Review: Once Upon a Snowflake at Chelsea Theatre

Given that we had our first (very brief) snow of winter last week, the timing of Paper Balloon’s alternative Christmas show Once Upon a Snowflake seems particularly appropriate. Combining live music, shadow puppetry and storytelling, Once Upon a Snowflake introduces us to three spriteologists, who begin by smugly informing us (in song, no less) that there’s nothing they don’t know about sprites. But when a young girl disappears after an encounter with a mischievous winter sprite, they’re forced to enlist the audience’s help in solving the mystery.

Photo credit: Paper Balloons

The show has plenty to delight audiences of all ages: catchy songs, colourful costumes, plenty of witty references to popular stories, and – naturally – a bit of audience participation (the section in which the cast improvise a story and song with suggestions and props supplied by their young audience is a highlight, if only to see how they manage to turn a shoe and an umbrella into a footballing dinosaur). As in all the best family shows, the humour is carefully pitched so it can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, and there’s even an educational element: while we may not all believe in winter sprites, there’s still a lot to learn for all ages, whether it’s that polar bears don’t live in Antarctica, or that sometimes even so-called experts get things wrong.

But what makes this production really stand out from your typical seasonal family show is the skilful use of light and shadow puppetry, which are put to magical effect throughout the show, particularly when telling us about the missing Liza; it proves as fascinating for the grown-ups as it is for the children to watch her dream-like world come alive. The shadow work is incorporated seamlessly into spirited performances from Alex Kanefsky and Dorie Kinnear who, as well as spriteologists, also play at various points Liza, her parents, her neighbour and even the chatty sprite she discovers in her pocket one day, all while interacting with their (at times unpredictable) audience.

The two also have excellent support from Joseph Hardy, who not only plays an impressive number of musical instruments (frequently all at once, with the aid of a loop pedal) but also sings and provides wonderfully creative and entertaining sound effects for the story. Darren Clark’s music – like the rest of the production, which was originally directed by Maria Litvinova – has a very Russian folk feel to it, all of which adds to the show’s unique character and style.

Photo credit: Paper Balloons

Once Upon a Snowflake is charming, quirky and different, sidestepping the usual panto conventions but still delivering a heartwarming Christmassy message about acceptance and friendship. Perhaps the story might go a little over the heads of some younger children – but it’s beautifully presented, and the show has more than enough joyous energy to keep most little ones spellbound regardless.

Once Upon a Snowflake is at Chelsea Theatre until 22nd December.

Interview: Nina Brazier and Hanna Grzeskiewicz, The Winter’s Tale

This Friday, RADA Studios Theatre will play host to a unique interpretation of The Winter’s Tale from award-winning contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment. The hour-long piece combines live music with Shakespeare’s drama, focusing on the jealousy and fury of King Leontes when he believes his pregnant wife Hermione has been unfaithful with his best friend and is carrying his baby.

“It’s the original Shakespeare play, pared down to an hour of its core elements and portrayed through a musical as well as a theatrical perspective,” explains director Nina Brazier, who adapted the original text for the production. “The Hermes Experiment are a group dedicated to pushing the boundaries of their craft, and it is their first project involving theatre.

“Alongside The Hermes Experiment, composer Kim Ashton and myself have led the devising process with five extraordinary actors: Christopher Adams, William McGeough, Sadie Parsons, Robert Willoughby and Louisa Hollway. The music plays an equal part as the text in bringing the drama to life, with the actors, the music and the musicians become intrinsically intertwined.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The Hermes Experiment are Héloïse Werner (soprano and co-director), Oliver Pashley (clarinet), Marianne Schofield (double bass), Anne Denholm (harp) and Hanna Grzeskiewicz (producer and co-director) who explains, “We’re a contemporary ensemble made up of harp, clarinet, soprano and double bass. We are mainly a musical ensemble, but we are very interested in working with different art forms – we have worked with a photographer, dancers, and now also actors. Aside from work with other art forms we commission new music for our group, and have commissioned now 40 composers to write for us, arrange better known works, and improvise. We started in late 2013, soon after we all graduated from Cambridge University, which is where we all met – and we all wanted to do something unique and innovative musically.

