Review: soft animals at Soho Theatre

Don’t be fooled by the title of Holly Robinson’s debut play soft animals; despite the plethora of teddy bears scattered around the room, there’s nothing particularly cuddly about this hard-hitting two-hander. Directed by Lakesha Arie-Angelo, the play tackles grief and guilt through the surprising friendship of two very different women connected by a devastating tragedy: Sarah (Ellie Piercy), a well-off soon-to-be divorcee living in Fulham, and Frankie (Bianca Stephens), a black teenager from Birmingham struggling to cope with the demands of both uni and life.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

The tragedy is Sarah’s – the loss of a child in horrifying circumstances and subsequent nationwide condemnation of her as a mother and a woman – while Frankie’s direct involvement in the events of that day bring her to Sarah’s doorstep several months later. Over time the two become friends, though the dynamic of that friendship shifts constantly, and ultimately allows each to begin to see a way forward out of their own personal darkness.

The performances from Ellie Piercy and Bianca Stephens are perfectly pitched, the two of them bouncing off each other well as they deliver Robinson’s fast-paced, witty script. But there’s genuine tenderness between them too; if you can make it to the end of the play without at least a bit of a lump in your throat, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am. While Stephens is instantly likeable as the anxious and painfully vulnerable Frankie, Piercy’s Sarah doesn’t try too hard to win our sympathy, if anything going out of her way to make us – and the rest of the world – hate her because that’s what she thinks she deserves. It’s only by seeing her through Frankie’s eyes, behind closed doors, that we come to understand and feel for everything she’s gone through, and to question our own readiness to judge a total stranger based only on what we think we know of their crimes.

Just as the script reveals little by little the details of what happened, so too does Anna Reid’s deceptively simple set. Beginning as a single cube in the centre of the stage, it comes apart piece by piece to populate Sarah’s living room with furniture, with one final reveal towards the end reminding us forcefully of the gaping absence at the heart of the story. This is reinforced throughout by the appearance of soft toys from London’s various tourist attractions, which sit sadly around the room as a reminder that there’s nobody here to love and play with them.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

soft animals is an incredibly accomplished debut from Holly Robinson, tackling difficult themes with great sensitivity while also drawing us in with a compelling story. The friendship between Sarah and Frankie is unlikely but entirely believable, and each character feels authentic despite her unusual and tragic circumstances. This is a powerful piece of new writing that will break your heart – but then might just quietly put it back together again. Highly recommended.

soft animals is at Soho Theatre until 2nd March.

Review: The Orchestra at Omnibus Theatre

The show must go on… but at what cost? In Jean Anouilh’s The Orchestra, set just after World War II, petty in-fighting and lingering suspicions between the members of an orchestra in a small French spa town contrast sharply with their jaunty repertoire. Under the watchful eye of the manager, they must play on despite mounting tensions, uncomfortable revelations, and an unexpected climax to the evening’s entertainment.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Set in real time, the 50-minute play alternates between musical interludes and the snatches of conversation in between, and sometimes during, the performances. From these we learn that leader Mme. Hortense (Amanda Osborne) and cellist Suzanne (Stefania Licari) are love rivals, fighting inexplicably over the orchestra’s meek pianist – and sole male – M. Leon (Pedro Casarin); violinists Patricia (Luna Dai) and Pamela (Sarah Waddell) clash over their very different views on sex and relationships; and flautist Leona (Jessica Hulme) is forced to sit and gasp appreciatively as Ermeline (Charlotte Laporte) talks at length about her marital problems. And all the while, the manager (Toph Enany) prowls in and out of the theatre – having also made his presence felt in the bar before the show – as a constant reminder of the pressure to paste on a smile and perform.

There’s an undercurrent of dark humour in Anouilh’s text, translated by Jeremy Sams, though it’s more of the satirical than the laugh out loud variety. Bickering and breakdowns are delivered with conviction by the internationally diverse cast, with Amanda Osborne particularly enjoyable as she tries to keep the group upbeat and focused on the task at hand. While the other characters’ conversations establish a backdrop of ongoing frustration with their own lives, the love triangle that connects Mme. Hortense with Stefania Licari’s melodramatic Suzanne and Pedro Casarin’s perpetually flustered M. Leon is more immediate and explosive, providing some drama and preventing the play from becoming too static.

