Review: Voices From Home at The Old Red Lion

The inaugural Voices From Home event from Brighton-based Broken Silence Theatre brought together writers from the Home Counties and beyond to showcase new work from outside the capital. Four thought-provoking short plays all started from the theme of “trust” before heading off in a variety of directions to bring us an evening populated by outspoken refugees, dodgy psychics, estranged sisters and reluctant lovers.

The latter feature in Love Me Tinder, written by James McDermott from Norfolk and directed by Roman Berry. Emma Zadow and Mauricia Lewis prove that opposites do (eventually) attract, as spiky Tina and sweet-natured Ellie cautiously embark on a Tinder-based romance beset by false starts and misunderstandings. It’s a funny and very relatable piece about the many ways we self-sabotage whilst dating out of fear of getting hurt, but it also explores the unexpected and touching ways in which new love can change us for the better.

There’s a similar blend of laugh out loud humour and human vulnerability in Danielle Pearson’s The History Club, set in the writer’s home county of Berkshire, which examines how grief can make us do extraordinary things. In this case, three women engage the services of a less than convincing psychic to put them in touch with their lost loved ones. Directed by Jennifer Davis, the play sees Vicky Winning clearly enjoying herself as Florence, with moving performances from Anne Rosenfeld, Helen Belbin, and particularly Dominique Moutia as a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of a schoolfriend.

The heartbreaking Trust, written by Sussex-based Ella Dorman-Gajic and directed by Raymond Waring, shows us the awkward reunion of two sisters, played by Alex Reynolds and Abbi Douetil. From a close childhood relationship, marked by a shared love of S Club 7 and a wall chart plotting their heights over the years, Sarah and Lotty become increasingly estranged as their gran’s health deteriorates. It becomes obvious that she effectively raised them in their mum’s frequent absence, and the play ends on a hesitatingly uplifting note as the two attempt to build bridges and come to terms with their loss.

Each Voices From Home event will also feature a Headline Playwright; the first of these is Sevan K. Greene, whose play Asylum – directed by Tim Cook – opened the evening with an alternative and eye-opening view on the first world response to refugees. Lynn (Rosalind Adler) has got an empty house and a kind heart, but never really expected to be taken up on her offer of taking in a Syrian refugee – and when Mohammed (James Hameed) is sprung on her by his caseworker Mike (Matt Kyle), he’s not quite as gushingly grateful as she’d expected. As with all the other plays, Asylum offers lots of laughs, but they grow increasingly uncomfortable as the piece goes on, and we’re forced to examine our own motives, assumptions and reactions to those less fortunate than ourselves.

With so much theatre going on in London every day, it’s easy to forget that there’s plenty to enjoy elsewhere too. Voices From Home co-producers Tim Cook and Katharina Rodda have assembled a strong line-up for their first showcase, bringing a little piece of the Home Counties into the capital and proving to any sceptics out there that good theatre can and does exist outside the M25. Here’s hoping we don’t have too long to wait for the next evening; I’m looking forward to seeing what my home county of Kent has to offer…

For more details about Voices From Home and Broken Silence Theatre, visit brokensilencetheatre.com.

Review: Talk Radio at the Old Red Lion Theatre

We’re taught from a young age that telling the truth is important. We’re also taught that everyone has the right to say what they think. But what happens when those two things combine to create something potentially harmful, not just to another person, but to society in general? Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and hate speech – and what can we do about it?

Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio might have been written 30 years ago, but the issues it addresses are as fresh and current as ever. Barry Champlain, the shock jock radio DJ in Bogosian’s play, is angry, damaged, a heavy drinker and drug taker who’s incapable of maintaining a healthy adult relationship with anyone, even the people who like him. But despite appearances, his mission with the late-night radio show Night Talk – in which he encourages people to phone in and say what’s on their mind – isn’t to spread hate; instead he’s trying, in his own backwards way, to stop it. Unfortunately, his listeners aren’t getting the message… and despite Barry’s best efforts, it seems the phone is never going to stop ringing – particularly as the show’s been so successful that its bosses want to roll it out nationally.

Photo credit: Cameron Harle

Perhaps ironically in a play about a radio host who nobody ever sees, Matthew Jure is fascinating to watch as the chameleon-like Barry, adapting his approach at lightning speed to suit whoever’s on the end of the phone line, with the face behind the voice becoming increasingly haggard and desperate as he finally realises the monster he’s created. Isolated for the entirety of the play behind glass in his soundproof booth, he becomes almost an exhibit for his audience to examine; for better or worse, everyone thinks they know him – and have no hesitation about telling him their darkest secrets – but monologues from Barry’s three colleagues reveal the complexities behind the facade.

