Review: Hot Mess at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

What is love? This age-old question has been asked by everyone from Shakespeare to Haddaway, and in Hot Mess, Ella Hickson adds her voice to the debate. To each of her characters, love means something different: for Twitch (Katrina Allen), it means becoming indelible, leaving a mark on the other person to ensure she can never be forgotten. To her twin brother Polo (Timothy Renouf), it’s a concept so alien he can’t even say the word. For their friend Jacks (Natalia Titcomb), it’s a brief moment of physical connection – the briefer the better. And for American tourist Billy (Gareth Balai), it may prove to be a lot more than he bargained for…

Like an old married couple who’ve told their “how we met” story so many times it’s become a choreographed performance, Twitch and Polo open proceedings by explaining how they came into the world: Polo first – clean, quiet and pale – followed by Twitch – messy and loud, her appearance a surprise that nobody counted on. Then it gets a little weird, as we learn they had only one heart between them, which was bestowed on Twitch. As a result, she loves often and devotedly, while Polo (so named because he has a hole where his heart should be) can’t bring himself to feel anything for anyone.

The events of the story take place over one night, as the twins celebrate their 25th birthday on a raucous night out, and simultaneous encounters allow a direct, poetic exploration of the two girls’ contrasting attitudes to sex. At the same time, Polo outlines his sister’s unfortunate history with boys, who have a habit of meeting nasty accidents when they don’t reciprocate her feelings. Her brother shares this information casually, almost with amusement (much as he talks about almost everything else) – yet his concern when Twitch falls hard and fast for Billy seems genuine, if only because he knows long before the rest of us what the end result might be.

Originally staged in a nightclub, the play moves to a more traditional setting under the direction of Vernal Theatre’s Julian Bruton and Kieran Rogers. The cast – much like the play – is one of two halves, though all four are equally impressive. As Polo and Jacks, Timothy Renouf and Natalia Titcomb are loud, brash and very funny; above all they want to be seen and admired, and will do literally anything to achieve that attention. In contrast, Katrina Allen and Gareth Balai (who plays all Twitch’s unfortunate former boyfriends as well as Billy) are sweetly likeable, each with their own kind of innocence about what lies ahead. Ultimately, you get the feeling Polo isn’t the only one lacking something fundamental – but he might just be the only one who’s aware of what’s missing.

Like the twins’ birthday celebration, Hot Mess is something of an emotional rollercoaster, and concludes with a striking final image that’s not easy to shake off. The play asks some deep questions, and certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of answers – but getting to the bottom of it all is an enjoyable challenge.

Hot Mess is at the Lion and Unicorn until 26th August.

Review: Sophie at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Written and performed by Julia Pagett, Sophie is a story about mental illness and its lasting and wide-reaching impact. At just 20 minutes, the play’s over almost before we know it, but nonetheless provides plenty of food for thought.

Though Sophie is the central character, it’s not she who tells her story; that duty falls to her twin sister, who we first encounter looking through old photos and smiling fondly, while a stereo at her feet plays Puff the Magic Dragon all the way to its sad final verse. Although she’s surrounded by these memories (the set also contains an old bike, which later prompts her to reminisce about the one time she saw her sister truly happy), when she speaks, she reveals a far more complex cocktail of feelings towards Sophie: love, anger, grief, remorse and confusion all make an appearance in this short, heartfelt monologue.

Though it’s never specifically named, the implication is that Sophie was suffering from an eating disorder, and the play focuses predominantly on the ideas of perception and reality: how we see ourselves compared to how others view us. We’re told more than once that Sophie was beautiful, and it’s her failure to see this, more than anything, that her sister can’t understand.

The fact that Sophie’s a twin helps to explore this theme of distorted perceptions in more depth. We hear so much about their mysterious, unbreakable bond that it’s easy to think of twins as two halves of one whole, mirror images of each other – emotionally, even if not physically. The fact that despite this, Sophie still fails to see her true self reflected back at her reveals the undiscriminating power of mental illness, and heightens the tragedy of one twin being left behind.

Under the direction of Keir Mills, there’s a confrontational, defiant tone to Julia Pagett’s delivery that suggests Sophie’s sister knows what she’s saying will be considered shocking and controversial, as she admits to believing her twin was being ungrateful, and to refusing to admit Sophie had a problem or to help even when she begged her to. Even now, as she struggles with her feelings of guilt and grief, that powerful rage still simmers beneath the surface, ready to explode. As distressing as this is to see, it’s a brave, sincere and very moving approach to talking about mental illness that forces us to consider how damaging it can also be for those not directly affected.

