Review: Grotty at the Bunker Theatre

As tours go, this one is not for the faint-hearted. Izzy Tennyson’s aptly named Grotty provides a rare opportunity to explore East London’s lesbian scene, but avoids any temptation to romanticise; this trip is not an advertisement, but a warts and all depiction of a community rarely seen on stage.

Our guide is 22-year-old Rigby, played by Tennyson, who’s relatively new to this world herself and experiencing something of a baptism of fire. As the play begins, she’s in a relationship with Toad (Rebekah Hinds), who’s older, more experienced and in possession of a significant amount of baggage. This includes ex-lover Natty (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), a persistent and unwelcome presence in Rigby’s life, and former fiancée Witch (Grace Chilton), an outcast whose dark sexual proclivities are the stuff of legend. Almost inevitably, it’s not long before Rigby and Witch’s paths cross, marking a new stage in Rigby’s emotional and sexual education, and establishing a complex triangular situation that is, to use her own word, more than a little grotty.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Rigby herself is a fascinating creation: a twitchy, awkward figure who’s unafraid when addressing the audience to offer a sharp-tongued critique of both lesbian culture and the various personalities she meets within it, but often falls silent when joined by other characters who “outrank” her. Despite the community’s marginalised status both in society as a whole and within LGBTQ circles, there’s very little sense of unity or mutual support among its members, apart from when mocking outsiders who pretend to be gay because they think it makes them look cool. Instead Tennyson paints a picture of a claustrophobic, hierarchical world where everyone knows everybody else’s business – a sensation emphasised by Hannah Hauer-King’s direction, which places Rigby at the centre while the other characters observe her in silence from each side of the stage.

While the messy situation between Rigby, Toad and Witch forms the core of the narrative, the five-strong cast actually plays a total of nine characters between them, including straight friend Kate; a potential new love interest, Elliot, whose appeal seems to lie largely in the opportunity for Rigby to take the lead for once; and Dr Alexandra, whose analysis concludes that her patient is “suicidal, but not suicidal enough” to warrant treatment. There’s also a brief appearance from Clare Gollop as Rigby’s mother, in a late twist that sheds an interesting new light on all that’s gone before. We learn little about any of these women, who in many ways are more caricature than fully developed characters, but they do allow us a further insight into Rigby’s character, her mental health, and the ways in which she adapts her personality and manner to each new interaction in her quest to belong.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

There are some aspects of the play that don’t completely work: many of Rigby’s monologues are delivered so quickly that it’s hard to keep up or fully appreciate the savage humour of Tennyson’s writing, and the plot ends abruptly just as it reaches an interesting potential turning point (perhaps a sequel in the making?). That said, a look around at audience reactions is enough to confirm that Grotty does what it sets out to do: bring an often overlooked subculture into the spotlight in a way that’s both educational and inclusive.

Grotty is at the Bunker Theatre until 26th May.

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: Turkey at The Hope Theatre

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but it’s been difficult to avoid the five-star hype surrounding Frankie Meredith’s debut play Turkey – so to say I went in with high expectations is a bit of an understatement. Fortunately, those expectations were more than met by this heartbreaking story of a young woman so desperate for a child she’s willing to risk everything – and everyone – to get it. Instantly gripping, a brilliant script, talented cast and skilful direction by Niall Phillips draw us into the lives of all three characters, and the play feels much shorter than its one-hour running time.

Madeline wants to have a baby with her girlfriend Toni – but first, they need to locate the necessary, ahem, ingredients. After an attempt to ask Toni’s brothers ends in disaster, Maddie has another candidate in mind: her dead ex-boyfriend’s dad, Michael. Shrugging off Toni’s concerns about her motives, she pays him a visit – and in doing so sets in motion a chain of events that might give her the one thing she always wanted… but at what cost?

Although the play, which was inspired by real events, is about a gay couple and sheds light on the challenges they face in their mission to become parents – challenges most heterosexual couples will never have to even think about – ultimately Turkey is so successful because there’s a lot more to all the characters than just their sexuality. Everyday dilemmas like which veg to buy, what to wear for a job interview and the struggle to get over the loss of a loved one mean all three are easy to relate to, and while we may not be able to like or support the things they do, we can at least understand where they’re coming from.