Photo credit: Jacob Malinski

Unfortunately the musical scenes in Kristine Landon-Smith’s production – with the exception of the final one – don’t hold our attention in the same way, and this frequent loss of engagement means the play never quite takes off. The cast do a convincing job of miming along with the recorded soundtrack, but besides a few sideways glances and the odd bit of dialogue, there’s often not that much going on. Perhaps this is deliberate, to emphasise the divide between the players’ professional and personal demeanours; that certainly comes across very effectively. But it does mean that after a while – each piece is a good couple of minutes – the audience is left with not much to look at, the cheerful tunes we’re listening to (composed by Felix Cross) already having been dismissed by members of the orchestra themselves as little more than background music for a polite but indifferent audience.

Most of us have, at some point, had to put aside workplace squabbles and present a united front in the name of professionalism. Anouilh’s play presents a heightened version of that scenario, taking it to absurd lengths and setting it in a very particular time and place, but it remains enjoyably relatable – and this production, while not perfect, is a welcome revival.

The Orchestra is at the Omnibus Theatre until 17th February.

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Review: TARO at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Last week when I reviewed Gentleman Jack, the first of two new plays that make up Arrows & Traps’ Female Firsts repertory season, I described it as “perhaps more understated than some of their previous work”. The same can certainly not be said for TARO, the second piece. In fact, Ross McGregor’s biopic of Gerda Taro feels a lot like the Arrows’ greatest hits compilation (there’s even a cameo for the snow machine from Anna Karenina), but if it’s your first time seeing them in action… well, let’s just say you’ve picked a good one – possibly even the company’s best.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Born Gerta Pohorylle in 1910, Gerda Taro (Cornelia Baumann and Lucy Ioannou) was a German Jewish war photographer. Forced to leave her home by the rise of the Nazis, at the age of 23 she moved to Paris, where she met and fell in love with the Hungarian photographer Endre Friedmann (Tom Hartill). Faced with growing anti-semitic prejudice in Europe, the couple worked together under an invented alias, Robert Capa, before Gerta assumed her own professional identity and began working openly as Gerda Taro.

We hear this account from Gerda herself who, following her death in Spain at the age of just 26, looks back over her short life in an imagined conversation with her idol, Greta Garbo (Beatrice Vincent). Garbo adopts the role of director and under her guiding hand, the story of Gerda Taro comes magically to life.

And it really is a magical experience to watch it unfold. TARO is, quite simply, a meticulously choreographed masterclass in ensemble performance; a play in which every member of the cast shines individually but also forms part of a perfectly engineered and visually gorgeous whole. Movement director Matthew Parker has created some exquisite sequences, highlighted by stunningly atmospheric lighting from Ben Jacobs, and the whole piece has the feeling of both a story and a production far more epic than their intimate staging might suggest.

As in Gentleman Jack, the central character of Gerda Taro becomes a dual role, allowing the living Gerda to be observed wistfully by her ghostly counterpart. Both Lucy Ioannou and Cornelia Baumann are extraordinary, each radiating a quiet dignity in the face of tragedy and prejudice respectively. Among a host of great performances, Tom Hartill makes an incredibly charming Endre, Alex Stevens cuts a sympathetic figure as the couple’s friend and fellow photographer David “Chim” Seymour, and Beatrice Vincent oozes class and elegance as the legendary Greta Garbo.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative

Being labelled the first female photographer to be killed in action may seem like a dubious honour, particularly since Endre Freidmann – as Robert Capa – would go on to be dubbed by some the greatest war photographer in history. But those few words sum up so much about Gerda Taro: her courage, talent, passion, determination and above all, her refusal to let a little thing like being female – or indeed Jewish – stop her succeeding at a job she loved. All those qualities shine through in this beautiful tribute, which so clearly comes from a place of deep respect and admiration. What more can I say? An incredible life honoured by a gorgeous, goosebump-inducing production – you really don’t want to miss this one.

TARO is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 16th February, performed in rep with Gentleman Jack – check the website for dates of each show.

Review: Cuzco at Theatre503

Machu Picchu isn’t the only thing in ruins by the end of Cuzco, an intense two-hander about the fiery death of a relationship by Spanish playwright Víctor Sánchez Rodríguez. In an attempt to salvage their relationship, He and She have travelled to Peru – but their dream holiday quickly turns sour. As the play begins, He wants to go out with another Spanish couple they’ve befriended. She is not so keen, claiming altitude sickness and choosing to stay behind. When She does venture out of the hotel, it’s to immerse herself in the local culture (arguably a little too enthusiastically), while He is seduced by the charms of his new friends and pays little attention to his surroundings.