I wish the play had been longer – largely because it clearly had a huge amount to say, and felt like it was only just getting going when it ended. It would be great to see Sophie developed into a longer piece that builds on this strong foundation and really digs into the important issues raised.

Sophie is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 27th August.

Review: The Monologues of a Tired Nurse at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Stephanie Silver’s aim when she wrote The Monologues of a Tired Nurse was to give audiences “a brutally honest account of how it feels to work within the NHS in a understaffed, underpaid and emotionally draining time”. As a nurse herself, it’s a feeling she knows all too well, and though her characters are fictional, it’s clear throughout that the play is coming from a very personal place.

Brutal is an accurate word to sum up the show, which sees newly qualified nurse Emily grow gradually more and more dishevelled and distressed (not to mention covered in various unmentionable body fluids) as she realises actually being a nurse is considerably tougher than she expected. Her mentor, the older, wiser and much more experienced Sally, tries to toughen her up, not because she enjoys being mean, but because when you’re working in acute medicine, there’s no time to stop, worry, think (or eat, sleep, breathe…) – you just have to get on with it and hope for the best.

The play, directed by Simon Nader, makes a political statement about the increasingly limited resources available to the NHS, placing ever more pressure on the already stretched staff and putting patients’ lives at risk as a result. Stephanie Silver’s Sally has grown used to working under this pressure, but that doesn’t mean she’s okay with it – her monologues reveal a bitterness and world-weary honesty; if she could go back, she tells us frankly, she’d choose a different career. She’s done her fair share of crying over the years, but these days she just smokes and drinks, puts the tough days behind her and moves on, because she has no choice – if she breaks down, the patients will still be there needing help, and if she’s not there to offer it, then who will?

Makenna Guyler’s Emily, on the other hand, is young and idealistic, and hers is a personal rather than political viewpoint. She went into nursing for a very specific reason, inspired by a traumatic family history and lingering sense of guilt, but her fear of cracking under the pressure means she repeatedly does just that. Despite her brave attempts to claim that getting a thank you from a patient makes the long hours and emotional turmoil all worthwhile, her bright smile begins to crack more and more frequently. The harsh fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, wanting to help – however desperately – may not be enough.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these difficult truths, it’s impossible to leave the theatre without a new respect and admiration for anyone in the nursing profession. Put aside any misguided beliefs that nurses are just there to hold hands and empty bedpans; they have to make life or death decisions every single day, and that responsibility alone – even with limitless resources at their disposal – would be enough to break a lot of people.

The growing crisis in the NHS is well documented, and we’ve heard a lot in recent months about the struggles of junior doctors to keep up with ever-increasing workloads – but nurses never seem to make the headlines, despite being an equally essential part of the health service so many of us take for granted. The Monologues of a Tired Nurse aims to remedy this, and does so with unflinching honesty. It’s not pretty… but it certainly packs a punch.

The Monologues of a Tired Nurse is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 19th October.

Interview: Stephanie Silver, Monologues of a Tired Nurse

Who better to write a play about what it’s like to work for the NHS than someone who does it every day? Stephanie Silver was inspired by her own professional experiences to write Monologues of a Tired Nurse, which has its final run this week at the Lion and Unicorn as part of the Camden Fringe.

“I’m a nurse and have been for the last eight years,” says Stephanie. “I was working on a cardiothoracic intensive care for a while; it can be a tough environment. I was going through some personal problems and having some episodes of feeling very down about my job. I sat down and wrote some monologues to get some feelings off my chest and Tired Nurse kind of happened.

“It’s a brutally honest account of how it feels to work within the NHS in a understaffed, underpaid and emotionally draining time. The stories are fictionalised, but based on real life encounters of how it feels to be a nurse or any another healthcare professional working in today’s health service on an emotional and personal level.”

The show’s been in development since 2015, since Stephanie performed it at one of the first ever Actor Awareness scratch nights. “It’s changed a lot since then,” she says. “Even after performing it at Edinburgh 2016, we changed it up for the London run at Baron’s Court in 2017. I want it to be as visceral and engaging as possible to really grab the audience’s attention, and the director Simon Nader has always been fantastic in bringing the vision of the piece alive.

