Review: Love Me Now at Tristan Bates Theatre

Love Me Now might be Michelle Barnette’s debut play, but there’s nothing tentative about this funny and infuriatingly on-the-money portrayal of dating and sex in 2018. B is an independent, modern woman, who for the last few months has been enjoying a casual sexual relationship with A. He said it could be whatever she wanted it to be – except she doesn’t really know what that is any more, and it turns out he didn’t really mean it anyway.

The fact that B (Helena Wilson) is not called A in her own story is our first clue that all is not well, even though initially the arrangement seems to be working out for both of them. It soon becomes clear that A (Alistair Toovey) repeatedly puts his own needs and desires – sexual and otherwise – before B’s, and on the one occasion she doesn’t let him get away with it, he labels her a psychopath, tries to physically and sexually assault her, and then tells her not to play the victim. Later, she starts dating C (Gianbruno Spena), who appears to be A’s opposite but turns out to be just as obnoxious and casually sexist – the only difference being he’s less upfront about it. And somehow in both cases, B ends up getting the blame when the relationship crashes and burns.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

And it’s with this important point that the play really makes an impact. We live in supposedly enlightened times, where anyone – male or female – can have any kind of relationship they want free of judgment, but the truth is attitudes haven’t really changed that much. So it’s fine for A to have six sexual partners at once, but if B does the same, she’s easy – and when it turns out she doesn’t, she’s a tease. On their third date, C presents B with a bracelet that his niece made for her, but when she speaks jokingly about reclaiming her virginity, he dumps her (over voicemail) because she’s “obviously looking for something serious”. She literally can’t win – and it’s maddening to watch, mostly because it’s so depressingly relatable.

In fact, the play thrives on its audience’s rage, with several deliberately provocative lines from both men that can’t fail to get a reaction. It’s quite something to not only see and hear but actually feel a theatre full of people respond, spontaneously and in perfect unison, to the actions of a character on stage – whether that reaction is hearty laughter (of which there is a lot) or shocked disgust (of which there is also quite a bit).

All three actors get their performances spot-on. Helena Wilson demonstrates an incredible emotional range, from confident and flirtatious in those fleeting moments where B has the upper hand, to shocked, angry and confused by the way both men have treated her. As A, Alistair Toovey has an irresistible boyish charm that leaves us in no doubt why B is attracted to him, but is just as convincing in his character’s darker moments; the climactic scene between them is genuinely frightening in its intensity. Despite having considerably less stage time, Gianbruno Spena is great as the dull and patronising C – and gets arguably one of the best audience reactions with his stunningly ill-judged attempt to stop B talking.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

The play makes use of multiple timelines, so that as well as B’s short-lived relationship with C, we also drop in on her time with A at various points. Jamie Armitage’s production neatly separates these moments in time with the help of Ben Jacobs’ excellent lighting design – but does little else to distinguish between them, which leaves the audience a little confused, particularly towards the end of the play, as to whether we’re in the past or present.

This small complaint aside, Love Me Now is a brilliant debut from Michelle Barnette. Her writing is witty and insightful, not afraid to go to some pretty bleak places, and I guarantee there will be something in it that everyone can relate to. Will it make you laugh? Definitely. Will it make you angry? Absolutely. Will it make you consider giving up dating altogether and getting a cat instead? Quite possibly. But should you go and see it? 100% yes.

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Review: torn apart (dissolution) at The Hope Theatre

One of the warnings on the door at Bj McNeill’s torn apart (dissolution) is of full frontal nudity. What it doesn’t mention is that this doesn’t just mean physical nakedness. Yes, the first three scenes of the play each begin with a couple having enthusiastic sex, but there’s a lot more going on here. Over 90 breathless, intense minutes, the six characters in this interlocking trio of love stories are stripped bare emotionally as well as sexually, as we touch on family, politics, drug addiction, homosexuality and much more.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

I previously saw the play at Theatre N16, where I remember being struck by the proximity of Szymon Ruszczewski’s set – a string cage that encloses the stage area – to the audience. At The Hope Theatre, if possible, we’re even closer to the action and there’s nowhere to hide as the three stories unfold mere inches away, sometimes quite literally in our faces. Alina (Nastazja Somers), a student in West Germany in the early 1980s, is locked in a passionate relationship with an American soldier (Charlie Allen) who’ll soon have to return home. Elliott (Elliott Rogers), in London in 1999, is in love with Australian backpacker Casey (Christina Baston) whose visa’s about to run out. And Holly (Sarah Hastings), now, is struggling to rationalise her decision to leave her perfect husband and embark on a relationship with Erica (Monty Leigh) – who’s dealing with problems and a past of her own.

