Review: On Mother’s Day at the Cockpit Theatre

“I could tell you I’m a good man… but you wouldn’t believe me.” Inspired by writer Saaramaria Kuittinen’s seven-year correspondence with prisoners on death row, On Mother’s Day from Ekata Theatre tells a heartbreaking tale that’s all too familiar. It’s the story of a crime – a violent, horrific murder that should never have happened. But it’s also the story of the man who committed it, his shame and guilt over what he’s done, and his desperate need to cling on to who he is in a world that’s specifically designed to dehumanise him.

Ramón (Christian Scicluna) is a murderer – but he’s also thoughtful, creative, funny and extremely likeable. He doesn’t try and make excuses, nor does he ask us to condone what he’s done. Instead, he shares with us his memories, which are all that he has left of his former life, and in doing so tells us all we need to know about the path that brought him here.

Those memories are recreated not only through Ramón’s words but by the mesmerising movement and physicality of ensemble members Lukas Bozik and Silvia Manazzone. The violent abuse suffered by his mother at the hands of his father; the party at which he met Maria, the love of his life; the precious childhood holidays at his grandma’s in the countryside – all are brought vividly to life and allow Ramón to step outside the confines of his tiny cell and experience in his mind a world he no longer gets to see, hear or touch.

Although, on the surface, the story told by On Mother’s Day is personal, not political, it’s difficult to watch it without feeling a growing sense of anger at a system that places retribution above rehabilitation, and utterly disregards the circumstances that may have led someone to commit a terrible crime. Ramón’s has been a life of violence, but at the hands of others, not his own. The crime for which he was condemned was, he tells us, the one time in his life that he acted without thinking – and yet it’s enough, in the eyes of the law, to wipe out any good he may have done or may go on to do in the future.

The set is simple – just Ramón’s cell, a metal bedframe and a small box of possessions, right in the centre of the stage. Director Erika Eva makes creative use of The Cockpit’s in-the-round stage area, however, extending it to include the high walkways that overlook the stage, and where the actors pace up and down like prison guards. The show also makes particularly effective use of light, which is used both as an interrogation tool and to create the play’s striking and desperately poignant final image.

I had a personal interest in seeing this show because I also have some experience of writing to prisoners on death row, and have been struck repeatedly by the wit, wisdom, compassion and astonishing creativity of men and women who’ve been written off by society. This is exactly what On Mother’s Day captures so well. However incongruous it may seem, Ramón is both a murderer and a good man; he deserves to be punished for his crime, but there’s so much more to him than the single worst thing he’s ever done. Although the current run is at an end, let’s hope it isn’t the last we see of this beautiful and heartbreaking story of life on death row, which succeeds not only as a piece of theatre but also as a powerful argument against the senseless violence of the death penalty.

On Mother’s Day ran at the Cockpit Theatre from 13th to 16th August. For more details about Ekata Theatre and future productions, visit www.ekatatheatre.com or follow @EkataTheatre.

Review: Love Lab at Tristan Bates Theatre

Love Island meets Big Brother meets Black Mirror in Sam Coulson’s Love Lab, which sees two singletons locked in a room together for 7 days in an attempt to make them fall in love. It’s the latest reality TV show, watched by millions – but that’s little comfort to Perry (Michael Rivers), who doesn’t even remember applying. And he’s definitely not okay with being kidnapped and forced to live on cold baked beans for a week with a total stranger, while a cheerful disembodied voice asks them increasingly personal questions.

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Livia (Harriet Barrow), on the other hand, is much more at ease. She’s watched the show before, which helps, but we also learn this isn’t her first time in front of the cameras. And she’s considerably more au fait with dating apps and social media than her selected match, who’d much rather meet up with his friends in person over a cuppa than follow them on Facebook. Livia’s even been allowed to keep her phone, whereas Perry’s is nowhere to be seen. She seems to have the upper hand, but then the mind games kick in and the balance of power begins to shift – until, in a final fiendish twist, the Love Lab pulls the rug from under both their feet.

Set in a perhaps not so distant future, Séan Aydon’s slick production embraces the technological theme with stark lighting and unsettling sound effects – and let’s not forget the frequent interruptions of friendly matchmaker Lucy, whose pleasant but mechanical enunciation begins to sound increasingly sinister as the play goes on. Actors Michael Rivers and Harriet Barrow have great chemistry as the mismatched pair, whether they’re engaging in rapid-fire banter or sharing a moment of genuine connection. In fact, despite some significant flaws both characters ultimately prove rather likeable, and by the end we’re almost rooting for them to run off into the sunset together.