“Nurses definitely relate to the play. Anyone who works in the public services in any capacity, whether they are a teacher, policeman, fireman or army officer, can relate to the level of pain and stress in the play and the feelings of never being good enough, especially in the current climate with all the cuts and pressures to work faster and be more efficient but with twice the work load. An army veteran told us in Edinburgh it was some of the most honest accounts of working on the frontline he had seen – that meant a lot.

“I’d like people to see the human, the person behind the professional. I’m sure most people do but the papers and government spin so much crap that it is infuriating. Health care professionals aren’t cogs or robots, they’re people trying their best. And if you want a great health service providing the best care then please look at who you vote for and how you treat the people you meet at point of service. Make a conscious effort to invest in our healthcare in more ways than just saying, ‘I pay my taxes, so I am owed this’.”

After doing some acting as a child, Stephanie trained as a nurse before returning to theatre as an adult. “When I was ten I was in Goodnight Mister Tom, a TV film, and then at 18 I did a summer course at The Poor School, but after that thought I couldn’t afford drama school so I should do a sensible job, and kinda just stayed until I turned 28! Then I thought fuck it, time to probably do some acting before it’s too late. I also had a brain haemorrhage, which soon makes you realise that if you keep leaving things you might be dead before you actually get to do them!

“Juggling the two jobs is doable. Must actors have many jobs, it can feel like two very different worlds! Mainly it’s hard work, long hours and no sleep. I hardly see my friends but I’ve been trying to work on balance. I don’t waste time, I write everyday, and I do one thing everyday for my acting, whether it’s write an email or read a bit of a play or watch something to inspire me. I also do emails on the tube, on the toilet – anywhere really. You can sleep when you’re dead, right?! My mum always says that!”

As well as writing and performing in Tired Nurse, Stephanie’s also set up Glass Half Full Theatre, a company dedicated to creating daring, provocative work. “I really love writing and find it rather depressing waiting around as an actor so decided to produce my own writing,” she explains. “I’m not very well connected as I come from a zero theatrical background, so I got involved with Actor Awareness and met a lot of like-minded people looking to create work. At one of their first scratch nights, I performed Tired Nurse. I asked a mate along and then we decided due to the amazing response to take it to Edinburgh. That was financially not a great idea but it was one of the best experiences.

“I also got heavily involved with Actor Awareness and realised that there a lot of actors just not working – a lot – and what a brilliant thing if I can produce work. So I created Glass Half Full, dedicated to creating thought-provoking contemporary plays with a strong social, political, ethical, domestic backbone; plays with messages aimed at a young demographic, about the world we live in today and the kinds of world we could live in. So hopefully we are making thought-provoking challenging plays. Fingers crossed!”

Glass Half Full have lots of exciting plans for the year ahead: “This is our last run of Tired Nurse as we’ve been doing it for the last year. The immediate aim is to look to produce our show Walk of Shame for EdFringe 2018. I also produce new writing nights every so often. Hoping to do one of those in September so keep an eye out on Twitter, the event is called A Series of Short Plays – we did the first event in May, and it was a great night so we aim to be back with that but with a twist!

“We also have a play called Our Big Love Story, a story of racism after the July 2005 bombings which we are getting on its feet for production in 2018. That’s enough to get on with for now…”

Catch the final run of Monologues of a Tired Nurse at the Lion and Unicorn from 16th-19th August.

Interview: Ashley Winter and Christopher Montague, Skin Deep

Attila Theatre’s Skin Deep was first performed last year at the London Horror Festival, where the festival’s patron Nicholas Vince commented, “This is physical ensemble theatre in its purest form and will haunt me for days.” This week, Attila bring their gruesome true story to the Camden Fringe, opening tonight at the Lion and Unicorn.

Skin Deep is the origin story of real-life historical figure Erzsébet Báthory – branded the world’s most prolific female serial killer,” says Ashley Winter, who plays her. “We explore her childhood, marriage to soldier Ferenc Nadasdy, and the events that led to her very first murder. It’s also a love story between Erzsebet and her handmaid Lucie.”

The show is an obvious must for horror fans, “but also fans of ensemble theatre, feminist theatre, physical theatre…” says Ashley.