This is particularly true in the case of Madeline, largely thanks to Pevyand Sadeghian’s devastating performance. By rights, we should hate her, and while she undoubtedly causes much of her own – and others’ – suffering, she’s also totally convincing in both her love for Toni and her confusion over who she really is; it’s obvious that none of the damage she causes is intentional, but merely a byproduct of her personal turmoil.

At the other end of the scale, Harriet Green is instantly likeable as Toni. Bright, funny and devoted to both her job as a teacher and her domestic life with Madeline, she’s not particularly fussed about having a baby, but is willing to go along with it because she knows how much it means to her partner – a compromise that ultimately leaves her wide open to getting hurt. And finally, there’s Michael, played by Cameron Robertson, a “not quite yet ‘old’ older man”, who’s still broken by the loss of his son twelve years earlier. His obvious joy at having Madeline back in his life, however unexpectedly, is heartbreakingly poignant, even though we can see the warning signs of what’s about to happen a mile away.

Director Niall Phillips keeps the action moving along at a rapid pace, with short, sharp bursts of rock music separating each scene from the next. The cast all remain on stage throughout, their constant presence mere inches from the audience helping to compound the sense of impending doom, as events spiral out of Madeline’s control and her two lives come ever closer to collision.

Turkey may be Frankie Meredith’s first full length play, but let’s hope it’s not the last. A beautifully drawn study of human desperation, it’s a triumph on just about every level; I only wish it hadn’t ended so soon.


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: Frankie Meredith, Turkey

Frankie Meredith makes her writing debut this month with Turkey, which opens at The Hope Theatre on 26th September. Directed by Lonesome Schoolboy Productions’ Niall Phillips, it’s a story about one woman’s overwhelming desire to have a baby with her girlfriend – and the lengths to which she’s willing to go to get what she wants.

Turkey explores whether this innate need stems from her own biological clock, a grief she experienced as a teen or the expectation to be seen as ‘normal’,” explains Frankie. “It looks at her ability to risk and ruin everything in her life to get the child she so strongly yearns for.”

Though the characters are fictional, Frankie’s inspiration for Turkey was a true story: “It was written when I was on the Soho Theatre Young Writers Lab and started out as a six page exercise in scene structure. They told us to write a story based on an old family tale or something that happened within our family. It then became the play that I developed while I was on the course.

“I told the person the story is based on very recently, and they’re thrilled – luckily.”

Frankie feels this is a particularly important story to tell because it confronts issues people otherwise may not think about: “Gay couples having babies is talked about, but what about the morals or dilemmas they face on where they get the sperm from? If you don’t have the money to go to a posh west London clinic who on earth are you going to ask to give you their sperm? Grief is also a big part of this play. It is an issue all the characters are facing and has a huge impact on many of their decisions and actions.”

The play’s central character, Madeline, is far from perfect, and Frankie’s hoping audiences will be able to see past that and understand why she behaves the way she does. “I’ve placed a really strong, manipulative, flawed female at the helm of this play and I want people to empathise with her,” she says. “So often we are quick to label women ‘mental’ or ‘crazy’ when they are just doing what needs to be done to get what they want. Madeline doesn’t commit any crimes, she isn’t evil, she’s just human. I would like audiences to not judge her for what she does.

“The play’s also funny – I hope – and relatable. There’s a lot of food and Netflix references to keep it all relevant. And though we don’t all identify with turkey basting, love, grief and desire are all emotions we experience and connect with – so there will be some part of this play that is relatable and relevant to you.”

Having been very involved in the casting process, Frankie is looking forward to seeing the three actors – Pevyand Sadeghian, Cameron Robertson and Harriet Green – bring her words to life on stage. “The cast are phenomenal! I’m so excited to see what they do with the text. Pevyand (Madeline) we found through an open casting; she was actually the first one through the door and we fell in love with her. Cameron Robertson has worked with Niall before, and Niall kept telling me what a wonderful Michael he would make – he was not wrong. He came in to read and was just perfect.

“Finally Harriet Green and I trained at drama school together, she has read numerous drafts of Turkey and was someone I’d go to for help when developing. We asked her to do a self tape and she met Niall for a coffee and a read through. I can’t wait to see what she does with Toni, she has a real magnetism and truth to her performances.”