“We’d been planning to do a project that fuses music and drama for a while – we were interested in what would happen if we brought all these creative minds together, and we hoped that the practice of the actors and the musicians would be enhanced by working with the other – and luckily we think it did! We had a few ideas, but eventually settled on Shakespeare: people know the plots so we could play around with it, the musicality of his language lends itself to working with music, and who doesn’t love Shakespeare!”

The show was developed during a residency at Aldeburgh Music in September 2016. “The devising process gave us permission to think in a completely new way about how we approached the text, and allowed us to explore Shakespeare from a musical as well as theatrical perspective,” says Nina. “During the process we used movement and gesture as much as text and music, feeling that we were creating a theatrical language that extended beyond the written and spoken word. As composer Kim Ashton said in his blog, we began ‘layering text, music and movement together in a variety of ways, such that each strand is dominant or subordinate at different moments, sharing equally in the unfolding of the narrative’.

“This heightened theatricality is fully integrated with the music, not only extending the emotions of the character but communicating the symbolic content of The Winter’s Tale.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The piece was first performed in a one night showcase at the Cockpit Theatre in December, where it was well received by critics. “It’s a completely new and original way of seeing Shakespeare,” says Nina. “Following our performance at the Cockpit, The Winter’s Tale was described as ‘groundbreaking’ (The Reviews Hub), ‘resourceful and inventive’ (The CUSP) and ‘skilfully crafted’ (London Theatre 1). The performance ‘gripped the capacity audience from beginning to end’ (Early Music Reviews) and was seen as ‘an exciting trend to start’ (Schmopera) with ‘tautly-directed action’ (The Evening Standard).”

The show is far from the only project for The Hermes Experiment, who have a busy year coming up. Hanna explains, “After The Winter’s Tale, we have about a month off and then we are performing as part of Colourscape Festival, we are doing a recital as part of the Park Lane Group concert series, and in November we are going to Russia to perform at a contemporary music festival in St Petersburg. We will be revealing even more projects we have coming up in the coming weeks so keep checking our website and social media for updates!”

Catch The Winter’s Tale at RADA Studios Theatre on Friday 11th August. And you can follow The Hermes Experiment on Twitter and Facebook for news and updates.

Review: LOOP at Theatre N16

Few things prompt more heated debate than our taste in music (it’s definitely the source of most tension in my office). We all think our own favourites are the best, and anyone who disagrees with us is automatically wrong. Yet our passion for music – any music – can also bring us together like little else, whether it’s casual banter with a stranger at a gig or a huge one-off event like last weekend’s One Love Manchester concert.

BoxLess Theatre’s LOOP takes us through three generations of one family, set to a soundtrack of the music that both unites and divides them. In the 1960s, a young woman leaves behind her home in London and sets off for a new life in Manchester. In the 80s, her teenage daughter comes home from a gig with a new boyfriend in tow – and in 2017, that same couple struggle to find common ground with their own 19-year-old son, who ultimately finds himself returning to his grandmother’s hometown in search of answers.

Though music is the common thread that links all three stories, it doesn’t dominate or overwhelm Alexander Knott’s script, which is very much character-driven. In a fast-moving introductory monologue delivered by Emily Thornton, we experience all the hopes and fears of The Woman as she leaves home for the first time and ventures out into a scary new world. Later, she returns as both mother and grandmother, perfectly capturing not only the physical changes but also the lifelong emotional fragility of a woman whose life hasn’t gone the way she hoped it would. James Demaine closes the show as the Young Man, with an equally powerful story of teenage angst and artistic ambition, but perhaps the most enjoyable – and humorous – scenes are those between the Boy and the Girl, played by Aaron Price and Rubie Ozanne, whose fledgling teenage romance is adorably awkward and very believable.

