Review: In Other Words at The Hope Theatre

Off the Middle’s Matthew Seager was inspired to write his debut play, In Other Words, by 10 weeks facilitating sensory stimulation workshops in a dementia care home during his last year of uni. A residency with the Lyric Hammersmith’s Emerging Artists Programme followed, and now In Other Words finds its way to the Hope Theatre, directed by Paul Brotherston.

The story follows Arthur and Jane throughout 50 years of their relationship, charting the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s disease on their marriage and life together. It’s an undoubtedly harrowing play to watch – don’t expect to leave without shedding a tear or several – but also contains a glimmer of hope. Because this is also a story about music and its incredible ability to anchor people in reality, even when little else remains of the person they once were.

Photo credit: Alex Fine
Photo credit: Alex Fine

Much of the play’s impact is felt in the performances of Matthew Seager and Celeste Dodwell, who are both devastatingly good in their roles as Arthur and Jane. In good times and bad, their relationship is 100% believable – as is Seager’s careful portrayal of dementia as Arthur gradually slips away, and Dodwell’s of Jane’s gut-wrenching grief. The whole play is unflinchingly, brutally honest about the experience of living with Alzheimer’s – not just for Arthur, but for Jane too, who stays at her husband’s side as he descends into a spiral of denial, confusion and rage, but not without privately confessing feelings of resentment, anger, and guilt at having failed to spot the signs and do something sooner.

Apart from one passing reference to middle age, it’s not totally clear how old the couple are meant to be or how quickly the disease is progressing, the only real hint of context in the Sinatra-led soundtrack. Even so, the two actors are clearly younger than their characters – a harsh reminder that dementia sufferers aren’t just “old people”, but people who were once young and full of life: dancing, falling in love, laughing, arguing, singing badly – just like the rest of us. The couple tell us their story together, looking back with tenderness on their happy times as well as the harder years, the love between them as alive as it was in the beginning. And through it all, one song – Fly Me To The Moon – has the power to reach out and heal any wounds, however deep they may be.

Photo credit: Alex Fine
Photo credit: Alex Fine

In a space too small for set changes (or indeed much of a set at all), lighting and sound design from Will Alder and Iida Aino combine to situate the action: in a busy pub with music playing in the background; in a living room so silent and full of pain that a ticking clock becomes the only sound; in the doctor’s office as Arthur struggles to remember three simple words… Each detail is spot on and beautifully observed, as are the scenes in which Arthur’s thoughts are drowned out by a wave of white noise and blue light that fills the space in moments when it all gets too much.

In Other Words makes no excuses and covers up none of the harsh details of living with dementia. But it also paints a picture of a love that endures – and will continue to endure – even beyond the cruellest of circumstances. Funny and heartbreaking, charming and brutal, this is a powerful debut that’s not to be missed… but remember to take tissues.


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Review: Dirty Great Love Story at the Arts Theatre

In a world that feels increasingly dark and depressing, a little light relief goes a long way. Dirty Great Love Story by Katie Bonna and Richard Marsh is a sweet, heart-warming romantic comedy about a perfectly imperfect couple, a much-needed bit of escapism for fans of Bridget Jones, Notting Hill, Friends, even Harry Potter – and if you also happen to be single and in your 30s, I recommend getting yourself down to the Arts Theatre for a good old giggle.

Recently heartbroken hen Katie and lonely, geeky stag Rich wake up together in a Travelodge after a boozy one night stand. She can’t get out of there fast enough, despite his awkward attempts to make her stay – but when two of their friends unexpectedly get together, it seems they’re doomed to keep bumping into each other. Will they overcome their differences and realise they’re meant to be together? (Obviously, we all know the answer – but let’s pretend we don’t.)

Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

The show was originally performed by its writers, but now stars Ayesha Antoine and Felix Scott, who in taking Katie and Rich’s names still leave us wondering whether the story we’re hearing, with all its toe-curlingly embarrassing details, is actually autobiographical. Like all the best romantic comedies, Dirty Great Love Story brings together two flawed but ultimately likeable characters – the cheers of support from the audience as Rich prepares to declare his love are heartfelt and genuine. The pair also play an assortment of the couple’s annoying friends, switching with ease between accents and personalities, but it’s in their scenes as the two main characters that sparks really fly.

Dirty Great Love Story began life as a 10-minute “poetry duet”, and the full-length show maintains this rhyming verse – but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all that roses are red nonsense; it turns out you can make poetry out of anything, including boob bothering, gluten-free croissants and even an unfortunate vomiting incident at the worst possible time. The use of language combined with the actors’ skilful comedy performances result in some full-on belly laughs – even if a few of them are prompted more by surprise (of the “did they really just say that?!” variety) than anything else.

Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard
Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Director Pia Furtado and designer Camilla Clarke wisely keep the staging simple, allowing the actors and the writing to take centre stage, armed only with a couple of stools and a fabulous pair of sparkly heels. This means we don’t have to waste time with costume or set changes, and the show can keep flowing at an enjoyable pace. That said, there is one nice touch at the end from lighting designer Mark Howland that offers a final cheeky wink to the cheesy sentimental rom com format we all know and love (to affectionately mock).

Dirty Great Love Story is the perfect night out for girls and guys – unlike most romantic comedies, which focus on just one side of the story, this takes on both. The result is a show that celebrates love in all its clumsy, embarrassing, screwed up glory, and brings our favourite romantic cliche – “opposites attract” – firmly back where it belongs. Highly recommended.


