Review: Kes at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

At just under 70 minutes, Kes – adapted by Robert Alan Evans from Barry Hines’ 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave – isn’t a long play, but in the hands of director Kate Bannister and the dream team at the Brockley Jack, even that brief amount of time flies by. The theatre’s latest in-house production is, in fact, something of a masterclass in every sense: performance, design and direction all come together to tell a great story really, really well.

That story is all about Billy Casper, who at 15 years old already knows he’s unlikely to ever get out of the northern mining town he calls home. Bullied by his older brother Jud, ignored by his mother (except when she can steal the wages from his paper round) and victimised by most of the teachers at his school, Billy’s life offers very little to look forward to, until the day he finds a wild kestrel and decides to raise and train her. Through Kes he discovers a freedom, friendship and passion that he’s never known before – but all it takes is one bad decision to put his precarious new happiness in jeopardy.

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs Hughes

We never actually see Kes, obviously (bird of prey plus small pub theatre would probably be a bad idea; you certainly wouldn’t get me in there), but her presence is very powerfully felt, thanks to two spellbinding performances from Simon Stallard and Rob Pomfret, who both interact with the young kestrel as if she were right in front of them, and to some wonderfully evocative sound design by Jack Barton. And it’s not only the bird who’s conjured into life by the production’s design; Karl Swinyard’s set perfectly encapsulates  each aspect of Billy’s uninspiring everyday world down at floor level, but opens up on higher ground – with the help of some beautiful lighting from Ben Jacobs – to reveal the vast rural landscape where Kes flies free. When she soars through the air, it’s not only Billy’s heart that lifts.

In a production that clearly doesn’t believe in limits, perhaps it should come as no surprise that two actors doesn’t equate to only two characters. Alongside Simon Stallard’s sympathetic and touchingly innocent Billy, Rob Pomfret plays a dizzying array of other roles, from a bullying headmaster to Billy’s mum, slipping from one to the other with ease. Perhaps most interestingly, though, he also plays Billy: an older, wiser version, who tries to protect his younger self from the heartbreak he knows is to come. It works both ways, however, and in looking back and confronting the pain he felt all those years before, the older Billy is also reminded of the joy that came before it – and it’s this emotion that lingers longest as the play comes to an end.

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs Hughes

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Barry Hines’ novel, and I can think of no better way to mark the occasion than with this exquisite production. For some, Kes will bring back memories of the book; for others, it offers an introduction to this timeless story. Either way, it’s a must see.

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Review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Greenwich Theatre

Nick Lane’s new adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde takes the gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson and fills in some of the gaps. While this might not please everyone, I must admit I haven’t read the book, so personally I had no problem with the plot’s bare bones being substantially fleshed out. Inspired by Lane’s own experience following an accident that permanently damaged his neck and back, this production humanises the troubled Dr Jekyll and offers some justification for his actions… and even manages to raise a bit of sympathy for the villainous Mr Hyde.

The basic plot of the novella is reasonably well known; mild-mannered, respected scientist Dr Jekyll invents a serum that transforms him into a violent, remorseless alter ego: Mr Hyde. In this version, however, he also has a love interest – his friend Hastie’s wife Eleanor, whose fascination with his work and dissatisfaction with her own uninspiring life make her an unwitting catalyst to the devastating events that follow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The cast is small – just four actors play all the characters between them – but perfectly formed, working comfortably together as an ensemble but also impressing individually. Jack Bannell in particular gives an excellent physical performance, his demeanour, voice, and personality completely changing before our eyes as he transforms from the stooped figure of Jekyll into the cold, predatory Hyde. At first brusque and dismissive, Jekyll is softened by his love for Eleanor and his own weakening body, his desperation over both causing him to experiment on himself. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand – even if still impossible to condone – what led him to this point, and to sympathise with the temptation that keeps drawing him back to the physically stronger and more passionate Hyde.