“All the above, but especially female theatre makers,” agrees director Christopher Montague. “We may have stumbled upon an iconic female character from history, so underrepresented and interesting that people will want to explore her life for years to come. Ashley plays her brilliantly, and it is a very desireable role in my eyes; hopefully in twenty years’ time we’ll be talking about the character Báthory in the same way we talk about Richard III.

“We’ve slapped a 14+ recommendation on the play, purely because of foul language and violent imagery – we don’t want to warp any young minds. That will happen without our input. The play is nowhere near as gruesome as it could’ve been, so even if you’re a bit squeamish, you’ll be fine!”

Ashley’s hoping audiences will come away as obsessed with Báthory as she is: “I think the most interesting thing about her is that her actual real-life existence is so removed from the image of the sexy, vampish killer that pop culture has bestowed upon her. She’s been appropriated by the goth community as this macabre pin-up, but we really have no way of knowing what she was like, what motivated her, what she wanted from life.

“I think it’s important to look at how history represents those in the past; Erzsébet’s name was considered a curse word for 100 years after she died – but her husband Ferenc, ‘The Black Knight’, is still considered to be a national hero in Hungary, despite being known for his horrendous and brutal torture of Turks in the Ottoman war. Gender inequality presents itself in many ways and Erzsébet Báthory – the most famous woman of her time – has not escaped it. We wanted to present an Erzsébet that was a product of the brutal time in which she existed, but try to steer clear of culturally presented clichés about ‘dangerous women’.”

The first version of the show, produced in late 2016 for the London Horror Festival, was developed in just three weeks. Since then it’s changed quite dramatically: “We brought director Ailin Conant on board, whose experience working in physical theatre, mask and puppetry helped us develop the physical language and the multiple ‘worlds’ of the play,” explains Ashley. “We’ve introduced a chorus of maids to the piece too, who are present on stage most of the time; you get to see much more of the immense dichotomy between the rich and poor of the time. Erzsébet’s story has become more about the struggle to break free from societal constraints relating to gender and social status.”

“The show is a little less sensationalist this time around,” adds Christopher. “Last year, performing the show on Halloween weekend and with little time to really explore the story we wanted to tell, we opted for a version of the show that was overall darker, included more torture and more blood. Don’t worry gore-fans, there’s still a fair bit, but in the interests of creating a dramatic story arc, we’ve focused more on the character’s relationships and making them all fully developed, rather than just victims.

“Also, I no longer perform in the show as ‘Percy’ the pigkeeper boy, much to many people’s dismay. It was decided my skills could be used elsewhere.”

So why should people come and see Skin Deep? “Because we worked really hard on it?” suggests Christopher. “Brush away the Edinburgh blues and see some of the amazing work that’s right on your doorstep at the Camden Fringe!”

Ashley expands, “Firstly, it will defy expectations about who Báthory was. We have an amazing female-heavy cast who have incredible energy and passion for the show. The music is totally brilliant – designed by the talented Ross Kernahan – and gives the whole show this creeping tension that builds to a furious ending. It’s surprisingly funny too! It’s a fast-paced physical show with really taut dialogue, so if you’re not into stuffy history plays then it’s definitely for you.”

“I’d love for audiences to see something of a contemporary ‘history’ play,” adds Christopher. “A lot of plays you see that explore historical figures tend to include large monologues and elaborate set design that mirror the time of their life – whereas being an emerging company with training in ensemble theatre, our instincts led us to this stripped back design, which allows us to fully utilise the large cast and their talents. Plays about history don’t have to simply be biopics. We’ve definitely taken liberty with the truth at times, but always in the interest of making a better show. Hopefully audiences will forgive us for that!”

Ashley and Christopher started Attila Theatre after graduating from the University of Reading. “We didn’t start with any aims, other than to start making our own work and see what naturally came out of that,” Ashley explains. “We’ve discovered that we’re interested in telling stories about women in traditionally male realms. We’re very much inspired by companies like Told by an Idiot – irreverent, funny, daring and devised!”

“After making a few shows and having a decent network of friends with theatre companies in London, my main goal is to stay in amongst these people and keep making work,” says Christopher. “Sounds simple, but there’s a huge amount to be said for companies like us being ‘in the same boat’ as all the others who are struggling to get funding, working two jobs alongside rehearsals etc. The knowledge that we’re all still doing it despite the difficulties, for me, is a testament to the artists who make the work and the support they provide each other.”

Skin Deep opens at the Lion and Unicorn on 31st July and runs until 6th August.