Review: Poisoned Polluted at Old Red Lion Theatre

Kathryn O’Reilly’s second play Poisoned Polluted focuses on the fragmenting relationship between two women – in this case, sisters. The play follows the two, known only as Her (Anna Doolan) and Sister (Kathryn O’Reilly), as they’re forced to leave behind the innocence of childhood and face up to an uncertain future that’s scarred by addiction and trauma. As the years pass, their close bond and love for each other becomes twisted into something that will ultimately prove damaging to them both.

As children, the sisters hide out from their mum’s addiction and their dad’s abuse in the local “forest” – which, with the benefit of hindsight, they can now acknowledge was really just a few trees next to the park. That motif of nature as a tainted refuge is present also in Mayou Trikerioti’s set, which consists of printed, peeling sheets that make up a distorted backdrop image of woodland trees.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

The play itself is structured as a series of short, sharp scenes which, under Lucy Allan’s direction, often flow seamlessly into one another. These chart the sisters’ downward spiral and the shift in their relationship as Her, who as a child benefited from her older sister’s protection, finds herself suddenly forced to return the favour. Anna Doolan and Kathryn O’Reilly both give excellent performances, meticulously portraying all their characters’ fear, frustration and pent-up resentment, right alongside the love and affection that continues against all odds to hold these two damaged women together. The tragedy of the play is that the two characters need each other – and yet neither of them can truly be happy until they break free of their never-ending cycle of codependency.

While the use of language in the play is important, just as powerful are the moments of silence; movement sequences between scenes (directed by Sophie Shaw), performed without words, evoke the painful emotions that dialogue – even the most poetic – can’t quite capture. Similarly, though they never appear on stage and feature only briefly at the start of the story, the sisters’ parents both loom large as characters throughout, and there are moments when, if we follow the actors’ fearful gazes, we can picture them clearly and feel the anxiety their presence continues to evoke.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

As Sister tries again and again to get clean, the play begins to take on a feeling of repetition – but just as we begin to share Her’s frustration and despair, everything comes slamming to a halt with an emotional gut-punch of a final scene. This is a story in which we understand early on there can be no winners, whatever the final outcome, and that knowledge makes it an intense and often difficult watch. Powerfully written and performed, the play shines an uncomfortable light on the ways in which a relationship that should be healthy and innocent can be twisted by the actions of others into something deeply damaging, and how the repercussions of a difficult childhood can continue to be felt even years later.

Poisoned Polluted is at Old Red Lion Theatre until 30th November.

Review: In Search of Applause at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Lorelei is a professional clown – or at least she would be, if she hadn’t given it all up when she met Nigel. He’s a workaholic app developer, who takes her on nice holidays but otherwise seems to have very little time for her; he’s dismissive of her views and won’t even stop working long enough to have dinner together. Now it’s two years later and she spends her days alone, going to yoga, pouring her heart out to a therapist, and flirting with the guy behind the counter at the local juice bar. But hey, at least she’s not poor any more. Right?

Photo credit: Ian Hart

Maroussia Vladi’s In Search of Applause is an intriguing one-woman show, which likens Lorelei’s romantic relationship with Nigel to her career as a performer: though she has a beautiful stage, set, costumes and props, does any of that matter if the audience isn’t paying attention? To an outsider it’s something of a no-brainer, and Lorelei has no qualms about counselling Harry, the juice bar guy, to quit his job and pursue his dream to become a musician. And yet when it comes to her own life, despite her obvious unhappiness after several disappointingly one-sided conversations with her partner, she can’t seem to apply that same advice.

Directed by Andrew Hurst, the play is made up of a series of one-sided exchanges between Lorelei and various off-stage characters. Two of these never appear at all; the third – Nigel – is represented by a hat suspended above a chair, and the sound of rapid typing each time Lorelei returns home and tries to engage with him. As we follow her repeatedly from home to therapy to the juice bar and back home again, we get a feel for the cyclical monotony and frustration of her uninspiring life.

Maroussia Vladi gives a very expressive and engaging performance as she moves around the stage, bringing vividly to life the story’s different settings and characters. Despite this, there’s a remoteness to the character of Lorelei that makes her at times difficult to relate to. She is by her own admission quite old-fashioned in her attitudes, and the play has a similar aesthetic: everything from Lorelei’s outfits to her luggage to Nigel’s hat feel like they’re from a different time to the story itself, which creates a disconnect between what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing, and makes it harder to get lost in the action. It’s a skilful piece of storytelling, but for this reason it does always feel like exactly that – a story.

Photo credit: Ian Hart

If you hear “romantic comedy” and think Richard Curtis, In Search of Applause will not be what you’re used to. What it is, however, is a quiet and reflective piece about what drives us to make the decisions we do (or not), presented with charm, creativity and gentle humour. It doesn’t necessarily go in the direction you might expect, but it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the market for a slightly offbeat take on love and relationships.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Rattled at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Inspired by a mother’s true account, Rachel Harper’s one-woman play Rattled is a short but punchy production tackling the sensitive topics of childhood trauma and postnatal mental health. The play is set on a lonely railway platform somewhere in southern England, where Em has just discovered a baby in a carrier. Unable to track down the child’s mother, she sits down to wait – and then, to fill the awkward silence, she begins to talk. Soon we (and baby) have heard all about her nice but dull husband Ian, their unsatisfying marriage, and her fear that she may have settled too easily and missed out on a great romance. We also learn about her childhood trauma and the abuse and neglect she suffered, and it doesn’t take long to guess the answer to Em’s repeated and increasingly desperate question: whose baby is this?