Paige Round is similarly impressive as Eleanor. Far from a token love interest, she finds herself on her own dark path as she breaks away from good guy husband Hastie and is drawn inexorably to Hyde. It’s a bit of a cliché, maybe – women like a bad boy, etc – but the actors make it believable, with a sizzling chemistry that’s noticeably absent between Eleanor and Ashley Sean-Cook’s nice but boring Hastie. The inclusion of Eleanor also allows for a bit of discussion on gender issues; both Hastie and Jekyll initially dismiss her interest in and understanding of their work, and it’s largely Hastie’s expectation that she stay at home and play the little wife that pushes her towards Hyde in the first place.

The cast is completed by Zach Lee as Jekyll’s concerned friend and lawyer Gabriel Utterson; though his primary role is to narrate the uncovering of Jekyll’s secret, he also appears in arguably the most visually striking scene in the play: an intense, dramatic slow motion sequence that’s so perfectly choreographed we can feel every blow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The play’s performances are supported by Claire Childs’ lighting design, which makes great use of bold colours and projected shadows to establish a threatening atmosphere from the beginning, and haunting melodies composed by Tristan Parkes beautifully performed by Paige Round and the rest of the cast.

While perhaps not the story Robert Louis Stevenson intended, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde does remain faithful to the central plot, and offers an interesting – if rather more forgiving – interpretation of the story and its central character. Touching on a variety of themes, including gender issues, mental health and the ethical responsibilities of science, this chilling new adaptation certainly gives us plenty to think about.

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Review: Frankenstein at the Jack Studio Theatre

It’s quite a feat to breathe new life into one of the world’s most popular and iconic novels – but there’s no doubt Arrows & Traps’ Ross McGregor has succeeded with his adaptation of Frankenstein. Like the novel, it tells both Frankenstein’s and the Creature’s story, but reframes these within a fascinating insight into the life of their creator, Mary Shelley. The result is thrilling, poignant, often surprisingly funny and – unsurprisingly – visually beautiful, and it allows us to consider the themes of the novel in a whole new way.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

In fact, this is much more Mary’s story than it is Frankenstein’s, and the always brilliant Cornelia Baumann leads the cast with a moving portrayal of the troubled writer, now older and suffering with ill health and bad memories. Drawn into a passionate romance with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley when she was still a teenager, despite the disapproval of society and the attempts of her father William Godwin to keep them apart, she went on to face the tragic loss of three of her four children, a near-fatal miscarriage and then the death of her husband in a shipwreck not long afterwards. In light of all this, it makes sense that the adaptation of her novel focuses primarily on the relationship between parent and child, and invites us to question what it is that makes someone a parent in the first place.

A real highlight of the show is seeing Will Pinchin – the Arrows’ Movement Director – take to the stage for the first time as the Creature. Having admired his work in many previous productions, it’s great to see it in the flesh, and his performance proves to be worth the wait. Unlike the classic Hollywood portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster who was “born” evil, this Creature starts out as a gentle soul, a frightened, child-like figure eager to learn and play. It’s the rejection of those he loves that creates the monster, and Pinchin’s cold fury and sharp intellect in the play’s later scenes are far more chilling than any lumbering movie depiction. Christopher Tester’s Frankenstein, meanwhile, undergoes a similar transformation from a likeable, earnest young geek to an obsessive genius, capable of creating life but not appreciating its true worth.

With three interwoven stories, all taking place at different times and in different locations and a lot of historical information to digest, there are occasions when it becomes a little hard to follow; some knowledge of the novel is also probably an advantage to help pinpoint where we are in the chain of events. But the skill of the actors (and a few swift wardrobe changes) ensures that despite some significant multi-roling – particularly from Oliver Brassell, who plays no fewer than four major characters – we can always identify who we’re looking at.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Another bonus is the presence of some strong female characters. Shelley’s novel is dominated by men, but here we have not only Mary herself but also her two sisters Fanny and Claire – as well as Agatha, the young blind woman who teaches the Creature to speak and read. Played by Zoe Dales, she’s enjoyably feisty and sarcastic, but also a rare source of compassion in a world that’s far too quick to reject them both just because they’re different.