There’s a secret that links the three couples together, which is gradually revealed piece by piece as the play goes on; seeing it for the second time it’s fascinating to see the little clues scattered along the way. But what ultimately unites them all, as the play’s title suggests, is the experience of lost love and the lasting impact this can have – and not only on those directly involved. The early scenes of carefree, passionate lovemaking soon feel like a distant memory as the clothes go on and the relationships begin to crumble. And though the three couples are indeed torn apart by circumstances beyond their control, it’s clear that, while their love is genuine, each also has (perhaps) insurmountable issues that may only be revealed in the privacy of their own bedroom.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The show’s main strength lies in its excellent cast, all but one of whom reprise their roles from torn apart‘s previous run in Balham. The relationships – both physical and otherwise – are totally convincing, and the actors play expertly on our emotions as they try desperately to hold on to what they have at any cost. McNeill has made a point of placing female characters at the centre of the action and allowing the female voice to come through loud and proud, particularly in Nastazja Somers’ Alina and Christina Baston’s Casey, who stand up for what they think is right rather than take the easy option, even if it means losing everything.

But McNeill also avoids falling into the trap of promoting women by relegating men to a one-dimensional role; both Charlie Allen and Elliott Rogers portray characters who are just as complex and damaged as the women they love. Sarah Hastings and Monty Leigh complete the cast as two women who come from very different backgrounds and have very different ideas about pretty much everything. They spend more time arguing than anything else, yet there’s a genuine tenderness in their relationship, and Holly’s desperate attempts to hold on to the life she’s only just discovered is particularly heartbreaking.

Fearless and uncompromising, torn apart (dissolution) is not a play that can be easily forgotten; nor is it one that everybody will agree on (and there’s enough material for several post-show discussions) – which just goes to show that when it comes to love, there are no right or wrong answers.

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Review: Kiss Me at Trafalgar Studios

Most single women have at some point bemoaned the lack of decent men. That throwaway line is put into sobering perspective in Richard Bean’s Kiss Me, where it’s quite literally true. It’s 1929, and Stephanie (not her real name) is a 32-year-old widow who wants a baby. Faced with a male population that’s been tragically depleted by World War 1, she finds herself forced to take an unconventional path. Enter Dennis (not his real name), a father-for-hire employed by the mysterious Dr Trollop, who by all accounts is extremely good at his job – as long as he stays within the parameters. That means no kissing on the lips, no real names, no sharing of any personal information, and definitely no second meetings.

Photo credit: Robert Day

Within minutes, we find ourselves drawn into a scenario that has the potential to be both very funny and horribly sad – and Kiss Me delivers on both fronts. This intense two-hander unfolds in Stephanie’s bedroom, with a mirrored back wall that brings the audience right into the heart of the action and makes us privy to every intimate detail of her life and loves. She’s a modern woman who smokes and drives a munitions lorry, and has no qualms about speaking her mind or standing up for her rights. In fact she seems incapable of holding anything back, even when she tries; in a powerful performance, Claire Lams reveals just as much in Stephanie’s pensive, silent moments as she does with all her character’s nervous chatter.

In contrast, Ben Lloyd-Hughes’ Dennis is a stickler for propriety, yet not without passion; he’s a soldier on his own personal mission, driven by an intense guilt over having survived the war when so many others didn’t. We never see him enter the room; the lights go up on each scene and there he is (director Anna Ledwich describes him gleefully in her programme notes as “seemingly summoned like a sex genie”). His speech, unlike Stephanie’s, is slow and considered, and where she resorts often to humour as a means of self-defence, he seems to hardly know what a joke is. They’re total opposites, yet somehow fit together perfectly (in a nice touch, he often finishes her sentences when the right word escapes her), and it’s no surprise when their initial encounter leads to something more, however doomed their relationship may feel from the start.

Photo credit: Robert Day

The chemistry between the two characters is as believable as it is surprising, and the desperate, relatable human desires that drive each of them toward the other make them easy to invest in emotionally; the play’s final revelation drew shocked gasps from more than one audience member. This does come with a side effect, though: because we can so easily relate to the characters, some of the more intimate scenes become quite awkward to watch – Stephanie’s own discomfort during her first meeting with Dennis is infectious, and her later willingness to chat at length about her clitoris equally disconcerting. (For different reasons, it’s also hard not to be taken aback by the use of the term “minger” to describe an unattractive woman – despite the hasty explanation that it’s an old Scottish word.)

The play’s conclusion is unexpectedly intriguing; we’re left with a good deal of unanswered questions about the future and the past for both characters, and still without a complete understanding of their motivations. This hint that the story may not be quite over is rather comforting, despite the frustrating knowledge that we’ll never know for sure what lies ahead.

Funny, poignant and offering a fresh perspective on the horrors of war, Kiss Me features two excellent performances and has an emotional and, to a certain degree, political heart that’s as relevant today as it would have been in 1929 – perhaps even more so.

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Review: Threads at The Hope Theatre

On the surface, David Lane’s Threads appears to be a standard break-up drama. Five years after she left him, Charlie (Samuel Lawrence) has finally managed to track down Vic (Katharine Davenport) and convinced her to come and visit him at their old flat. Vic’s moved on – new home, new job, new relationship – while Charlie’s struggling; he hasn’t left the flat for several years, but we’re about to discover that’s the least of his worries.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Because there’s much more to Threads than meets the eye, and Lane waits just the right amount of time for us to relax before casually taking the story in a new and decidedly unsettling direction. It turns out Charlie’s not just feeling a bit low; his life has quite literally stopped moving forward (I’ll leave it there for fear of spoilers). And Vic isn’t doing all that well herself – for all her protestations of “resolve”, the wall she’s consciously built around Charlie in her memory is crumbling before our eyes, as is the image she projects to the world of her perfect new life. At the centre of the play is the metaphor of threads that connect us to each other, and the impossibility of simply severing those cords and walking away when a relationship comes to an end.

