Review: The Fire Raisers at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

The Fire Raisers was written by Swiss playwright Max Frisch in 1948, reportedly as a response to the Communist takeover in Prague – though the play never specifically references that event. Instead, it takes as its setting the home of respected middle-class businessman Gottlieb Biedermann, whose town has recently been targeted by serial arsonists. Biedermann is one of the first to speak out against the attacks – but when two fire raisers talk their way into his home, making absolutely no secret of their intention to burn it down, he flat-out refuses to acknowledge the truth that’s right in front of his eyes.

Described by Frisch as a “lesson without teaching”, the allegorical play can be seen as a comment on any number of 20th or 21st century political events that have seen even the most respectable citizens turn a blind eye to blatant wrongdoing. It’s left to the audience, however, to decide specifically where and how we apply that message. This new production by Theatre of Heaven and Hell is similarly non-specific – although the inclusion of original songs by director Michael Ward does give the play at times an unnecessarily didactic feel, particularly during a rather heavy-handed and superfluous final number.

The cast of actor-musicians generally manage the comedic chaos well, with strong central performances in particular from Darren Ruston as Biedermann, and Marius Clements and Jake W Francis as the two would-be arsonists. Ruston’s Biedermann is very much the everyman, despite his many flaws, and even as we laugh at his stubborn stupidity, we can understand – if not condone – why he behaves as he does. When he turns to the audience and demands to know what we would have done in his shoes, it’s a particularly uncomfortable moment for everyone.

Similarly, we can’t help but be charmed by Clements and Francis, even though we know full well they’re up to no good. Each time they openly admit they’re plotting to burn down Biedermann’s house, we laugh along with both them and their victim because it seems so ludicrous; who would confess such a thing if they really meant to do it? Watching them, we’re reminded of those leaders who use their charisma and the appearance of buffoonery to slip under the radar (in keeping with the spirit of the play, I won’t name names – but I think we can all think of a couple of examples…).

At once an enjoyable absurdist comedy and a cautionary political parable, The Fire Raisers is a fun show with a bit of an edge. There are times when the production feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to get its point across, rather than allowing Frisch’s script to speak for itself – but that grumble aside the play has lots to say and, for the most part, says it well.

The Fire Raisers is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 17th November.

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Review: Abducting Diana at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

The media has long had the power to influence (some might say manipulate) our hearts and minds – but 2018 seems a particularly relevant moment for a revival of Dario Fo’s Abducting Diana, if only to prove that we’ve learnt nothing since the play was first written in 1986.

Media tycoon Diana Forbes McKaye is in the middle of a romantic liaison with a guy called Kevin when she’s kidnapped by three masked figures. However, she quickly turns the tables on her incompetent abductors and concocts a plan to cut out the middleman, make them all rich, and save her own skin. Quite straightforward, you might think. Except that Diana isn’t really Diana, Kevin isn’t really Kevin, there’s a man in the fridge with electrodes attached to his halluxes (that’s his big toes to you and me)… and where did that priest with the big nose come from?

As you might imagine, everything gets rather chaotic, rather quickly, with existing characters switching allegiances, and new ones popping up just when you thought the story couldn’t get any more complicated. Such is the air of general mayhem that the play almost forgets to make its point, and the characters have to return to the stage in the final moments to remind us why we’re all there – namely, corruption in high places and the exploitation of the working classes (in this scenario the hapless kidnappers, who seem to come out of every allegiance a bit worse off).

The company are enthusiastic and deliver some strong comedy performances, although in all but two cases, Fo’s characters don’t give them a huge amount of material to work with. As the only one of the three kidnappers we really get to know, Marius Clements has the thankless task of delivering most of his lines from inside a fridge, but rises to the occasion with spot-on comic timing. And Elena Clements plays Diana with cool sophistication and withering sarcasm, keeping her head when all around her are losing theirs – which has the unfortunate side effect of leaving us a bit confused over whether we’re supposed to cheer or boo her resourcefulness.

