatre company Lights Down Productions. The one woman show by Lydia Rynne addresses the taboo issues of abortion and a woman’s choice to remain childless, exploring the central character’s journey through her discovery of punk music.

“It’s a late coming-of-age tale following the story of Jess – played by Alice Pitt-Carter – who’s just hitting the big three oh,” explains Lydia, a member of the Soho Theatre Writers Group. “She has a job, a long term, loving boyfriend and a rented flat that’s bigger than your average garden shed. Oh, and of course she also has that pesky body clock that everyone keeps banging on about. As she approaches her milestone birthday, Jess begins to question the life she’s plummeting towards and decides to join a punk band, cos why not? Jess tells her story from behind and with the aid of a drum kit before her first gig.”

Lydia was inspired to write the play after noticing a lack of shows about women who choose not to have children: “There have been plenty of plays and books about women or couples trying desperately to conceive. And of course there is a place for these works – wanting, and then struggling, to conceive is a heartbreaking ordeal. But for every woman who is pining for a child of her own, there is a woman considering a life without children. This is, crazily, still a taboo subject. I’m also a huge advocate of women – of any age – picking up an instrument and making NOISE.

“From a young age girls are given plastic babies, prams, tiny kitchenettes with rubber sausages to fry up like a good girl. Meanwhile our male human counterparts who just happen to have a dangly bit between their legs are handed toy racing cars, railway sets, a rocket: an open highway to go any place they like, as fast as they bloody well can. Society tells us from birth that we are born with a maternal instinct that, if not acted on within our allotted time, will leave us empty and bereft of our true life purpose. The weight of this expectation is not only offensive – how many childless male actors or politicians are probed about their lack of sprogs?! – but also a huge mental drain on a gender who are already busy enough trying to achieve equality in the workplace and combat sexism on a daily basis.”

Producer Caley Powell adds, “This will be my first play with my new theatre company Lights Down Productions, and I chose it because I saw myself in the lead character of Jess. I’ve recently turned 30 and have known for a long time that I don’t want children, so seeing a play that dealt with this topic in such an open, fun way is so rare and so necessary that I immediately wanted to come on board to produce this play.

“For me Jess is so relatable, when you’re about to turn 30 you do end up having a crisis about where your life is and what it is you want from it, and have an urge to do something drastic, like join a punk band to break out of the monotony of your life. This play shows it’s never too late to make a change in your life and that through regaining control and also through the power of music you can find your voice and your power.”

Lydia met the play’s director, Kay Michael of Empty Deck Theatre, when they were in a production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker together at Warwick University. “I had yet to ‘come out’ as a writer and still fancied myself as a physical theatre performer. As much as I loved playing varieties of goat-like creatures, making sense of the world through the written word quickly became my raison d’être. So I finally allowed Kay, one of my best mates – and conveniently a wonderful director – to take a peek. The rest is history. Or herstory…”

Caley’s involvement with the show came about more recently. “I met Kay whilst producing my previous play A Great Fear Of Shallow Living with In Tandem Theatre Company, and she got in touch in November 2017 to let me know about this play. I was in the process of setting up Lights Down Productions to produce new writing, particularly female writers, and I was looking for new projects so it seemed perfect timing!”

In developing the show, the team have spoken to women with varying opinions on having children, and have also thrown themselves into the world of punk ideology and music. “One particular book that inspired us is Viv Albertine (of punk band The Slits)’s autobiography, documenting her growing obsession with punk music in the 70s and 80s as she grows from girl to woman,” Lydia explains. “As Hear Me Howl is very much structured as a coming of age story, we have also, as a team of female creatives, interrogated our own lives as a series of lightbulb moments – questioning the people, experiences and music that we now know impacted our life choices. We then got into a garage full of instruments we’d never played before and bashed about for hours, and got some great audience feedback when we tested an extract, with accompanying drums, in a scratch night back in 2016.

“We hope Hear Me Howl will inspire discussion about the expectations we place on women to have kids. But we also want our audiences to have fun, to maybe take up drums, and to definitely dance around their kitchen like no-one’s watching.”

The play was performed as a work in progress at The Landor Space in March, and returns for a full run at the Old Red Lion Theatre this month.

With Lights Down Productions Caley’s also currently producing a new play, Shards by Catherine O’Shea. “Shards is a play about memory, architecture, relationships, dating, particle physics and swing dancing… and what happens when you throw those things at each other. We just had a reading of the play at The Playwriting Suite at Canal Cafe Theatre, and have a four-week run at a major London venue later this year.”

