Review: That Girl at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Hatty is 29 years old and works in advertising. When one of her housemates gets engaged, she and best friend Poppy prepare to move into a new place together. Except Poppy’s just got a new boyfriend, whereas Hatty is still single, bored with her job and suffering from frequent bouts of anxiety – all of which is a far cry from her glamorous past as a child movie star.

Written by and starring Hatty Jones, That Girl is the story of a young woman who still hasn’t quite figured out who she is or where her life is going. Based on the writer’s own experience as the star of 1998 children’s movie Madeline, it examines how this early fame continues to affect her as an adult, long after giving it all up in favour of a “normal” life.

Photo credit: Sunny Smith

Although Hatty the character has the same backstory as Hatty the writer, it’s not clear how much the two now overlap – though it does seem unlikely that the Hatty on stage would allow herself to be portrayed the way we see her. Insecure and needy, this Hatty is unable to celebrate even her best friends’ successes and, despite her protests to the contrary, only really comes to life when given an opportunity to relive her childhood fame.

Even these opportunities aren’t as frequent as she’d like everyone to believe, and it’s often Hatty herself who brings up the subject, shoehorning her early success into conversation by any means possible. It’s clear that her memories of Madeline are a comfort blanket, a reminder of a time when life was exciting, and a stark contrast to her current mundane existence. These days, she’s just like everyone else – a young woman approaching her 30th birthday, watching her friends settle down with boyfriends and mortgages, and panicking about being left behind. While we’re able to relate to her motives, it’s difficult to approve of her methods as, in her desperation to hold on to her lifelong friendships, she ends up putting them at risk.

Whatever our feelings about the character, it’s difficult not to warm to the real Hatty Jones, who makes a powerful playwriting debut with That Girl, and also gives a thoroughly engaging performance as “herself”. She’s joined by fellow cast members Alex Reynolds as Hatty’s colleague Lola and housemate Poppy, and Will Adolphy, who plays Poppy’s boyfriend Adam and Hatty’s date Dylan. Both actors move seamlessly between their two characters with just a quick change of outfit, to show us a cross-section of the people that make up Hatty’s world – a superficial world of Tinder, bloggers, avocados and brunch.

Photo credit: Sunny Smith

Directed by Tim Cook, the action moves at a steady pace as we follow Hatty over two days. They’re not particularly eventful days – which is sort of the point – but that certainly doesn’t mean there’s a lack of tension. With cardboard boxes scattered around Sunny Smith’s set, we’re constantly reminded of the impending move and the pressure it’s placing on Hatty and Poppy’s already strained relationship. This eventually comes to a head after a deeply uncomfortable moment between Hatty and Adam, which is so well written that it feels like watching a car crash in slow motion; we know what’s coming, but can do nothing to stop it.

Simultaneously funny and heartbreakingly sad, That Girl is a very relatable story about fame, friendship and the pressures of adulthood. Madeline may be all grown up, but if this play is anything to go by, her adventures aren’t over yet.

That Girl is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 15th September.

Review: In the Shadow of the Mountain at the Old Red Lion Theatre

There is no one size fits all when it comes to mental illness, and in Felicity Huxley-Miners’ In the Shadow of the Mountain we see two very different manifestations in the story of one extremely dysfunctional relationship. First, we meet Rob, who’s just found out his girlfriend slept with his best mate and is so devastated he’s thinking about throwing himself under a train – until Ellie explodes into his life and makes it her mission to save him. One thing leads to another, and Rob ends up back at her place… but Ellie has problems of her own, and as her behaviour becomes more and more erratic Rob starts to wonder what he’s got himself into.

Photo credit: Harry Richards

On an otherwise fairly minimal set from Emily Megson, low-hanging “clouds” made out of crumpled paper covered in scrawled handwriting are an early clue that all is not well – and it rapidly becomes clear that Rob and Ellie’s relationship isn’t a healthy one, although it’s not initially obvious exactly why. The play is clever in the way it tackles our assumptions, and it’s only as it comes to an end that we begin to appreciate why Ellie behaves the way she does, and that her mood swings and manipulative behaviour aren’t something she can control. The seemingly unrealistic intensity of the relationship – eight days in the two are already talking love and marriage – also makes more sense with the benefit of hindsight, although it’s still never quite explained why Rob stays as long as he does, when he’s clearly uncomfortable with the speed at which things are moving and his increasing isolation from friends and family.

It’s interesting to note that although the play does make it clear Ellie isn’t well, the only way we know the exact cause – Borderline Personality Disorder – is through the notes in the programme; her diagnosis is never given in the play itself. This is obviously a deliberate decision, since Rob asks outright and Ellie declines to answer, and in some ways it feels right to avoid sticking a label on her. That said, the play’s final scene feels underdeveloped, and perhaps misses an opportunity to raise awareness of a condition that can so easily be misinterpreted.