As in all Arrows productions, there’s also a lot going on visually – from Odin Corie’s steampunk-inspired costumes to Ben Jacobs’ lighting design, which combined with sound from Alistair Lax creates some striking moments. Most impressive is the sequence in which the Creature first comes to life; it never fails to amaze how this company can create such drama on such a small stage.

Frankenstein is the first Arrows show written by artistic director Ross McGregor, who must be feeling a certain sympathy for Mary Shelley seeing his baby come to life on stage every night. But I don’t think this ingenious creation will be turning on its parent any time soon.

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Review: Dante’s Divine Comedy at Barons Court Theatre

I mean this in the nicest way possible… but if you’re looking for a theatre in which to stage a play about descending into hell, I can think of few better than Barons Court. Partly because you actually do have to descend a flight of stairs to get there, but mostly because with its low arched ceilings and shadowy corners, it guarantees an atmospheric setting for any production.

The directors of So It Goes Theatre clearly had a similar instinct, and have returned to Barons Court for a second time with their adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, based on the epic 14th century poem by Dante Alighieri. A dark tale of suffering and loss, this modern retelling also has an unexpectedly wry sense of humour, and is packed full of witty one-liners that are often as surprising as they are enjoyable. Who knew hell would be so funny? (Although I suppose the clue’s in the title…)

Following the death of Beatrice, the woman he loves, Dante’s about to kill himself when up pops the Roman poet Virgil, who takes him on a slightly grim guided tour of hell and purgatory before dropping him off at the gates of paradise, where Beatrice awaits. But their reunion may not be quite as joyous as expected…

Alex Chard is great as the depressed yet determined Dante, really coming into his own in the second half of the production when he has the opportunity to get into some meaty theological debate. His budding bromance with Virgil, played by Jack Blackburn, is fun but also surprisingly touching, particularly the moment when Dante promises to have a word with God about getting his new best mate through the Pearly Gates. Their witty banter, right up to the moment Virgil leaves, means the icy encounter that follows with Kathryn Taylor-Gears’ Beatrice is all the more jarring.

A hard-working and incredibly versatile all-female Chorus (Sofia Greenacre, Marialuisa Ferro, Sophia Speakman and Michaela Mackenzie, along with Kathryn Taylor-Gears) accompany Dante on every step of his journey, as the condemned souls suffering the countless torments of hell, those unfortunates stuck in the limbo of purgatory – brilliantly reimagined as the mind-numbing boredom of a daily commute – and the shockingly unpleasant residents of heaven. I’d go so far as to say that the Chorus steal the show in the first part of the play; their pain, fear and anger grows ever more palpable as Dante and Virgil descend deeper into the inferno.

It would be easy to assume that a small cast of seven, in a tiny pub theatre, might not be able to quite reproduce the epic scale of heaven and hell – but Douglas Baker’s production is a masterclass in how to do a lot with very little. A couple of handheld torches, a few chairs, a balloon and some cardboard cut-outs prove more than enough to create some fantastic effects, particularly when combined with video projections and some exquisite movement sequences directed by Matthew Coulton. The whole show is so absorbing, in fact, that it comes as something of a shock when Virgil suddenly breaks the fourth wall and reminds Dante – and us – that we’re just watching a piece of theatre created by the man himself; all his suffering is entirely self-inflicted.

I don’t know much about Dante’s original poem (though I may check it now), and I’m definitely no theologian – but neither is really necessary in order to appreciate this creative, powerful and really enjoyable production. So again, in the nicest possible way – I politely recommend that you go to hell.

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Interview: Douglas Baker, Dante’s Divine Comedy

So It Goes Theatre return to Barons Court next month with their 21st century interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Adapted from the 700-year-old narrative poem, it’s the story of Dante’s quest to rediscover the reasons for living by reuniting with his lost childhood love Beatrice; to do this he’s taken on a tour of hell, purgatory and heaven by mysterious stranger Virgil. “Naturally there’s loads to explore: faith, morality, friendship, redemption. You name it, there’s a whole world inside this show,” says director Douglas Baker.

