Review: What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors at the King’s Head Theatre

Ask pretty much anyone, and if we’re really honest we’ll probably admit to some preconceived ideas about the causes of homelessness. We might mention drugs, alcohol, mental illness, criminal records, domestic abuse… All problems we don’t – and assume never will – face ourselves.

It’s not entirely our fault; the media plays a significant role in shaping society’s view of homelessness, and the more horrors someone has been through on the way to losing their home, the more sympathetic – and therefore interesting – their story. But it also places the homeless at even more of a distance from those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads and a nice warm bed to go home to. We may shake our heads at the sadness of the story; we may even buy someone a coffee or make a donation to a homelessness charity – but then we go on our way, safe in the knowledge theirs isn’t a problem we’ll ever face ourselves.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

The truth is, though, homelessness isn’t necessarily the result of a dramatic crisis; sometimes it’s simply the product of a wrong move here or there. Molly, the central character in What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors, doesn’t quite know how she ended up homeless; she didn’t even fully register that she was for a good two weeks after being evicted. Maybe it’s because she was bullied at school. Or because she didn’t go out with that guy from her class. Maybe because her dad left, or her mum died, or she decided not to go to uni. Maybe it’s because of a combination of these, or something else entirely.

Molly’s played by Emma Bentley, who wrote the show along with Calum Finlay, and whose engaging performance quickly wins us over as she attempts to make sense of where she went wrong. Articulate, funny and resilient, Molly’s completely honest about her own lapses of judgment and the slow disintegration of her life – even before she ends up on the street in a thunderstorm, messaging a random guy on Tinder just to have somewhere to stay the night. While not solely a victim of circumstance, she also doesn’t do anything obviously wrong; she’s not a drug addict, or a criminal – she’s just like anyone else, and this relatability is both enjoyable and rather unsettling.

The Tinder scene is just one reference to technology in a show that makes frequent use of it. Images from Molly’s phone are projected on to a sheet at the back of Rasa Selemonavičiūtė’s set, and there’s inventive use made of a webcam to take us on a tour of the home that exists now only as a memory. Katharina Reinthaller’s production also introduces several other characters to the story through the use of audio clips, with which Molly interacts throughout the play. It’s an ambitious project, and not without an element of risk, but it pays off; the inclusion of these extra characters helps to build up a more complete picture of Molly’s life and relationships, and also emphasises her loneliness once all those voices fall silent.

Photo credit: Caz Dyer

Developed with the benefit of Emma Bentley’s volunteering experience at St Mungo’s, the play also has a feeling of authenticity, particularly when Molly starts sharing details about her current state of “purgatory”, as she waits to find out if she’ll get permanent housing or end up back on the street. In a series of short scenes, we also learn about the lengthy, repetitive bureaucratic process she had to go through just to get temporary accommodation. With her fate out of her hands, all she can do is wait and hope for the best.

What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors clearly aims to make us think, but resists the temptation to preach or tell us what to do. Instead, by sharing one person’s story, the show invites us to process for ourselves the uncomfortable home truth at its heart: but for a different decision somewhere along the road, Molly could have been – and could still be – any one of us.

Catch What Goes On In Front Of Closed Doors at Playbox Theatre, Warwick, on 16th March and at Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford Playhouse, on 19th and 20th April.

Review: East at King’s Head Theatre

East begins with a cacophonous rendition of East End classic, My Old Man Said Follow The Van, with each of the five actors singing at different speeds and in different keys. It’s an unconventional opening to a play that we quickly realise doesn’t believe in compromise; much like its characters, and the famously distinctive area of London in which it’s set, Steven Berkoff’s 1975 play – which returns for the first time to its original London home at the King’s Head, directed by Jessica Lazar – has its own unique personality and makes no apology for the brutal, foul-mouthed honesty with which it depicts East End life.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

The story – such as it is – centres predominantly around two friends, Les (Jack Condon) and Mike (James Craze), whose first encounter sees them beat each other to a bloody pulp after Les looks the wrong way at Mike’s girlfriend Sylv (Boadicea Ricketts). We then meet Mike’s parents (Debra Penny and Russell Barnett), a faded, loveless couple whose only pleasure seems to come from watching TV, reminiscing on times past and – in Dad’s case – lecturing the family on his right-wing views.

From there, the play abandons any pretence at a linear narrative, instead painting a series of pictures of the characters’ lives through a mix of heartfelt soliloquies, physical set pieces and comedic silent movie sequences – all performed by an outstanding cast to a live piano soundtrack played by musical director Carol Arnopp. The action jumps backwards and forwards in time, spanning several years, and keeps us constantly off balance as we try to keep up with the relentless pace of it all.