Completing the show’s finely tuned balance of words and music is the movement, directed by Zöe Grain. Working with a set that consists of just a few boxes that are rearranged for each new setting, the cast travel on trains, dance in clubs, and walk the busy city streets in this highly physical piece of theatre. In one effective scene, an act of violence becomes strangely beautiful as it unfolds in exquisite slow motion. Each of the four-strong ensemble performs these moves with precision, energy and perfect timing to bring their characters and the world around them to life.

LOOP has a little bit of everything; it’s funny and heartwarming yet not without moments of poignancy, and nostalgic but also very current – and by combining storytelling with movement and music, directors Alexander Knott and Zöe Grain have given the company an opportunity to demonstrate their broad range of talents. This is an exciting debut from BoxLess Theatre, and definitely worth a visit for music lovers of any generation.

LOOP is at Theatre N16 until 10th June.

Interview: Cath Mattos, Wandsworth Fringe 2017

Cath Mattos is producer of the Wandsworth Fringe, which launched last week in South West London and continues until 21st May. Now in its eighth year, and four years old as a standalone festival, the Wandsworth Fringe came out of the Wandsworth Arts Festival, which originally started in response to Black History Month. “The festival is a spotlight on creativity in Wandsworth, as well as being a testing ground for new work,” explains Cath. “We moved toward a Fringe model as there was so much grass roots support and the creative companies in the area wanted to be a part of the festival in May.

“I started working on the 2014 festival for exactly this reason, to bring more knowledge and experience of Fringe Festivals and to work with the Enable LC Arts Team and the WAF steering group to help carve a model that would work for the area and its cultural economy.”

As always, the festival offers a varied programme of events and entertainment. “There is so much on offer – we’ll be shaking up South West London with an eclectic programme of arts and culture that will thrill, move and inspire audiences from across the city,” promises Cath. “We have many talented local artists and producers but also performers who are bringing their talent from around the UK, Europe, North America and beyond to entertain and bring excitement to the streets and venues across the Borough.

“The festival is emphatically inclusive and welcomes participation from artists across all art forms – including outdoor arts, theatre, music, dance, comedy and everything in between. WAF provides the opportunity and support to try something new, take creative risks, test new ideas and reach new audiences.

“As a non-curated festival, the themes that have emerged reflect the world in 2017. Identity and difference plays a large part in the line up, as do environmental and current political concerns. There is a significant amount of work being presented by inclusive arts companies about disability issues, as well as work that explores gender and feminism.

“We also try and bring the arts to people, by literally leaving our own comfort zone and going into those hard to reach places. For example, during WAF you can see quite a few performances that focus on issues of mental health or disability, and certain shows will be supported by British sign language as a way to make the festival relevant and accessible to all.”

Unsurprisingly, preparations for the festival start early, and go on for most of the year: “We start the planning for the Fringe year during the evaluation of the previous festival in June,” explains Cath. “Then we start our first networking events in September and open an expression of interest phase, which we use to encourage as many interesting and unusual artists and producers as possible to come and find out about the festival and think about taking part.

“We advise artists and emerging producers on suitable venues and potential funding avenues. WAF has a dedicated grants funding scheme and we advise artists with their applications to this. It’s an open access festival, so anyone can register to take part as long as they have a venue sorted. Once all the artists are registered we then put a brochure together and the listings on our website, and start to sell tickets to the shows and promote the free events.

“We aim to make the festival as accessible as possible to both artists and audiences by having affordable options and many free events.”

So what are some of the many highlights to look forward to at the Wandsworth Fringe 2017? “Fragility Takeover The Arches at St. Mary’s Church under Putney Bridge and The Cat’s Back Pub in Wandsworth Town, and are hosting some cutting edge theatre and quirky Edinburgh previews,” suggests Cath.