Funnily enough, Douglas didn’t originally set out to adapt Dante’s classic poem. “I’m embarrassed to say it was basically a complete accident,” he admits. “I had in my head an entirely different piece of source material – which I won’t go into now because it may surface in the near future. However, when I arrived at the Barons Court, I knew instantly it wouldn’t work there, so I had a mad weekend reading lots of different texts to try and find something else to do.

“I wanted something that was seriously old, out of copyright, brimming with theatrical potential. There was one particularly desperate moment where I was considering stringing all Shakespeare’s sonnets together into a narrative; thank God I found the Divine Comedy. As I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It drew me in with every passage. The pace of the thing – despite its hefty length – is incredible.”

Despite its appeal, turning Dante’s original poem into a 90-minute play for a 21st century audience came with some pretty big challenges. “I don’t want to give too much away but I think there were three big problems,” says Douglas. “Firstly, trying to create a dramatic arc in a poem that is essentially a series of meetings where the main character simply accepts what he sees as truth; structurally this is so boring and doesn’t make so much sense as a coherent story. So we’ve flipped, rearranged and cut down lots in order to – fingers crossed – make an emotionally believable journey.

“Secondly, we wanted a culture in the rehearsal room where we worked openly with only dialogue on the page. So it was a challenge to try not premeditating what I thought it would look like on stage. Even though scenes were brimming with potential, I didn’t want to lock us into something that we couldn’t achieve. So finding that balance between honouring both the text and the devising process was tricky, but hopefully we’ve made it work.

“The other main problem was trying to present medieval morality sympathetically. I quickly saw that it was impossible, so as a result we’ve had to take some liberties. Our Dante is younger and more rebellious. I thought that youthful mindset could work because we the audience are basically seeing this stuffy old fashioned world through Dante’s eyes, so we can hopefully justify the difference between the Dante in the poem and the Dante we present on stage. The story is the same, but Dante’s feelings towards it have been modernised.”

Douglas is looking forward to introducing new audiences to Dante’s work, and says prior knowledge of the Divine Comedy isn’t a must: “I would say not. Part of the attraction to the poem was the feeling that many people knew of it, but not in any real detail. There’s something incredibly exciting about introducing people to a dusty old book for the first time; perhaps our interpretation will encourage people to read it for themselves and come to their own understanding about morality or the afterlife. I hope people will see our piece as a series of questions rather than assertions. The hope is we can ignite curiosities that will push people to reach their own conclusions.”

The show returns to Barons Court for a second time following a well-received run in April. “Being back is strangely unnerving,” says Douglas. “We always forget how small the stage is, so it requires seriously precise coordination to keep things visually interesting. Luckily our movement director Matthew is a genius at utilising space in interesting ways, so your eye is always drawn correctly. Other than that it’s just been a case of balancing creating with re-creating, we don’t want to just redo the original production but rather build on it and improve.”

This latest run, which opens on 5th September, sees almost all of the seven-strong cast reprise their roles. “They are the most generous people you could ever hope to meet,” says Douglas. “The bond between performer and director can be so fragile if egos are at play. If a cast don’t trust the director they will seize up and work only for themselves. But these cast members work for each other, they are beautifully spirited people.

“As a director I often get my actors to do very weird weird things to create the spectacle for the audience, so if it’s to translate into a coherent performance where they can commit completely it’s utterly reliant upon their trust in me. I think we have that trust, so the rehearsal room is a joyful space where we can really play and find the truth in what we’re doing.”

Douglas co-founded So It Goes Theatre with producer Charles Golding. “Charlie and I created the company way back in 2011, its been on hiatus for a while because Charlie now has a family but we always knew it would be back some day,” he explains. “We wanted to do a combination of reimagining classic stories and telling brand new ones. We want to showcase new performance talents in a largely ensemble context. We were also aware that the majority of actors auditioning for us were female, so we decided very quickly to produce work that in general favoured largely female casts. Maybe it was pragmatic rather than righteous, but it’s worked for us so far.”

Book now for Dante’s Divine Comedy at Barons Court Theatre from 5th-30th September.