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Review: Torn Apart (Dissolution) at Theatre N16

Torn Apart (Dissolution), written and directed by Bj McNeill, is an intense and compelling drama about three couples. Though their stories take place years and miles apart, there’s a common theme of love and loss – not only of partners but of family, home and history – as well as an actual connection between the three that’s revealed a little at a time, with the final piece falling into place just moments before the end.

In 1980s West Germany, young Polish student Alina (Nastazja Somers) falls for an American soldier (Simon Donohue), even though she knows that sooner or later he’ll have to follow his duty and leave her behind. In 1999, Elliott (Elliott Rogers), a chef from London, and Casey (Christina Baston), a backpacker from Melbourne, try to come to terms with the fact their relationship has an expiry date dictated by the Home Office. And in present day Britain, Holly (Sarah Hastings) finally plucks up the courage to leave her perfect husband for Erika (Monty Leigh), but their new-found happiness is threatened by devastating news.

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Photo credit: Yuebi Yang

Szymon Ruszczewski’s set is visually striking: the stage, at the centre of which is a double bed, is enclosed within a large cage made of string. This creates a space that is at once intimate and claustrophobic – inside it the lovers make plans, laugh, dance, argue, have sex, and share the complex family histories that ultimately bind them together. At times they play with and caress the strings that surround them, while at others they reach out through them in a desperate attempt to be free.

The play holds nothing back, in emotional or physical terms, and the audience is placed in the sometimes quite uncomfortable position of the voyeur, watching a series of deeply private encounters unfold. This effect is heightened by the absence of a curtain call; as we leave the theatre, two of the actors remain on stage in a final embrace, seemingly unaware that we’ve ever been there (similarly, the action is already underway as we enter, with the same two actors enjoying a night of passion that leaves little to the imagination).

The play is gripping throughout, with some powerful performances from its excellent cast. Elliott Rogers and Monty Leigh are particularly impressive as two of the most damaged characters, Elliott and Erika, who simultaneously can’t believe their luck and are terrified of losing the person they love to forces beyond their control. It’s only at the end that the play seems to suddenly run out of energy. A crucial closing scene is unnecessarily repetitive and takes rather too long to make its point, which means we lose momentum in the run-up to the big final revelation, and it doesn’t have quite the dramatic impact that it should.

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Photo credit: Yuebi Yang

Torn Apart (Dissolution) is a love story, but not in the traditional sense; nobody’s riding off into the sunset in this tale. It makes us pause and consider what love means to us – is it something to be desired, or feared? And yet, surprisingly, this is not as bleak a story as it might sound. Each of the characters gains something from their relationship, even if it’s just the memory of what it feels like to be loved, perhaps for the first time in their life. So while it’s not a happy ending, it’s not without an element of hope as well.

Full of drama, passion and emotion, Torn Apart is a heartfelt and ambitious play that speaks to us all in some way. If it could maintain its pace and energy right to the end, there’s a powerful piece of theatre here.

Torn Apart (Dissolution) is at Theatre N16 until 30th September.


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Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Marlowe Theatre

In case anyone’s missed it, this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. To mark the life and achievements of one of our greatest Britons, the RSC has embarked on a massive and daunting task: a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, bringing together an ethnically diverse cast made up of professionals and amateurs to celebrate the universal scope of not only Shakespeare, but theatre in general.

It’s a risky project, fraught with challenges and potential pitfalls, but there’s no sign of nerves from the cast at the Marlowe, which includes members of local group the Canterbury Players and children from King Ethelbert School in Birchington. It seems unfair to label the newcomers ‘amateurs’, though; all take to the stage with such aplomb – in particular Lisa Nightingale, who almost steals the whole show as the RSC’s first ever female Bottom – that you’d think they’ve been performing with the company all their lives.

Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Director Erica Whyman has set the familiar tale in a crumbling, post-war Britain, a time of hardship but also of hope for a brighter future. As the nation prepares for a royal wedding, four lovers escape into the woods, and a band of amateur actors meet to rehearse a play. But little do they all know they’re entering a world of fairy magic and mischief, and that after this night, their lives will never be the same again. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible plays – there’s a reason we all studied it at school – and there’s plenty to enjoy for young and old audience members alike in this chaotic and colourful version.

In an excellent cast, Lucy Ellinson shines with her spiky-haired Puck. Clearly enjoying doing her master’s bidding and causing as much chaos as she can, she covers every inch of Tom Piper’s versatile set (and beyond) with seemingly limitless energy. There’s great physical comedy from the four lovers (Mercy Ojelade, Laura Riseborough, Chris Nayak and Jack Holden) as the men threaten violence and the women actually attempt it – and as Oberon and Titania, Chu Omambala and Ayesha Dharker bring a vibrant party atmosphere to their fairy realm.

Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a timeless and irresistible story about love, and the things we’re willing to do for it. Whether it’s romantic love, parental love or simply a love for our art, it can lead us into madness – but it can also inspire us to greatness. It’s fair to say there’s more than a hint of madness about the RSC’s epic scheme to create a Play for the Nation… but there’s plenty of greatness too – not just for those of us who already love Shakespeare but, more importantly, for the next generation of theatre lovers. Here’s to another 400 years!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, until 23rd April.