“There’s also Super Hamlet 64: Parody DLC – armed with an ocarina, a ukulele and a thirst for revenge, Lecoq-trained Edward Day battles four decades of video game nostalgia, in an explosion of Shakespeare, live music, video projection and 16 bit mayhem. Odjo – King of the Ocean is a new show from The Comedy Cats, about a reporter who spent three months living at sea with an idiot fisherman named Odjo, witnessing bizarre martial arts practices, unruly animal impressions and unhealthy absurdities that reduced him to tears of laughter.

“Hidden Heathbrook is a weekend of outdoor arts in Heathbrook Park; we have leading large scale puppet makers Puppets With Guts, orchestrating the largest giant rampaging rhinoceros stampede in South London, and Hikapee’s brand new show Home weaves together slapstick comedy with breathtaking aerial acrobatics, to create a ‘house’ for you to explore. This weekend is one not to miss!

“And An Elemental Cycle of Life and Death in Four Acts is an intense and intimate experience encircling art, theatre, ritual and shamanic story weaving of the Fabulous and the Magickal, and of all that lies Betwixt and Between. The Transience create doorways to worlds which may or may not exist and are inviting you into an initiation where you are likely to lose or find yourself, for there is never any telling which. Sssh, secret locations!”

Interview: BoxLess Theatre, LOOP

Opening next month at Theatre N16, LOOP is the debut production from BoxLess Theatre. The show charts three generations of one family, from 1965 to the present day, and explores how they evolve, change and fall in love along with the music that they listen to.

Resident Writer Alexander Knott and Artistic Director Zoë Grain collaborated on the creation of LOOP, combining words and moves with music from the 60s, 80s and present day. “The show was inspired by Zöe, who knew she wanted to do a piece that was intrinsically about music, and how it can be the soundtrack to our lives,” explains Alexander. “That, and the image of a Walkman and a set of 80s headphones. From there we brainstormed the characters and arrived at different ways of how they could be related. It was quite late on in the writing that it was apparent that they were all one family – for a while, it was just a series of unconnected vignettes, but now it’s more of a sequential story.”

“The project was jumpstarted when Second Sons Theatre asked us to devise a ten minute piece for their ‘Play Time’ festival of new writing, last September,” continues Zoë. “Alexander worked up some draft monologues and we devised a short scene, that gave the essence of the play. Half a year down the line, the rest of the play is written and that extract now comes in the middle of the story. Actors Aaron Price and Rubie Ozanne are reprising their roles as ‘The Boy’ and ‘The Girl’, with Emily Thornton and James Demaine completing the cast.”

Choreographer Zoë set up BoxLess Theatre last year, after graduating from Italia Conti. “My aim has always been to make physical theatre something accessible to people of different disciplines and experience, not just for classically trained dancers,” she explains. “The training at Italia Conti Acting, where the cast and creative team met, has always shown movement as a way of expressing the story of a play in a very immediate way, and BoxLess is taking this a step further with a piece that combines physical theatre and new writing. Dance for everyone, essentially, and not just for the few.”

After months in development, the show finally opens on 6th June at Balham’s Theatre N16. “We’re all feeling excited, with a definite hint of butterflies, and there’s still plenty to do,” says Alexander. “But N16 is a great space – intimate, yet versatile, and with a lot of atmosphere. The preview of the show was performed there, so we feel like we know how to move in that space. Rehearsals have a great, collaborative energy to them, with everyone bringing ideas to the table. There’s always going to be that ‘going out on a limb’ nervousness when creating a new piece of theatre, but the show is taking shape, and we’re starting to see it come to life.”

LOOP offers a great opportunity to enjoy a bit of musical nostalgia, but there’s a lot more to the show than a simple trip down memory lane. “We’d like audiences to go away with that feeling of having seen a satisfying story. Seeing the characters grow and change – after all, the story covers the best part of 60 years – and how something that happens to one of them in 1965 might influence choices made in the present, should be really engaging. We want the movement to be as slick and expressive as it can be – there’s something intensely satisfying in well-executed physical theatre. Also, perhaps, leaving the theatre with a sense of hopefulness; the play is, we think, about hope, about looking forward and letting go of the past.”

Book now for LOOP at Theatre N16 from 6th-10th June.