Frankie herself became involved with Lonesome Schoolboy earlier this year. “I sent this script to Niall and he asked to meet me for a coffee,” she explains. “We met a couple of days later and almost immediately got the ball rolling on staging Turkey. He has a great relationship with Matthew Parker at The Hope and soon we were chatting to him about when Turkey could be on.

“We did a few R&Ds together to develop the script as well as use it as a way to meet new actors. Niall’s energy in a rehearsal or workshop space is pretty special. I’m sure this is the start of a long and happy working relationship.”

Besides Turkey, Frankie has several other projects on the go: “I’ve just finished the first drafts of a couple of scripts. The next step is to get some actors in a room to play around with them and develop the texts further. I’m also currently editing a web series I wrote and directed with my production company MapleRoad Productions. It’s called Becoming Danish and should hit screens early 2018!

“And my first children’s show Saving Peter, about Wendy going back to Neverland to rescue Peter, is on at Theatre N16 in Balham in the last week of October, so we’re gearing up to get started on that.”

Book now for Turkey at The Hope Theatre from 26th September-14th October.

Review: Pluto at the Cockpit Theatre

Who among us didn’t feel a little bit sad when Pluto lost its planetary status back in 2006? Partly because it messed up the mnemonic we all learnt at school (mine was Some Men Very Easily Make Jam Sandwiches Under No Pressure, which just doesn’t work without the P) but mostly because it just all seemed a bit unnecessarily harsh. Poor old Pluto’s up there minding his own business, doing what he’s always done, and down here on Earth someone’s tweaked a few rules and suddenly he no longer makes the grade. And to add insult to injury, he didn’t even ask to be part of our solar system in the first place.

This is the premise for Moonchild Theatre’s debut show, in which a depressed Pluto (Liam Joseph) struggles to come to terms with his sudden change in status, despite the best efforts of his devoted and kind-hearted moon Charon (Charlotte Price) – and the stripper she “forgot” to cancel (Thomas Lovell) – to cheer him up. Why is there a stripper there, you may ask? Well, because Neptune, Pluto’s next door neighbour, tricked him into having a party to celebrate what he thought was going to be an exciting announcement from NASA. And then didn’t show up. Along with all the other planets.

Photo credit: Dave Bird
Writer and director Callum O’Brien’s idea of presenting Pluto and friends as people with unique personalities, emotions and even sexualities presents plenty of comic opportunities (I particularly enjoyed the shared obsession with Sigourney Weaver). But it also makes their plight a lot easier to relate to, and the play has some really moving moments – largely due to the fact we’re not just talking about planets here. The show was inspired by the ongoing controversy in the USA over transgender bathroom laws, and from this very specific starting point explores the more general theme of individuals being labelled according to someone else’s world – or in this case, solar system – view, and the damaging effects this can have on their mental health and relationships.

The three characters complement each other well, in a story that balances Pluto’s persistent gloom against Charon’s energy and perkiness, and then throws in the Stripper to mix things up. The first outsider to visit in, presumably, a really long time, he brings with him all the prejudices they feared, but also a new, different energy that affects the two friends in contrasting ways and leads the play to a somewhat subdued and ambiguous conclusion.

Perhaps in a nod to their relative youth within Earth’s view of the solar system (Pluto was only discovered in 1930), both Liam Joseph and Charlotte Price bring a childlike energy to their roles – he’s pouting and petulant; she’s full of enthusiasm and a touching innocence – she has, we learn, been rescuing the dogs sent up on test missions by Russia because she couldn’t bear to see them die. They’re a likeable, if dysfunctional, pair with a genuine, irresistible fondness for each other – but heartfelt monologues from both reveal there’s considerably more going on behind the party games and comedy dance moves.

Equally enjoyable is Thomas Lovell’s decidedly un-childlike Stripper, who certainly knows how to make an entrance, and holds nothing back as he camps it up to the max. But this character also has hidden depths, and ultimately it’s he – not Charon – who finds a way to get through to Pluto.

Funny and thought-provoking, Pluto is an exciting debut from Moonchild Theatre. Being an astronomy fan (and having a pre-existing fondness for Pluto) will help but isn’t essential; at heart this is a story about the importance of not letting others’ prejudices define how you see yourself. And that makes it a lot closer to the human experience than its distant setting would suggest.


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.