Photo credit: Harry Richards

There’s also an issue with balance in the story, which becomes increasingly focused on Ellie, leaving Rob and his problems rather out in the cold. Both Felicity Huxley-Miners and David Shears give good performances, and it’s refreshing to see a play about a toxic relationship where the male character doesn’t have the upper hand. But with Ellie stealing pretty much every scene as everyone waits to see what she’ll do next, we get to know little about Rob as a character – which is perhaps why it’s so difficult to put a finger on why he sticks around as long as he does.

In the Shadow of the Mountain takes important steps towards raising awareness of the broad spectrum of mental illness, and Borderline Personality Disorder in particular, and Richard Elson’s production does a good job of capturing, at different moments, the emotional turmoil experienced by both Rob and Ellie. There are areas of the play that could benefit from some more development, but the potential is clearly already there for a powerful and challenging piece of theatre.

In the Shadow of the Mountain is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd June.

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Review: Plastic at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Some people look back on their school days as the best of their lives. For others, the only good thing about their teenage years is that they’re over and done with. But how much does that period between childhood and adulthood shape the course of the rest of our lives – and if we knew what lay ahead, how many of us might have done things differently?

Kenneth Emson’s Plastic, directed by Josh Roche, begins in a jumble of timelines, as Kev and Ben – now grown men – reminisce about a teenage football match, at which the star player caught the eye of a popular, pretty 15-year-old girl. That, we’re told, is where it all begins – and although it takes a while to straighten out the tangled threads of the two men’s memories, the story that emerges proves more than worth the effort.

Photo credit: Mathew Foster

Kev (Mark Weinman) used to be the captain of the school football team – which in their town, he tells us with a comical little bow, is a big deal. Or at least it was at the time; now he’s left school and is starting to realise his former popularity counts for little out in the real world. The one bright spot in his mundane existence is his girlfriend, Lisa (Madison Clare), the only person who still looks up to him as the hero he once was. And she’s told him tonight’s the night…

Back at school, Ben (Thomas Coombes) doesn’t fit in; the daily target of bullies, the only way he can cope is to “think Columbine, think Virginia Tech, think Sandy Hook… and breathe”. Luckily, he’s got Jack (Louis Greatorex), who’s been his best mate since forever, even though hanging out with Ben means he inevitably gets bullied too. Ben, Jack and Lisa used to be best friends, until they went to high school and she joined the popular crowd – but this afternoon they’re all bunking off together, and Jack’s hoping it’ll be just like old times.

As we follow the four characters through their day, there’s a mounting tension as Kev waits for Lisa, and the bullies wait for Ben. We know something’s brewing, but when it comes the play’s climax is genuinely shocking, largely because it hits us from so way, way out in the blue. From a narrative point of view this twist in the tale is an impressive feat of misdirection, but it also sits a little awkwardly against the backdrop of all that’s gone before, and feels like it introduces a whole new set of issues which then don’t get dealt with in the play’s closing minutes.

Emson’s script is unusual, a rapid fire rhyming verse that somehow still feels very natural in the mouths of teenagers, and which is brought brilliantly to life by an excellent cast. Thomas Coombes stands out as the tormented Ben, who’s exactly the kind of kid you’d expect to constantly be “thinking Columbine”; we feel bad for him, but at the same time we can’t help but be repelled by his intensity and general strangeness. In her professional stage debut, Madison Clare also really shines as Lisa who, despite being young, pretty and popular, is anything but a mean girl. She wants more out of life than just being one of the popular clique, and there’s a wistfulness to Clare’s performance that’s captivating to watch.

Photo credit: Mathew Foster

Another star of the show is Peter Small’s memorable and atmospheric lighting design, consisting of several bare light bulbs which are propelled across the stage by the actors and change colour seemingly at their command. This results in some powerful and poignant moments, particularly later in the play when each of the characters gets a moment in the (literal) spotlight to reflect on what’s gone before, and what could lie ahead for them.

Gripping, original and entirely unexpected, Plastic is also a pretty tough watch. The play paints a decidedly bleak picture of the school years; this is not a story that sets out to inspire nostalgia in the lucky few who actually enjoyed that time of their life. That doesn’t mean it won’t bring back memories – only that they’re unlikely to be good ones.

Plastic is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 21st April.

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Review: The Moor at the Old Red Lion Theatre

You couldn’t get much further from the Yorkshire countryside than the bustling streets of Islington. Yet in the Old Red Lion pub theatre, a little piece of the moor is brought to life with eery authenticity in Catherine Lucie’s haunting psychological thriller. A murder mystery with a hint of the supernatural, this unpredictable tale, directed by Blythe Stewart, keeps us guessing until the very end, and beyond.

Young mother Bronagh (Jill McAusland) is threatened by her drunk, abusive partner after he sees her talking to another man at a party. The next day, she learns the other man has disappeared; not surprisingly, she soon draws her own conclusions about what kept her boyfriend Graeme (Oliver Britten) out so late. So far, so conventional. But then Bronagh’s suspicions start to develop into memories of what she saw that night, memories she relays with growing conviction to local police detective and old family friend, Pat (Jonny Magnanti). Naturally, both he and we regard her reports with equal parts suspicion and sympathy; after all, if she does have an agenda, it’s an understandable one. But does she?