To keep updated on Lights Down Productions follow @LightsDownProd or find them on Facebook

Review: The Castle at The Space

In Howard Barker’s rarely performed 1985 play The Castle, Stucley and his men return home from the Crusades to find the women have taken over and established their own tribal regime. Far from the hero’s welcome he was expecting, Stucley is horrified to discover his own wife in a relationship with a witch, and with no interest to returning to his bed – or giving him a child, despite having become famous in his absence for her abundant fertility.

Rather than try and work things out, Stucley decides to build a castle designed by Arab “genius” architect Krak, who’s returned home with him from the Holy Land. As construction gets underway, Stucley grows increasingly obsessed with making his castle bigger and more impressive than anybody else’s – but his plan to win back control ultimately only creates more chaos.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

It’s quite a strange play in many ways: a lot happens, not all of it very easy to understand and much of it entirely unexpected; it delves into everything from religion to gender politics; and though overwhelmingly dark in tone, there are several moments of surreal humour (at one point Stucley attempts to found a new church, anointing his chosen priest by putting a toolbag on his head in lieu of a hat; at another the witch Skinner, having confessed to murdering the castle’s chief builder, is sentenced to carry his corpse around wherever she goes, only to end up getting rather too attached). The language is also an odd blend of semi-classical and modern, which takes a good few minutes to get used to, particularly as the dialogue is very fast-moving from the start.

Having said all that, Adam Hemming’s new production at The Space is excellent and incredibly atmospheric, with a set from Jo Jones that makes great use of the converted church building to create a show that feels epic in scale. Andy Straw’s lighting design recreates the gloom of rainy middle England, giving us at times only just enough light to see what’s going on, while sound effects from Keri Chesser fill in – on one occasion in rather distressing detail – events unfolding off stage.

The cast of ten give passionate performances, particularly Anthony Cozens as Stucley and Kate Tulloch as Skinner, each driven to the brink of madness by their desire to win. Chris Kyriacou’s Krak looks quietly – and comically – dismayed at first by the chaos he’s stumbled into, but ultimately reveals his own hidden demons, and the same goes for Shelley Davenport’s Ann, whose firm resolve as the play opens soon begins to fall away.

Photo credit: Ellamae Cieslik

With all these strong personalities fighting for supremacy, the play does get a bit shouty (not to mention sweary) at times – but there’s welcome light relief from the likes of Holiday (Matthew Lyon), who’s spent so much time constructing tall buildings he can’t stop looking up and who, ironically, is petrified of heights, and Hush (John Sears), an old man who’s been making himself useful over the last seven years by obligingly getting all the women pregnant.

Despite the quality of the production, I’m not sure enjoyable is the right word for The Castle – which would probably quite please its writer, who in 2012 was quoted as saying, “A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal. I’m not interested in entertainment.” All in all, this is the kind of play that leaves you feeling a bit bewildered and more than a little uncomfortable. Those who like to come away from the theatre understanding everything that just happened might want to steer clear; Barker doesn’t give us any easy answers, instead leaving it to the individual to interpret what we’ve seen in our own way. On the other hand, if you enjoy watching committed, compelling performances in a play that’s dramatic and darkly humorous, and which provides more than enough food for thought to keep you going for a good long while, this might just be the show for you.

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Review: The Mutant Man at The Space

On the surface, Christopher’s Bryant’s The Mutant Man is a crime drama; we open in a courtroom, as two identically dressed actors – one male, one female – unpack an assortment of items in evidence bags. But it doesn’t take long to understand there’s a lot more going on here than a straightforward murder trial. The defendant, Harry Leo Crawford, was born Eugenia Falleni and has been living as a man for years, and when his gender identity is made public, it becomes the key piece of evidence leading to his conviction.

Photo credit: Greg Veit

The timeline of the play jumps back and forward in time, sometimes quite rapidly, piecing together Harry’s life story as he struggles to live in a body that doesn’t represent who he really is. Bryant’s language is often poetic, but holds nothing back – we get a detailed description of how Harry was able to convince not one but two wives of his anatomical masculinity, and there’s a brutally explicit account of his rape and subsequent pregnancy by a sea captain who discovered his secret. Simultaneously the court case unfolds, with characters from Harry’s past reappearing to speak against him, and both gripping stories build to a climax as we learn what really happened to Annie, and the inevitable conclusion of the trial.