My main complaint about Love Lab is actually a compliment in disguise: I wanted more. The premise is intriguing, and the play offers some fascinating (and slightly scary) insights about dating in the 21st century – but at only 50 minutes it feels too short, and as clever as the final twist is, it’s all a bit abrupt. Just as we feel like we’re starting to get to know the characters and what might have brought them here, it’s all over. I’d love to see a longer version of the play that lets us spend a bit more time in the Love Lab (and yes I appreciate the irony of that statement, given that Perry spends a significant amount of his time trying to get out).

Photo credit: Sam Tibi

Witty and insightful, the play asks “what is love?” in a world where off-line connection is starting to feel like the exception rather than the rule. We may lament the fact that nobody meets in person any more, but Love Lab leaves us wondering if that’s actually a self-fulfilling prophecy – are we all too glued to our dating apps to look up and see who’s right in front of us? The play doesn’t condemn online dating; even Perry acknowledges it’s a great idea in theory. But it still might make you stop and think twice the next time you swipe right.

Love Lab is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 18th August.

Review: Coelacanth at the Cockpit Theatre

The second production from Moonchild – following their debut last year with PLUTO – is the darkly comic Coelacanth. Written by Callum O’Brien, the play is set in a dystopian future where assisted suicide is not only legal but available at the touch of a button through a new app that lets you select your killer.

It’s not immediately obvious that Yvette (Lizzie Back) has invited a man to her flat to end her life; she’s spent hours getting ready and appears to have everything to live for. Nor does Morningstar (Jack Michael Stacey), on first encounter, look like a killer, though there’s clearly something odd about their meeting, which veers from cheekily flirtatious to deadly serious and back again before you can say Sylvia Plath. And yet as he begins his preparations, which include allowing an excited Yvette to choose how she wants to die, we can see the line between business and pleasure gradually begin to blur – not just for Morningstar but for the hundreds of eager followers watching via webcam.

Photo credit: Dave Bird

Everything’s going according to plan until the moment Yvette’s housemate Rachel (Rebecca Camilleri) bursts into the flat. Seemingly unperturbed by the presence of a strange man in her friend’s bedroom, and blissfully unaware of what she’s walked in on, she decides to keep the party going with an enthusiasm that borders on manic, and which begins to shake her friend’s resolve.

Quite apart from providing a good twist in the story, and some much-needed light relief and a change of pace just as things are getting particularly sinister, Rachel’s entrance is interesting because at first glance she appears much more likely to be suicidal than Yvette. She’s drunk, she’s obviously been crying, nobody turned up to her birthday party except the gay guy she once had sex with, and – for reasons that are unclear – she’s drinking rose out of a plastic bag. Seeing her, we get to marvel all over again at how calm and collected Yvette is, given what she’s about to do. It’s a powerful reminder that you can’t always tell what’s going on inside someone’s head, even if they look like they’re fine.

The story does get a bit muddled around the middle, though, and while we may accept that she’s not as fine as she looks, it’s never really explained what actually has brought Yvette to this point. There are signs that all is not well in the outside world, and a suggestion that the apocalypse may be near, but whether that’s real or only in Yvette’s head isn’t really made clear. It also seems odd, given the obvious affection between the two girls and Rachel’s disdain for the app and those who use it, that Yvette would choose her best friend’s birthday to kill herself, knowing that Rachel would almost certainly be the one to find her when she returned home. In an otherwise intriguing and very well performed plot, these unanswered questions about the central character’s motivation prove to be a significant stumbling block.

Photo credit: Dave Bird

That said, what the play does do extremely well is to keep us on edge. This is partly because we’re waiting to see how this bizarre and unsettling chain of events will end; director Liz Bacon skilfully builds the tension as the story builds towards its dramatic climax. But it’s also in no small part because O’Brien forces us to confront some issues we’d perhaps rather not face up to: like how well we know our friends, our obsession with technology, our macabre fascination with tragedy, and the fact that just because something’s legal (and easy), that doesn’t make it right.

By the way, in case you were wondering, a Coelacanth is a rare type of fish that was thought to have died out 66 million years ago, but was rediscovered in the early 20th century off the coast of South Africa. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait quite that long for a revival of this play.

Coelacanth was performed at the Cockpit Theatre on 10th and 11th August. For details of future productions, visit moonchildtheatre.co.uk or follow @MoonchildTheatr.

Review: Getting Over Everest at Tristan Bates Theatre

Getting over a break-up is never easy. But when you’ve spent ten years – a third of your life – building a future with the man who’s just unceremoniously dumped you, recovery can feel like an impossible task. It’s no coincidence, therefore, that the ex in Natasha Santos’ new play is called Rob Everest, and that main character Libby is struggling to get over him. She’s not eating; she’s been spotted crying into a stolen pair of Rob’s pants at work (when she’s not listening to Sinead O’Connor on repeat, that is); and she’s started recording her farts – just because she can.