Photo credit: The Other Richard

And this is where things get interesting, because Bronagh’s motivations are the biggest mystery of all. Lucie provides us with just enough detail to piece together a backstory for her central character, but stops short of supplying enough to reach any firm conclusions. We know Bronagh’s lonely, frightened, and possibly depressed following the death of her mother and birth of her baby – events that seem to have happened almost simultaneously three months earlier. But even though she frequently confides in the audience directly, it’s still impossible for us to tell if she’s making things up, having hallucinations, the victim of supernatural forces, actually telling the truth… or a combination of all four. Even when the mystery of Jordan Becker’s disappearance is solved, we’re really none the wiser as to what’s gone on; just as Bronagh reflects on alternative universes created by each choice we make, there are a multitude of possible interpretations of the play’s events, and Lucie leaves us to decide which one we think fits.

This complexity is captured beautifully in Jill McAusland’s performance as Bronagh. A small, vulnerable figure constantly on the verge of tears, at the same time there’s something deliberate and knowing in her exchanges with both Graeme and Pat that keeps us on shifting and uncertain ground. And as it turns out, the two male characters are no less complicated: Oliver Britten’s Graeme, for all his bluster and violent temper, emerges as an unexpectedly sympathetic character, while Jonny Magnanti’s kindly Pat is torn between his duties as a police officer and what is clearly a more complicated history with Bronagh and her family than either is letting on.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Holly Pigott’s set, with a backdrop made up of rotating panels, portrays the moor as a labyrinthine world in which it’s easy to lose yourself. An ever present mist covers the stage, evoking both the wild rural landscape and the self-imposed darkness in which Bronagh and her baby daughter live.

Tense and intriguing throughout, The Moor is a skilfully constructed thriller that twists, turns and keeps us constantly questioning our own judgments. But it’s also a sensitive character study of a young woman trying to find where she belongs in a scary, isolating world – and to some extent, that’s a feeling we can all relate to.

The Moor is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 3rd March.

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Review: Tiny Dynamite at the Old Red Lion Theatre

In Abi Morgan’s Tiny Dynamite, one of the characters relates an anecdote about a man who throws the remains of a sandwich off the top of the Empire State Building. By the time it reaches ground level, it’s gained so much velocity that it kills a woman walking past.

This theme of “freak accidents” runs throughout the play, which muses on the ways that sometimes the smallest and most innocuous of actions can have a dramatic impact. The story begins by telling us that one of the characters, Anthony, was struck by lightning as a child. But was it pure chance, or – as his friend Luce argues – the result of a set of circumstances that, when combined, made it an accident waiting to happen?

Photo credit: The Other Richard

Now grown up, Anthony (Niall Bishop) and Luce (Eva-Jane Willis) are on holiday. This, we learn, is an annual event – part of a routine that involves Luce helping the mentally fragile Anthony get back on his feet. Theirs seems an uneasy relationship; Luce’s need to help sees her alternate between patronising and tough love, and both are haunted by the loss some years ago of a mutual friend who they both loved. Into this odd set-up steps the unsuspecting Madeleine (Tanya Fear), a free spirit who never stays in the same place for more than a few months. When both Anthony and Luce fall for her, it seems that history is repeating itself – but first the two friends need to make sense of what happened the last time. This story is revealed slowly, piece by piece, finally coming together as the play reaches its emotional climax.

In a play that’s all about vulnerability, Niall Bishop and Eva-Jane Willis give strong performances as Anthony and Luce, two very different characters who each grapple with their problems in their own way. Anthony is fully aware of his undefined mental illness and makes no attempt to hide it, frequently resorting to violence against himself or others to vent his frustration. Luce, on the other hand, firmly believes she has her life under control, with a “boring” job in risk assessment and a tiny, tidy flat – but the cracks are beginning to show, and there’s a tension in her frame that reveals just how hard she’s having to work to hold everything together. For both of them, their friendship appears more of a duty than a pleasure, until the arrival of Tanya Fear’s Madeleine – lively, confident and unimpeded by bad memories – forces them to face up to the reason they’re so broken, and attempt to move on. The impact of the encounter isn’t only one-way, though; stepping into their world alerts Madeleine to the loneliness that’s an inevitable result of her transient way of life.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

David Loumgair’s production creates an air of suspense and danger throughout; a cluster of bare lightbulbs hangs above a stage surrounded by water, and each new scene is introduced by flickering lights and the ominous crackle of electricity. The deceptively simple set, designed by Anna Reid, makes ingenious use of the limited space available – the wooden deck is revealed to have two large under-floor compartments, from which the characters produce newspapers, drinks and towels, and there’s even an area where they go swimming more than once.

Despite the title, Tiny Dynamite never quite explodes but rather quietly simmers before boiling over in its final moments. As the play ends, we’re left with the sense that not everything is resolved – it would be unrealistic, after all, to suggest a few weeks one summer could erase years of trauma – but that the three characters are now at least in a position to try and move on, and to deal with whatever consequences life throws their way.

Tiny Dynamite is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 3rd February.

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