These three roles – nicely played by Molly McNerney, Andy Secombe and George Turvey – are necessarily a bit sketchy; their purpose is to support and facilitate Barry, both professionally and personally. The cast is completed by real-life Radio One DJ Ceallach Spellman, in a brilliant turn as vacuous teenager Kent. Invited to the studio, he’s both hilarious and horrifying in equal measure, representing for Barry everything that’s gone wrong in society.

There are two more stars in Sean Turner’s production: Max Dorey’s set, a meticulously detailed reproduction of a 1980s radio station, and Dan Bottomley’s sound design. Not surprisingly, the script calls for a lot of interaction between Barry and the recorded voices of his many callers, and this works seamlessly throughout – it’s easy to believe you’re watching an actual radio show being recorded.

Photo credit: Cameron Harle

Talk Radio is undoubtedly entertaining and on several occasions completely gripping, but it’s hard to leave with a smile knowing that the voices we’ve just heard haven’t gone away, and probably aren’t going to. The play certainly won’t make you feel any better about the state of the human race; if anything, Barry’s final rant is directed as much at today’s theatre audience as his Ohio-based listeners, and none of us come out of it very well. Those who spread hate aren’t the only target of his anger – he also loathes the banality of those who have nothing at all to say (I can imagine a 2017 version of Barry being incensed by the recent Love Island frenzy), and the play’s ultimate message is both damning and faintly depressing. You’d like to think that this could be a force for change, but 30 years on the sad truth is – to use Barry’s own words – it looks like we’re stuck with each other.

Talk Radio is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 23rd September.

Review: Mumburger at Old Red Lion Theatre

First, a word of warning: don’t go and see Mumburger on an empty stomach. It’s all kinds of confusing.

Now that we’ve got that out the way, let’s discuss Sarah Kosar’s play. Andrea just died in a horrific car accident on the M25, leaving behind her devastated daughter Tiffany (Rosie Wyatt, reprising her Offie-nominated role) and husband Hugh (Andrew Frame). What begins as a seemingly straightforward story of two people struggling to process their grief in very different ways (she’s made a Google spreadsheet and is looking at urns on Amazon; he just wants to read the messages of condolence on Facebook and watch his wife’s favourite movie) takes a surreal and grisly turn when a mysterious delivery arrives. Inside the greasy bag are burgers – an odd enough sight in a house of committed vegans, even before we learn that they’re in fact a “Digestive Memorial” arranged by Andrea as a way to sustain her family after she’s gone.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

If it’s visceral theatre you’re after, you’ve come to the right place; it’s impossible to watch Mumburger – which follows Tiffany and Hugh’s horrified attempts to abide by Andrea’s final wish – without feeling some kind of physical reaction. Director Tommo Fowler has obeyed to the letter the writer’s instruction that “the actors should consume food when it says they eat”, so there’s no getting away from either the consumption or the various bodily functions that accompany it. (Or indeed the smell of cooking burgers, which explains the confusion I mentioned earlier.) It’s disgusting and messy and uncomfortable to watch, particularly when you add into the mix a series of video projections against the curtain at the back of the set, which verge at times on motion sickness inducing.

But let’s put the meat to one side for a second. At its heart, Mumburger is a story about a family coping with the loss of the person that held them together. Though we never meet Andrea, Kosar’s script paints a detailed picture of her; it’s clear from listening to Tiffany and Hugh argue and reminisce that she was the common link between them, and that without her they’re almost strangers who have no idea how to communicate. Both are also pretty annoying in their own ways; Tiffany, played by Rosie Wyatt, is shrill, domineering and self-involved, while Andrew Frame’s Hugh would rather play Candy Crush on his iPad than deal with anything even remotely difficult. Each believes that they knew Andrea better and therefore has more right to grieve, and the mumburgers become a physical manifestation of that competition. All of which begs the question: was Andrea’s intention really a noble wish to help her bereaved daughter and husband go on, or was it prompted by her own selfish need to maintain her position at the centre of the family for as long as possible?

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Many plays about bereavement go for the emotional jugular, encouraging us to feel sympathy for the characters and move us to tears as we watch them bond over memories of their loved one. Mumburger is not one of these plays. You’re more likely to come out feeling slightly sick than overwhelmed with emotion (though the play certainly has its moments) but that doesn’t make it any less real, and in this regard it’s actually oddly refreshing. Death – particularly of the sudden, violent kind – is not romantic or glamorous, but messy and painful. Not everyone who dies is perfect; nor are the people they leave behind. Grief can drive us apart just as much as it brings us together. These may not be truths we want to hear – or see, or smell – but they’re truths all the same. Not one for the faint-hearted (or vegetarians), maybe, but Mumburger certainly makes a lasting and powerful impression.

Mumburger is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 22nd July.

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.

One Last Thing (For Now) is at the Old Red Lion until 25th March.