The central character is played beautifully by two actors – Clementine Mills as Harry and Matthew Coulton as Eugenia – a simple yet highly effective way of separating the two personas. Eugenia is submissive, anxious and seems constantly uncomfortable in her own skin, while Harry, though played by an actor who’s physically shorter, seems far larger in stature and confidence. At one point they deliver overlapping monologues that sum up the distinction: “I’m terribly afraid,” says Eugenia, while Harry states defiantly, “I’m not afraid.” The one phrase they have in common: “I did not kill this woman.”

The two actors also play all the other characters, and herein lies one of my few gripes about the production: though some attempt is made to physically differentiate, with the actors adopting different postures and ways of speaking, it’s not always easy to tell who we’re looking at – often we’re halfway through a character’s testimony in court before we realise who they are and what relevance they have to the case.

Photo credit: Greg Veit

Though the set appears simple, the production is actually incredibly complex and rich in detail. Director Heather Fairbairn equips her actors with a range of props, which gradually emerge from those evidence bags we saw earlier and show how every detail of Harry’s past has come to be used against him. In addition, the production makes highly effective use of lamps, microphones and cameras, often projecting close-ups of evidence on to the large video screen at the back of the stage, and culminating in a powerful image that represents Harry’s confusion and disdain for his own body. There are occasional sound issues; the actors have so much to do with props to unpack and countless small costume changes as they slip from one character to the next, that at times the acoustics work against them and their words are lost – but the most important moments are delivered direct to the audience with clarity and passion.

The play doesn’t try to tell us everything, but instead gives us just enough to send us away disturbed and sufficiently intrigued to read up on Harry’s story for ourselves. Though we may comfort ourselves with the knowledge that such a travesty of justice couldn’t happen today, The Mutant Man does force us to confront the question of how gender diversity is still viewed and (mis)understood a century on from the events depicted. A gripping and thought-provoking 70 minutes, and well worth a visit.

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Review: La Ronde at The Bunker Theatre

Max Gill’s adaptation of La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler launches the second season at The Bunker, and it’s already causing quite a stir. Partly this is down to the star cast, but it’s fair to say the major draw of this production is its unique and fascinating format.

Four actors – Lauren Samuels, Amanda Wilkin, Alex Vlahos and Leemore Marrett Jr – play between them ten gender-neutral characters. There are ten scenes, each featuring two of the actors. But who appears in which scene is entirely down to fate, and decided by the slow, deadly spin of a roulette wheel. Altogether, there are over 3,000 possible different versions of the show, so it’s no surprise that it cries out for multiple viewings. Fortunately, it’s also entertaining enough to ensure that wouldn’t be a chore.

Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
The use of a roulette wheel is appropriate, because La Ronde is a risky enterprise in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s the danger that one of the actors might find themselves repeatedly out of the loop; I saw very little of Amanda Wilkin until the comparatively short final two scenes, which she appeared in by default. (On the other hand, the mounting suspense of waiting to see if she would finally get her moment meant we never got bored of watching the wheel spin every few minutes.)

The format is also incredibly demanding for the actors, who have to learn every part and really think on their feet – but this outstanding cast have more than risen to the challenge. Every individual performance is confident and believable, as are the relationships between the different pairings, regardless of gender combination.

The overarching theme of the play is sex, and there’s some form of sexual encounter in every scene, whether consummated or not (which prompts the interesting question, what even counts as a sexual encounter; where do we draw the line?). Some are illicit, many unsatisfying, others quite poignant… And all of them are unseen, because the stage is plunged into darkness at the critical moment – an interesting choice that suggests the deed itself may not be quite as critical as what leads up to it, or what happens afterwards.

The script is necessarily gender-neutral, which creates a few awkward moments and rather excessive use of the characters’ (unisex) names, but on the whole flows more naturally than I expected. The different combinations of male and female force us to examine our own expectations about gender roles within sexual relationships and society as a whole. Questions of power, vulnerability, even career stereotypes (why should a female bus driver or a male cleaner be any more unusual than the opposite?) are all eloquently addressed, without labouring the point; the scenarios are unfolded before us and we’re left to consider our own response.

Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
The modern setting and individual scenes are the work of writer/director Max Gill, inspired by stories he collected over several months from Londoners – snippets of which we hear during the transitions between scenes. But the structure of the play comes from Schnitzler, and is just as enthralling. Each character appears in only two consecutive scenes, with the first actor selected by the wheel returning at the play’s conclusion to close the circle. So within this big loop are lots of little ones, all linked both directly to their neighbours, and also indirectly, with events and characters referenced from earlier scenes. (Weirdly, the pattern reminded me a bit of that magic roundabout in Hemel Hempstead – which is not something I ever thought I’d write in a theatre review, and is honestly a lot more flattering than it sounds.)

