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.

Turkey is at The Hope Theatre until 14th October.

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.

To find out more about Pluto and Moonchild Theatre, visit moonchildtheatre.co.uk or follow @MoonchildPluto. You can also read Theatre Things’ interview with Liam Joseph to find out more about the show’s inspiration.

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.

Interview: Alice McCarthy, Rotterdam

The two years since Rotterdam‘s critically acclaimed debut run at Theatre 503 have been eventful, to say the least. Jon Brittain’s bittersweet comedy about gender and sexuality, directed by Donnacadh O’Briain, not only transferred to Trafalgar Studios and enjoyed a sell-out run in New York; it also won the 2017 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. And this month the fairy tale continues with a further London transfer, this time to the Arts Theatre, where the play will run from 21st June to 15th July.

Rotterdam is a warm, hilarious, appalling and devastating firecracker of a story, with a simple human love story at its heart,” explains Alice McCarthy, an original cast member returning once again to the role of Alice – who’s about to finally come out as a lesbian when her girlfriend announces she wants to start living as a man. As Fiona begins the transition to life as Adrian, Alice is left wondering if this means she’s now straight…

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography

Alice is joined by Anna Martine Freeman and Ed Eales-White, who also reprise their roles in the play, along with newcomer Ellie Morris, taking over from Jessica Clark as Alice’s free-spirited colleague Lelani. “It’s very exciting, of course, to be able to sit with a character for two years,” says Alice. “Relationships change and deepen, and I am discovering new sides to Alice all the time. Reuniting with the team is always fantastic and means that these long relationships between our characters now make more sense, as we do actually know each other better! Also, Lelani is now played by the lovely Ellie Morris, which has meant new colours and an exciting opportunity to look at all those scenes in a fresh light.”

Jon Brittain wrote Rotterdam after a couple of his friends transitioned in the late 2000s, and he decided to address the absence of transgender stories in pop culture. Despite this, Alice believes what makes the play interesting is that it avoids didacticism: “It in no way seeks to comment on the whole trans-experience but simply tells the story of a group of specific individuals dealing with a unique set of problems. It’s certainly a queer love story, which is of course important, but it is still essentially just a love story. In this way it’s accessible to all and invites the audience to view Alice and Adrian as no different from themselves. I hope that audiences will leave moved, laughed out and feeling like they have got to know four individuals intimately. The best responses are also when we change people a bit!”

And what does she feel is the secret to the play’s success? “I think it’s because Jon has written such specifically human and well-rounded people. There’s an element of the play that allows the audience to become voyeurs, and so they leave feeling close to the characters and wanting to know what happens to them next. A few audience members have come straight up to me and said, ‘What happens to Alice?! We want to know- make a series!'”

Photo credit: Piers Foley Photography

Alice and the team are just back from their sell-out run at 59E59 Theaters in New York as part of the Brits Off-Broadway Festival, where the play’s reception was different but no less enthusiastic. “I think New York audiences are certainly more earnest,” says Alice. “There is an element of taking everything seriously. I think maybe UK audiences are more comfortable with a mix of irreverence and comedy in the tragic, whereas our U.S. audiences have seemed to enjoy the drama side of Rotterdam more. It’s certainly been fascinating to see how plays are so changeable dependent on the temperature of the audience and their expectations. We are lucky though, as our audience’s responses have been just as warm and ecstatic as back home.”

It’s not just audiences who can learn something from this play; Alice has also benefited personally from being a part of the Rotterdam story. “I’ve gained so, so much,” she reveals. “It’s my first lead role after drama school and so on a professional level it’s been my training ground and a huge learning curve. Also, it’s been such a privilege to learn about trans-issues, and for me more specifically, about the partners of transitioning people. I now feel equipped to enter the world as a well-informed trans-ally!”

Book now for Rotterdam at the Arts Theatre from 21st June-15th July.