Berkoff’s language is a fascinating blend of Shakespearean and contemporary, laced with rhyming slang, references to East London locations, and enough expletives to turn the air well and truly blue. His characters are all frequently reprehensible, but also display a deep dissatisfaction with their lives that goes some way to winning our sympathy. Boadicea Ricketts’ Sylv leads the way in the hope for change, reflecting wistfully on a woman’s role in a male-dominated world, in a speech that could (to society’s discredit) have been written yesterday instead of 30 years ago. Jack Condon cuts a pathetic figure as Les – constantly left out, making jokes that don’t quite hit the mark, and ultimately betrayed by his own loneliness – with Debra Penny’s Mum similarly unfulfilled as she observes her sleeping husband and remembers with apparent satisfaction an incident at the local cinema that should have left her horrified.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

East is a difficult play to pin down – at times funny, at others shocking, it has an underlying current of frustration that explodes in a variety of ways, from sex to violence to dodgy dancing (and, on one occasion, flying baked beans). The cast excel in physically and emotionally demanding roles, and the production maintains a constant drive and energy from the first moment to the last – all the more impressive given the lack of flow in the narrative. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea; if you’re easily offended then you may want to steer clear. But for anyone who’s excited by bold, striking theatre that’s not afraid to go its own way, this is a must-see.

East is at the King’s Head Theatre until 3rd February.

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: Liam Joseph, PLUTO

Liam Joseph and Callum O’Brien met when they were working Front of House together at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Now co-founders of their own company, Moonchild Theatre, this month they return to London with their acclaimed first production, PLUTO.

PLUTO tells the story of the titular former planet during the period in which he finds out he is no longer a planet,” says Liam, who plays Pluto. “We follow his story as he battles with an identity crisis and his moon Charon tries her best to keep his spirits high. The show is an allegorical examination of LGBT issues that are still rampant in the world today.”

Liam explains that the story of PLUTO was inspired by the now notorious anti-LGBT laws passed in North Carolina last year, which required transgender people to use the restrooms that matched their birth certificate. “On the surface this would seem an unlikely source to inspire a play about the former planet Pluto,” he admits. “However, the story of a governing body dictating the personal identity of others and actively doing harm in the process, upon closer inspection, does in fact bear a remarkable similarity to that of our fallen cosmic comrade. The toilets of North Carolina have been exchanged for the constellations of the night sky. In lieu of the transgender population there is a distant planet battling with his identity.

Photo credit: Dave Bird

“Although our story is not limited specifically to transgender struggles, these ongoing issues – and many like it – helped develop the themes of identity, labelling and loneliness that form the emotional crux of PLUTO. This play is a marriage of two enormous but previously unrelated themes; the LGBTQ+ experience in today’s society and the beautiful, incomprehensible mysteries of space.”

The show was last performed in April at Baron’s Court Theatre, where Millennial London called it “an impressive first production of a new play that captures many important issues in today’s world”. Now returning as part of the Camden Fringe, the show’s undergone some changes: “As we’re now performing as part of a festival run, the show had to be adapted to suit the new working environment,” explains Liam. “With strict get in and get out times, it was necessary for us to cut the run time of the play from eighty minutes to one hour. It used to be bookended by a prologue and epilogue of human characters, to bring the audience back down to earth – literally – but that’s completely gone now.

“It’s much more streamlined and serious, focusing more on the effect of labels and the issues that labels cause in society. And it also opens up a whole new level to the relationship between Pluto and Charon, the icy twins who live in the furthest reaches of the solar system. Completely removed from the solar system, one wants to escape their one-billion-year solitude and the other wants to stay in their ‘safe oasis of anxiety’. Naturally this causes catastrophic tension…”

Despite these changes in structure, the message and spirit of the piece has remained intact: “The show is generally aimed at a millennial/queer audience whose experiences we hope the show manages to capture,” says Liam. “We are a theatre company composed of relatively young individuals and so it was in our interest to create theatre that appealed to us as audience members.

“I think Callum would agree in saying it’s a fable for the millennial; understand that this story is happening now in London as we speak. So many young millennials struggle with being labelled something by ‘words on a page’ and it affects them deeply. We can all do something by accepting each other for who we are: human beings. Simple as that.”

Photo credit: Dave Bird

 

The foundation of Moonchild Theatre came about when the two friends and colleagues realised they’d rather be on the stage than in front of it. “I wanted to be on stage so I asked Callum to write me a play – that’s it!” says Liam. “Over time, we’ve seen PLUTO and ultimately our ethos grow and change, but our aim is to create ‘Now Theatre’, dealing with issues that society’s happy to brush under the rug. We don’t want to solve them, we want people to be aware of them and be able to engage and debate these issues.

“The whole process has been a huge surprise. We only wanted to put a play on and now it’s turned into a successful theatre company with fans and regulars. We were surprised about how many people wanted to see PLUTO at the Baron’s Court and how well it was received by the reviewers.

“All in all, to be able to perform at the King’s Head Theatre, the most prestigious gay theatre in the world, and The Cockpit this summer, we’ve done and achieved a lot more than we’d ever hoped for. The future is ours!”

See PLUTO tonight (1st August) at the King’s Head Theatre or book for the Cockpit Theatre from 14th-17th August.