Photo credit: Holly Lucas

Nor does the audience get to enjoy the sights and sounds of the Inca trail, except at second hand. Far from rebuilding their relationship, the couple seem to spend most of the time apart; the play is set in a series of soulless hotel rooms – perfectly captured by Stephanie Williams’ simple set – in which they each take it in turns to describe what they’ve experienced to the other in great detail. It’s a parting of the ways in every possible sense, and although there are a few surprises in store before the end, the story ultimately plays out with crushing inevitability. Perhaps because we don’t get to see more than a snatched moment or two of the couple seeming happy together, we can never imagine any other outcome than what eventually happens.

The premise of the play is a good one, and the direction by Kate O’Connor and performances from Dilek Rose and Gareth Jones are all excellent. Where the play stumbles a little is in transmitting the intense passions between the characters to the audience. Neither He nor She is ever particularly likeable – though certainly they both have moments where we lean more to one side or the other – and there’s not enough variety in their interactions; because all they do from the very first scene is argue, it’s difficult for us to feel invested in their relationship, or to care very much when the end finally comes. In fact there are several moments where you’re left wondering why they even felt the relationship was worth coming all this way to save in the first place.

What is interesting about Cuzco, however, is that while in some respects it’s a very down-to-earth, everyday tale, at the same time the play has an increasingly otherworldly feel. Part of this lies in the story itself, which returns throughout to the fascination of both characters – She in particular – with Incan mythology and symbolism, but above all it’s in the way the play is written. William Gregory has translated Sánchez Rodríguez’s evocative language beautifully into English without losing any of its distinctive Spanish feel. And if that means sacrificing a little bit of realism – this couple argue far more eloquently than any I’ve ever met – it’s worth it for the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the poetry.

Photo credit: Holly Lucas

Despite some incredibly emotional scenes, Cuzco on the whole feels aimed more at the head than the heart, and as such it may not appeal to everyone. The play does, however, ask some interesting and at times uncomfortably probing questions about why and how people choose to travel, and the impact that experience can have on both the traveller and the cultures they set out to explore. Not the most emotionally engaging play, perhaps, but beautifully written – and it certainly leaves you with plenty to think about.

Cuzco is at Theatre503 until 16th February.

Review: No Show at Soho Theatre

Ellie Dubois’ No Show is a circus performance with a difference. It features five talented female circus professionals – Francesca Hyde, Kate McWilliam, Michelle Ross, Alice Gilmartin and Camille Toyer – each of whom makes us gasp in awe and disbelief as she demonstrates her “best trick”.

Photo credit: Chris Reynolds

So far, so standard. But this is not your usual seamless programme of death-defying stunts from a band of superhumans. These women are amazing acrobats – but they also get out of breath, fall over, argue and compete amongst themselves. They do tricks traditionally performed by men, in defiance of the expectation that because they’re girls they have to do only the dainty stuff. And they talk to the audience, explaining the huge physical risks they run each time they perform, and the difficulties they must contend with as women in a male-dominated world.

Most importantly, they look like they’re enjoying themselves; the first group routine might resemble the opening to a traditional circus show if not for the performers’ whoops of excitement as they throw themselves around the stage. They also chat amongst themselves as well as to the audience, giving the show a nicely improvised feel – at times it’s impossible to tell what’s planned and what’s made up on the spot.

But it’s not all good times and giggles. This show has a point to make, and for all our enjoyment, there are also parts of the performance that are deeply uncomfortable. One running joke involves Alice Gilmartin being interrupted each time she tries to address the audience, and bullied into performing increasingly dangerous handstands for our entertainment. Later in the show, Michelle Ross demonstrates her high trapeze routine on the floor because the venue’s too small for her to do it for real, and no larger theatres would have them. At one point all five pose in a series of graceful positions, their bored expressions revealing exactly how they feel about it. And unlike in most traditional circus performances where the action is non-stop and the audience barely acknowledged, there are periods where the acrobats simply sit and watch us just as intently as we’re watching them.

Photo credit: Chris Reynolds

The message is clear: life as a professional circus performer is far from as glamorous as we’re often led to believe. It’s hard and painful; there’s relentless pressure to always do better and give the audience more; and for women, there’s the additional obstacle of the gender stereotypes that would restrict them to a limited range of specialisms. No Show strips away the distance that traditionally exists between acrobats and audience – these may be highly trained professionals, but they’re also very down-to-earth, likeable women who are doing what they love on their own terms. The result is a thrilling, surprising and challenging hour’s entertainment.

No Show is at Soho Theatre until 9th February.

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