There are a few issues with Michael Ward’s production; not all the chaos feels entirely deliberate, and there are times – particularly when everyone’s on stage at once – when pace and volume could both come down a notch to ensure the audience is able to keep up with the plot’s more complex twists and turns. It’s also not very clear when the play is set; some of the biggest laughs are inspired by the kidnappers donning masks that feature the faces of Trump, Farage, Boris and the like – but while these topical references to the ruling elite make perfect sense in light of the play’s message, they feel confusingly out of place in a room where people still use typewriters, tape recorders and cheque books.

If you’re after sharp political commentary, Abducting Diana is possibly not the play you’re looking for. What it does offer, however, is high-energy, absurdist fun, performed by a committed cast who are obviously enjoying themselves immensely. Though at times a little unpolished, the play promises an hour of farcical mayhem, and on that score it certainly delivers.

Abducting Diana is at the Hen and Chickens Theatre until 17th March.

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Review: Macbeeth at The Hen and Chickens

Red Squash Theatre’s Macbeeth is, as the title suggests, Macbeth – just not quite as we know it. In keeping (for the most part) with Shakespeare’s intended plot, the play is still as murdery as ever; the difference is in this version there are a lot more laughs, along with a distinctly North American sounding Macbeth, a very questionable beard, and a man called Derek. Oh, and there are just three actors playing – well, everyone.

Photo credit: Robbie Ewing

As you might expect, it’s all extremely silly (in fact, a voiceover before the show warns us of “interpretations of Shakespeare some audience members may find infantile”) and more than a little chaotic – but before any Shakespeare scholars runs for the hills in horror, a word of reassurance: the three actors all clearly not only know what they’re doing, but do it very well. Though heavily edited to fit the whole story into just an hour, all the essentials of the script are there and delivered flawlessly by Rory Fairbairn (who plays all the witches, Duncan and Macduff among a multitude of roles), Holly McFarlane (Banquo, Lady Macbeth, Malcolm and more) and Alexander Tol (Macbeth, Fleance and others). It might be Shakespeare lite, but it’s very much still Shakespeare; the comedy aspect comes not from changing the story but from taking to extremes what’s already there.

This includes the characters – Holly McFarlane and Alexander Tol as the Macbeths in particular take their roles of bossy wife and cowed husband extremely seriously, and Rory Fairbairn’s kindly but blissfully oblivious King Duncan is also a hit – as well as the story itself, which is, after all, essentially one long killing spree based on the word of three strange women in the woods. But the majority of the humour springs from the production itself, which plays throughout on the multi-roling of actors, and the rudimentary set and props they have to work with (the appearance of dead Banquo at Macbeth’s feast is particularly creative). There are also a few jokes at the expense of the actors, which, Macbeth’s accent aside, aren’t really borne out in their very able performances – but this is a small quibble and certainly doesn’t mar the play’s unstoppable entertainment value.

Photo credit: Robbie Ewing

If you’ve ever felt Shakespeare was a bit heavy, Macbeeth may well change your mind. While it undoubtedly includes some elements the play’s writer might have regarded with some suspicion (hello, magic eight ball) its heart is in the right place and the production still delivers on its promise of “95% actual Shakespeare”. Most importantly, it’s also great fun, bringing us organised chaos that doesn’t outstay its welcome and allowing its cast to showcase their talents for both comedy and tragedy. Highly recommended for an enjoyably silly night out.


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Review: Netherbard at the Hen and Chickens Theatre

Why go and see one Shakespeare play when you can see several all at once? In Netherbard, the debut show from Budding Rose Productions, Kate (Rosemary Berkon), Amy (Tayla Kenyon) and Lena (Katrina Allen) have been cast as the three witches in Macbeth. In between rehearsals they take time out to moan about Abby (Lucinda Turner), who’s snatched the role of Lady Macbeth from under Kate’s nose – along with Lena’s boyfriend and Amy’s dream role in Eastenders.