Review: Wet Bread at the King’s Head Theatre

If you’ve found yourself constantly surprised and disappointed over the last twelve months by the results of public votes, you’re not alone; Adele, the protagonist in Tom Glover’s Wet Bread, knows exactly how you feel. A lifelong campaigner, she’s saying and doing all the right things – helping the homeless, going on fun runs, organising sit-ins against fracking (despite not knowing exactly what it is), and most importantly looking down her nose at Tories, Brexiteers, and indeed anyone who doesn’t agree with her. And if that means her relationship with her family is in tatters, she’s ditched the man of her dreams because he eats meat, and the alcoholic homeless guy staying in her flat won’t stop calling her Twinkletits – well, that’s just the price that needs to be paid for being a good person. Right?

Performed by Morag Sims, Wet Bread is simultaneously very funny and often slightly uncomfortable viewing, because while many of the scenarios are just a bit too ridiculous to be realistic, they still touch a nerve in a world where political arguments all too often become personal, and rage just as fiercely on Twitter as they do in Parliament. Adele’s not a bad person; she genuinely longs to change the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but in defending her own beliefs, she’s inadvertently become as intolerant and judgmental as the classic “evil Tory” she’s fighting against. Worse, she’s been so busy fighting everybody that she’s lost sight of what’s going on with the people closest to her.

The play isn’t a criticism of left-wing politics – or right-wing, either; despite Adele’s bitter diatribes against – well, everyone – there’s no suggestion that one side of the political divide is better than the other. If anything, the play’s trying to tone down our increasingly urgent need to politicise anything and everything that happens, and to point out how ridiculous both sides can be. None of which means we have to give up our principles – but maybe, Glover suggests, we should be focusing more on what unites us than on what drives us apart; to stop making everything into a battle and instead try to change the world in small, positive ways.

Sims comfortably owns the stage, skipping through an array of characters, from an enthusiastic fun run organiser (“yay, cancer!”) to Adele’s devastated and petulant niece, who’s just learnt that her birthday present is a goat – and that she doesn’t even get to keep it. Adele herself is a bit like the Bridget Jones of politics: loveable but a bit of a fool, quick to overreact and always taking things just a little too far. It’s a brilliant comedy performance, but a bittersweet finale is delivered with genuine sincerity to ensure Glover’s point is driven home.

Wet Bread is a lot of fun, but it should also make us stop and think – not about what our political views are, but rather why we have them and how we wield them. The main character may in this case be a leftie, but there’s plenty of entertainment and education in this 60-minute production for audiences of all persuasions.


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: Stephanie Martin, Bridle

Now in its third year, new writing showcase #Festival47 kicks off next week at the King’s Head Theatre. Among 19 shows featured in the programme is Bridle from Clamour Theatre, a contemporary satire on female sexuality and the attempts to control it, written by Stephanie Martin.

Bridle is about challenging and rewriting narratives and perspectives on female sexuality and behaviour,” explains Stephanie, who also performs in the show. “It’s about desire, heartbreak, shame, fathers, violence, pornography, millennial culture. It’s about how female sexuality and behaviour are subtly policed and judged.”

Bridle marks Stephanie’s debut as a writer: “I wrote it last May, inspired by the disparity between the people I know in real life and the tropes of behaviour that are defined as ‘good’ or ‘proper’,” she says. “We shared the show for the first time, as a full length piece, at the brilliant Camden People’s Theatre hotbed Festival of Sex in April. Our first sharing saw me performing the piece with other actors, Elissa Churchill and Charlotte Clitherow, and so #Festival47 will be the first time I’ve ever performed it solo – I’ll be heartbroken/lonely and bored without the other two.

“As Bridle is the first thing I’ve ever written, I’m also extremely grateful to EJ and Pip at Pluck Productions, Georgie and Will at Flux Theatre and the Emerge Night, as well as Nastazja Somers and her HerStory baby, for first programming excerpts of Bridle as part of their respective new writing nights in November and December 2016. These three companies are a great example of London’s new writing scene, giving opportunities, support and confidence to new writers and makers.”

Bridle may be about women, but that doesn’t mean it’s only a show for women. “Absolutely not, it’s a show for all,” says Stephanie. “I personally believe we all exist as a gorgeous mismatch of the male and the female, so come as you are and enjoy. Some of the ‘male’ audiences of the past performances seemed a little disconnected or in some way to blame for some of Bridle, which I didn’t predict or imagine at all.

“I want us to all remove shame from our lives, to feel comforted that lots of us go through the same things, to feel okay about being weird and vulnerable. And to laugh at me and laugh at all of us.”

Clamour Theatre describe themselves as “raw, excited and all about today”. Stephanie explains, “We’ve formed to explore new perspectives, new characters, new stories in raw, explosive and enjoyable ways. We love humour, we love energy and we like looking at new stories and/or re-examining the status quo.”

Stephanie will be performing the show at the King’s Head on 11th, 12th and 16th July at 9.30pm. “It’s an honour to be programmed as part of the festival and defined as part of the ‘future of the theatre’, especially by a theatre with a reputation like the King’s Head,” she says. “The rest of the festival line-up looks fab too and we’re looking forward to seeing the other companies. I’ve seen such a huge variety of fab, quality work at King’s Head over the last 4 or 5 years so looking forward to being on that stage, too.”

Book now for Bridle at the King’s Head Theatre, 10th-16th July.