Needless to say, Getting Over Everest is a comedy, in which Libby (Natasha Santos) confesses all the crazy things she’s doing to try and get over her ex. When we first meet her, she’s leaving him yet another voicemail – in this case, a heartfelt rendition of I Will Always Love You. Later, encouraged by her friend Steph (Grace Dunne), she goes clubbing and ends up having an ill-advised sexual encounter with a floppy-haired random (George Vafakis) whose name she never bothers to find out.

It’s all very funny, and the cast of three play the outrageous material for every well-deserved laugh, with Grace Dunne and George Vafakis providing strong support as a variety of comic characters alongside Natasha Santos’ wry, self-deprecating Libby. But there’s a lot more going on here than just a newly single woman going a bit mad for a while, and it’s in its quieter moments that the play really touches a nerve. We never meet Rob (although we hear his voicemail message a lot), and there’s a reason for that – though he might have sparked it, Libby’s panic is never about him but about what he represents. She’s hurt and heartbroken by his rejection, but more than that she’s terrified of what the future holds for an almost-30-year-old whose entire life has been defined for a decade by her relationship status.

And you don’t need to have recently come out of a long-term relationship to identify with that feeling – anyone who’s ever gone through a bereavement, or lost a job, or simply woken up one day and realised their life isn’t going the way they’d hoped will be able to recognise a little of themselves in what Libby’s going through. (Though it’s likely – I hope – that most of us haven’t yet resorted to recording our farts.) In reality, this play isn’t so much about a breakup as it is about the importance of being able to talk about our fears and emotions; it’s only when Libby finally opens up and shares how she’s feeling with a kindly stranger that she’s finally set on the road to recovery. As funny as the rest of the play is, I wish we could have seen a bit more of Libby’s emotional journey instead of just the first steps, even at the expense of some of the earlier comedy.

Laugh-out-loud funny, at times unashamedly filthy and at others unexpectedly poignant, Getting Over Everest is an entertaining and relatable hour of theatre that touches on some very topical issues – and above all reminds us (repeatedly) that “it’s okay to not be okay”.

Getting Over Everest is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 11th August.

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: Sacrifice at Soho Theatre

What would you be prepared to give up in order to live your dreams? In Andrew Muir’s Sacrifice, seven drama school graduates have followed their dream to London, only to find that the streets are paved in anything but gold. And when they wake one morning to find a strange man followed them home last night, they’re forced to face up to some harsh truths, both about their chosen profession and about themselves.

Sacrifice at Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Douet

This is not a random choice of topic for the Ardent8, a year-long scheme established by Andrew Muir and Mark Sands to provide emerging actors from outside the M25 with opportunities they might otherwise never be able to afford. And you get the sense that the cast of recent graduates understand all too well what their characters – who are all, with one exception, named after them – are going through, both as actors and as young people. (“I’m 24,” says Nathan incredulously, when Sam, the stranger, asks him if he owns his own home. That, it seems, is answer enough.)

A funny, fast-moving script sees multiple conversations – about poverty, racism, turning vegan, family dramas and much more – criss-crossing over each other as each of the seven roommates fixates on his or her own issues. Witty one-liners aside, the unwelcome presence of Sam as the “outsider” who’s not afraid to ask awkward questions, brings to the fore the fact that perhaps these friends don’t actually have a lot in common besides their choice of career. It’s possible, in fact, that they don’t even know or like each other that much – but they continue to stick together, out of financial necessity and a shared conviction that the phone is always about to ring with someone’s big break.

The cast (Sophie Coulter, Angela Crispim, Clare Hawkins, Henry Holmes, Nathan Linsdell, Jamie Parker, Garry Skimins and Sam Weston) work well as an ensemble to deliver an hour of theatre that’s both entertaining and relatable for a millennial audience – whether or not we’re trying to break into the acting profession. Their struggles are not only financial; along the way, like most of us, they also suffer crises of confidence, and of identity, and ultimately end up wondering if the career they’ve studied so hard for is ever going to be worth all the effort. There’s also an extra twist of intrigue to the play in Sam’s story, and our need to understand what motivates him to act as he does: he might not face the daily struggle for survival that the others do, but does that really mean he’s happy?

Sacrifice at Soho Theatre
Photo credit: Mark Douet

The Ardent8 began as an idea to open doors that might otherwise have remained forever closed. In Sacrifice, eight talented young actors prove they more than deserve to take their place on the London stage. Funny and challenging, the play makes us consider what’s really important, and the price we’re willing to pay – both financial and otherwise – to get our hands on it.

Sacrifice is at Soho Theatre until 4th August.

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… 😉