Their light-hearted banter takes an unexpectedly dark turn when Abby herself arrives, and the trio realise they’re no longer rehearsing Macbeth, but King Lear. By the time they realise what’s happened and why, there’s no going back, and so begins a mad chase through a selection of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, uncovering a tale of envy and ambition the Bard himself would be proud of. The only difference is that here the women are taking their destiny into their own hands, instead of slinking off to die quietly backstage while the men do the fighting.

Even the most diehard fan would have to admit women don’t always get a great deal in Shakespeare’s world, so it’s refreshing to see the girls stepping into the spotlight and taking on some meatier roles. Despite some sombre themes and nefarious deeds, Netherbard is very much a comedy, and under Rosie Snell’s direction the energy never wavers. The cast are clearly enjoying themselves and keep pace well with the rapid-fire dialogue – though it’s not always so easy for the audience to keep up, particularly later in the play when things start to get a bit chaotic and the actors are talking over each other. At just a couple of minutes under an hour, it’s all over very quickly, but manages to pack a lot of action into that brief time, and I would have happily stayed for more.

Janice Hallett’s lively comedy is great fun for Shakespeare fans, and a perfect opportunity for those who want to show off by identifying all the famous speeches that come up in the script (although it is possible to cheat a bit thanks to Greg Spong’s set, which is full of clues – some obvious, some less so). But the play’s equally enjoyable for lovers of Eastenders or reality TV where, let’s be honest, you’re just as likely to find people stabbing each other in the back as in any Shakespearean tragedy. 

Netherbard is an impressive debut from an exciting new female-led company. It’s a shame the initial run was just two days, but hopefully it’s not the last we’ve seen of this offbeat tribute to Shakespeare and the cut-throat world of showbiz.


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Review: The Very Perry Show at the Hen and Chickens

People are odd. Which is a good thing; if we were all completely normal, life would be very dull. You only have to tune into a neighbour’s conversation on the train, or look at the other customers in a cafe to appreciate how wonderfully weird human beings are.

Kate Perry knows this more than most. She likes to collect people – and then share them in all their delightful eccentricity. So it is that we come to meet the likes of Carmel, a pensioner with a Ken Barlow obsession; Jimmy, a pigeon fancier from Bolton; and Bridget, a little girl making friends – whether they like it or not – with her fellow passengers on a flight to the States. These are just three of the characters brought to life in the comedy monologues of The Very Perry Show, a fun-filled one-woman performance that stops off in London this week on its way to New York.

Directed by Jeremy Stockwell, the show takes a no frills approach; each character has one or two accessories to differentiate them visually from the rest, but they’re really just a bonus thanks to Kate Perry’s talent for embodying completely each distinct personality. The affection she feels for each of her creations is obvious – even Suzie, a bored twelve-year-old from Surrey who’s just been expelled (again), and to pass the time plies her mother with tranquillisers, then calmly films the ensuing carnage for a web series she likes to call Mummy on the Brink.

That slightly dark episode aside, all the characters are interesting and lovable in their own ways (though in Bridget’s case, there’s a big difference between ten minutes in a theatre and several hours on a plane). And of course there are a lot of laughs, even in the stories we might not expect to be that amusing – like Marie, who’s reminiscing about the day she heard her father had died; not a cheerful topic, yet Marie ultimately ends up getting one of the biggest laughs of the night.

The final character in the collection is Mary Peachy-Bender, an Amish wife and mother of “six childrens” (and she does not want any more). The extreme circumstances in which Mary lives offer plenty of opportunities for comedy, but there’s also a sadness to this character as she imagines a different life, and that makes her somehow the most believable of them all.

Kate Perry is a great performer – quite apart from her talent for creating characters we can both relate to and laugh at, as a host she’s warm and inviting, addressing the audience directly but not in a way that will make anyone uncomfortable. The show is an hour of good, clean fun that moves along at a gentle pace without ever losing our interest, and proves that there really are interesting characters everywhere if you take a look around.


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