Like the story, Jo Jones’ set takes the mundane setting of Charlie’s flat, complete with the sort of things you’d expect – armchair, kitchen, window – but adds a touch of Frankenstein-esque gothic weirdness to keep us on our toes. The dingy room gives off the vibe of a mad scientist’s workshop, and electric cables hang from the walls and ceiling and creep across the furniture, occasionally glowing with a crackling energy as the couple’s simmering, unresolved passion threatens to boil over. (I kept half expecting them to come to life and start moving on their own, but was very glad they didn’t; that way nightmares lie.)

That same energy also radiates from the actors, neither of whom seem able to keep still as they restlessly cover every inch of the space. Samuel Lawrence is jittery and anxious from the start, stammering and raising his voice in frustration at his inability to make Vic believe what he’s going through. Katharine Davenport, on the other hand, starts out cool, calm and collected – but there’s a rising tension as her defences begin to fall, and the explosion when it comes is unexpectedly fierce. The two initially appear to have little in common, yet there are shared moments of tenderness as they reflect on a memory or private joke, and it’s in these moments that we can appreciate what they once had together.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Director Pamela Schermann keeps up the intensity throughout, aided by light and sound design from Rachel Sampley and James Scriven, which are effective but not intrusive and allow our focus to remain on the human drama unfolding just inches away. The intimate Hope Theatre lends itself perfectly to this play, drawing us right inside the living room and holding us there just as it does Vic. By the end of the 70 minutes we’re left feeling exposed, and drained by the emotion of seeing laid bare an experience most of us will have gone through in some way during our lives, but may not have been able to articulate.

Threads is a highly original and unpredictable piece of theatre that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. It deals in metaphors without trying to be too clever, and remains a gripping human drama – whilst also providing plenty of food for thought for the train home.

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Review: One Last Thing (For Now) at the Old Red Lion Theatre

In one of the stories that make up Althea Theatre’s One Last Thing (For Now), a British soldier serving in Afghanistan asks his friend: if he didn’t come back, what would be the last words his fiancée at home had heard from him? And would they be enough?

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

The power of words – both shared and withheld – is a theme running through the show, which was devised with the company by director Lilac Yosiphon, and brings together stories of lives and loves touched by conflict across the world and across history. An American husband can’t tell his wife the truth about the war and its effect on him. A woman from Colombia struggles to master the English language so she can plead for help for her husband, who’s been kidnapped by FARC guerrillas. A French wife and mother can’t escape the words written to her by a German soldier years before, and a teacher from Israel sets one of her students an assignment that proves to have a surprising significance for them both.

These are just a few of the many plotlines skilfully interwoven throughout the show, each introduced by a different company member and returned to later as each story unfolds and develops. The international nature of the stories requires a range of accents and even languages from the cast of eight (Josephine Arden, Sam Elwin, Carolina Herran, Cole Michaels, Katerina Ntroudi, Tom Shah, Elizabeth Stretton and Thomas Wingfield), and both they and dialect coach Laura Keele deserve a lot of credit for their almost flawless delivery, and easy transitions from one to the next.

And it’s not just accents that change; each cast member takes on more than one significant role in the show, juggling comedy and tragedy with equal skill, but even with no introduction there’d be no problem telling the very different characters apart. It’s hard to choose favourites amongst such a universally talented cast, so I won’t try… and to be honest, several of my personal highlights were the moments the actors formed an ensemble – moving, listening, reacting, even breathing as one. Each of these moments is carefully choreographed and staged for maximum visual impact, with the images that conclude both Acts 1 and 2 most striking.

There’s no set to speak of, though designer Elliott Squire has created a simple yet very effective backdrop made up of blank pages cascading to the floor, and the actors make creative use of a selection of items (a chair, a wooden chest, a trombone…) not to mention their own bodies, to fill in the gaps in each picture to the point where you don’t even notice what’s missing.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

Though the play isn’t overtly political, it does have a few pointed comments to make about the impact of war on the individuals involved (both directly and indirectly), and on whether war is ever the answer. But there are moments that hit a little closer to home, too, like the seemingly lighthearted story of a carefree woman whose life has never been touched by conflict, or the harsh, insensitive treatment of an asylum seeker by a British journalist, who hears only what makes a good story and is deaf to her desperate pleas for help.

As in life, some of the stories in One Last Thing (For Now) end happily, others in tragedy. One has a shocking twist; some never conclude at all. There are a lot of distinct threads to this show, but combined they create a memorable and undeniably powerful portrayal of the universal human emotions that hold us all together, even in the worst of times and circumstances. Though not always an easy watch, it’s certainly an important – and recommended – one.

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