Interview: Sam Elwin and Tom Shah, One Last Thing (For Now)

After more than two years in the making, Althea Theatre’s One Last Thing (For Now) has its world premiere at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre next month. Conceived by director Lilac Yosiphon, this ambitious project has been developed by the internationally diverse company, including cast members Tom Shah and Sam Elwin, and offers “a universal look at the language of love, the wounds of war and everything in between”.

The play’s creation was inspired by love letters from times of conflict in different cultures and languages. “The concept came from our director, Lilac, whose first instruction was to start reading,” says Tom. “Often they were the letters that were only intended to be read ‘should the worst happen’, and what is important to people in those situations – the words that they can’t leave unsaid – is more than enough inspiration.”

Photo credit: Laurie Field
Photo credit: Laurie Field

“Alongside discussing the letters’ common themes, we began to develop a physical language for the show,” continues Sam. “We then attempted writing our own letters and began writing scenes inspired by the stories that had stood out to us. We selected and adapted from this pool of scenes to create a number of more cohesive storylines, which we then overlapped with each other, using the physical language to bind them together and enhance the storytelling.”

The development process began in September 2014, when the basis for most of the storylines was formed. Sam explains: “The process is still ongoing; since the initial development process we’ve had a rehearsed reading of a full length version of the script and we have two more days of R&D (research and development) before rehearsals start, during which we’ll finalise the script. Moreover, rehearsals themselves are a process of devising and discovery, so the show will continue to develop and change during the rehearsal weeks.”

“Initially, it was about using the fact that we were a group of people of different ages, genders, and nationalities with different experiences to draw us to as wide and varied subjects as possible,” says Tom. “Since then we have periodically come back to One Last Thing (For Now) to get it to the point it’s at now. That said, we still have one more story to write; Islington will be our home for the duration of the show’s run, and we’ll be creating an entirely new scene based on letters sourced from the Islington borough.

“One of the themes of the show is that for all our differences, we have the fundamentals in common. We’re asking for letters from Islington that we will workshop with people from the borough to help create this brand new scene for the show. We want to make our show part of the local community, because with such a global spread of stories, we don’t want it to feel like it’s about other people.”

This additional scene is a crucial part of the audience experience, wherever the show is being performed. “We believe that everyone has a story that needs to be heard,” explains Sam. “The intention is to use the letters to inspire a new storyline or scene which is specific to the Islington area and will only be performed while the show is at the Old Red Lion – a new venue would result in a new scene being devised; again inspired by letters, emails, texts etc from the local area. We also wanted to create a direct link with the local community in the performance they would see. To give the audience a sense of ownership and participation – these stories belong to all of us in that they have shaped and continue to shape the world we live in.”

Dealing with such universal issues as love and war, the company hope that the show has something for everyone. “We can certainly all learn something from it, and indeed, since one if its primary themes is cross-cultural understanding, we hope everyone would,” says Sam. “That said, the people most likely to want to see it are those who are interested in stories from around the world; those who have experienced war, either through family and friends or directly; people with an interest in the history; and people who enjoy visually arresting theatre.”

Tom agrees, and adds, “I do think anyone would take something away from seeing the show, but it will probably resonate most with people who at one time or another have felt cut-off from the people they love. I hope audiences will leave with a better idea of what it is that’s important to them.”

The show brings together stories from several different conflicts across the world – stories that the cast have come to know well during the development process. “One of my favourites follows a Colombian woman as she travels the world in search of someone she loves,” says Tom. “Even though she’s from a country most of us have never been to (and probably couldn’t name the capital of), speaks another language, and the ‘foreign’ environment she finds herself in is London, our connection to her is almost instantaneous.”

Sam has a few favourites: “That’s a really tough question to answer, all of the stories are so special. I think three in particular stand out. One is a letter conversation between an American soldier in Vietnam and his wife at home in the US, because it highlights the gap between what is written home and what is experienced and the couple’s struggle to deal with that.

The second is a storyline concerning a French resistance fighter, because it asks how much can love forgive and can we escape the roles we have chosen for ourselves? Thirdly, the story about a woman who sends her touch, because it’s in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Struwwelpeter – full of the fantastical and the macabre.”

Photo credit: Laurie Field
Photo credit: Laurie Field

The fact that the different stories cross so many historical and geographical borders inevitably presents some challenges: “First, with so many of the storylines featuring non-British characters we had to devise ways of translating or having enough English to be understood by English speakers without repeating ourselves,” explains Tom. “Second, was to have some form of connection between what could otherwise be unconnected stories from different times and places.”

“As part of this some of us have to learn new languages and accents,” adds Sam. “Russian and Hebrew were a particular challenge…”

He concludes: “I hope our audiences will go away with an empathy for people from countries other than their own, an insight into the effects of war after the shooting stops, a remembrance of those who have died on all sides, and a hope that these three things can reduce conflict.”

One Last Thing (For Now) is at the Old Red Lion Theatre from 7th-25th March.