The biggest disappointment of La Ronde, for me, is that I probably won’t have time to see it again and compare last night’s version with another – and so in a way, I feel like I can only half appreciate how clever the show is. But that’s really a compliment; this is an original and endlessly fascinating idea, brilliantly executed by both cast and creatives. It’s not without its risks… but I’d say this particular spin of the wheel is a winner.

Additional note on 7th March:

As it happens, I did get a chance to see La Ronde again, a few days ago, and it was just as interesting as I suspected it would be. With the exception of one scene, every pairing was different to the last time, and in one case involved the same people but in opposite roles. And though the script was familiar, the different combinations – not only of gender but of personality and style, too – made it into a brand new story. Some scenes were funnier than before; others much more emotional. Some characters were more likeable; others harder to relate to. And though the sexual encounters were the same in location and circumstance, the responses to them were different – not because, for instance, it was between a man and a woman instead of two men, but because it was between two unique human beings.

There’s something slightly addictive about La Ronde; having been twice I now want to go again (and again). It’s a show of – almost – infinite possibilities, and one that you sense will remain constantly fresh and exciting, for audience and actors alike.

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Review: Rotterdam at Trafalgar Studios

Jon Brittain’s Rotterdam premiered at Theatre 503 in 2015 to critical acclaim, and now gets a well-deserved transfer to Trafalgar Studios. Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain, the play introduces us to Alice and Fiona, an English couple living in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. After seven years together, Alice is finally ready to come out to her parents back home, when Fiona announces that she identifies as a man, and wants to begin living as Adrian. Which leaves a shell-shocked Alice questioning whether he’s still the same person she fell in love with – and if she stays with him, does that mean she’s now straight?

Photo credit: Piers Foley
Photo credit: Piers Foley

It’s a fascinating premise and forces both characters and audience to consider the labels we place on ourselves and others. But far from being heavy-going, Rotterdam is a warm and surprisingly funny play – expect to laugh, a lot, often at unexpected moments. Take tissues too, though, because it’s not by any means always an easy ride, and there are some incredibly powerful scenes in Act 2, as the impact of Adrian’s decision begins to be felt by both partners and those around them. And in the intimate setting of Trafalgar Studios, with the audience seated on three sides of Ellan Parry’s set, these emotions feel even more intense than they did first time around. With the actors only inches away – I was sitting so close to Alice as the play began that if I’d wanted to I could have read the email she was nervously drafting to her parents – Rotterdam feels less like a play and more like we’ve stumbled into the couple’s flat to intrude on some very private moments.

The original cast of four transfer with the production. Ed Eales-White provides comic relief, but also a voice of reason, as Alice’s affable ex Josh. It’s impossible not to like Josh, whose support is constant and unconditional, no matter what it costs him. Jessica Clark’s plain-speaking free spirit Lelani is great fun and more than a little bonkers, but with a touching vulnerability we only get to see in the play’s dying moments (and even then her exit line still gets one of the biggest laughs of the night).

Photo credit: Piers Foley
Photo credit: Piers Foley

But the show’s most powerful performances come from Alice McCarthy and Anna Martine. As Alice, McCarthy captures both the humour of the repressed Brit struggling to process emotions and experiences way out of her comfort zone, and the devastation of a lover whose world’s been turned upside down by forces out of her control. Anna Martine plays two roles in one, and her transition from Fiona to Adrian is exquisitely handled; as Alice herself points out at one point, her partner changes just enough to become someone different, but not enough for her to forget the person she knew. It’s a tricky balance to find, but Martine nails it and in doing so, manages to ensure we care just as much about Adrian in Act 2 as we did about Fiona in Act 1.

Aside from one scene in the pub that starts to feel a bit like a lesson in transgender terminology, Brittain doesn’t try to preach, or to tell us who’s right or wrong. Both Alice and Adrian have faults, and both at times handle the situation disastrously – but that’s far more believable than the alternative, and the play is all the more powerful for its honesty, however uncomfortable that honesty may be to watch.

Rotterdam is great entertainment, but it’s far more than that, of course; it’s the launch pad for an important discussion about the fluidity of gender and sexuality, and the nature of relationships in general – not just with lovers, but with friends and family too. (It’s particularly interesting to consider how the story might have been different had the characters been in the UK instead of far from home.) Stunning performances of a fantastic script make this a must-see production.

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