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Though it deals with some difficult issues, Rattled isn’t as hard going as it sounds; in fact it’s a surprisingly funny play, whose aim is never to wallow in the misery of mental illness but rather to advocate talking as the first step to recovery. Em is a very likeable, intelligent and witty character, and Rachel Harper is exceptional – both as a writer and an actor – in her utterly convincing portrayal of this vulnerable young woman who’s been through so much and now finds herself at breaking point. Her story unfolds very plausibly as a stream of consciousness, meandering from one memory to another and punctuated by musings on everything from Wuthering Heights to the parenting habits of orangutans. It all sounds random, unplanned – but in reality, not one word is wasted in this tightly constructed piece of writing.

This efficiency is reflected also in director Jemma Gross’ fast-moving production. Simple, effective design from Florence Hazard (set), Sherry Coenen (lighting) and Nicola Chang (sound) quickly and convincingly establishes the station setting, from the “see it, say it, sorted” announcements to the flickering lights of a passing train. Similarly, from the moment the play begins Rachel Harper’s performance leaves us in no doubt of Em’s current state of mind; every movement and gesture is loaded with meaning. She’s moving constantly, full of restless, nervous energy and unable to sit still. Each time she tells a joke, it’s accompanied by an awkward, high-pitched laugh. As the play goes on she becomes increasingly dishevelled, and even before she says a word, her emotional distress is palpable. We don’t know exactly what her intentions are at the station – though various possibilities come to mind, each more disturbing than the last – but the way she stiffens each time an announcement comes over the tannoy makes it clear that the train approaching the station is of some significance. As it gets closer, the tension both on and off stage builds as we wait to find out how Em’s story will end.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Rattled is a gripping and poignant production that doesn’t flinch in its portrayal of mental illness, particularly affecting new mothers. But it also puts its money where its mouth is; Missmanaged Theatre have teamed up with childcare agency Bea & Co to support parents by providing a free creche at Sunday matinees, and discounts on at-home childcare for audiences attending evening shows. This is clearly a company who not only believe in making high quality theatre, but who also want to make it count – let’s hope others follow in their footsteps.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Anomaly at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Liv Warden’s Anomaly begins with an image that’s all too familiar: world-famous movie producer, Phillip Preston, has been arrested for assaulting his wife. With the man himself in custody, as the news breaks across the globe all eyes turn instead on his three daughters. Piper (Natasha Cowley), the clever one, has been destined from a young age to inherit the family business; Penny (Katherine Samuelson), the pretty one, has grown up to become a successful movie actress. And then there’s Polly (Alice Handoll), the problematic one, who’s just discharged herself from the Priory after another stint in rehab.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

What follows over the next 70 minutes is a gripping and troubling family drama that takes a scenario we know and invites us to see it from a perspective that’s often overlooked. Phillip Preston never appears; nor does his wife Fiona. The only people we see on stage are the three sisters, as each deals in her own way with the fallout from their father’s actions.

What’s interesting about Anomaly is that there’s never a moment of doubt from anyone that Phillip Preston did assault his wife. In fact the sisters have always known what kind of man he is: a violent, unfaithful bully, and perhaps guilty of something even worse. And herein lies the question at the heart of the play: are they victims of his behaviour, or has their silence made them complicit? Even after the scandal breaks, instead of seeing a chance to break free, as Polly does, Penny and Piper’s chief concern is protecting the family brand – but can we really blame them, when their own fortunes are so closely entwined with that of their father that defending themselves inevitably means defending him too?

Adam Small’s production sees all the sisters on stage throughout, despite the three of them never actually being in the same place. At a time when you’d expect any other family to be pulling together, Penny and Piper communicate with each other only in rushed phone calls; Polly, estranged from her sisters, is alone throughout and so the audience become her confidantes. There are also a number of peripheral characters in the play – reporters, partners, friends, board members – but they’re present only as disembodied voices, a clever way to ensure that like the rest of the world, all our attention stays focused relentlessly on the three women.

Fortunately the performances from Natasha Cowley, Katherine Samuelson and Alice Handoll more than stand up to such intense scrutiny. All are totally convincing in their roles, pasting on bright, media-friendly smiles while their eyes and body language tell a very different story. Their interaction with the ongoing barrage of recorded voices is also very natural, to the point that it’s sometimes easy to forget they’re talking to thin air. In fact they’re so compelling to watch that when the play reaches its shock twist ending – a clever and brilliantly staged piece of misdirection – it catches everyone completely off guard.

Photo credit: Headshot Toby

Though generally well written and certainly packing a punch, the play is not without some flaws. The fragmented structure, which jumps from one sister and location to another and back again, can make the timeline of events on occasion a bit hard to follow. There are also a couple of big revelations that, though serious enough to have a devastating impact on the family’s financial fortunes, never seem to get followed up by any of the characters on or off stage.

It’s so easy to assume that when someone like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey or the fictional Phillip Preston is finally accused and held to account, that it’s the end of the story; the truth is out, justice has been served at last. But men of such wealth and power never fall alone. Anomaly speaks for those caught up in the wreckage, in a topical and important story that needs to be told and deserves to be heard.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: Renaissance Men at the Old Red Lion Theatre

The complexities of male friendship go under the magnifying glass – literally – in Renaissance Men, a new show written by James Patrick and Bag of Beard. The play made its debut this week with a two-date first sharing, which proved more than enough to whet the appetite for a planned tour in 2019.

A riotous comedy with an unexpectedly dark twist, the play centres around three friends – Irvine (Sam Heron), Quentin (Alexander Knott) and Winston (James Demaine) – who think they’ve discovered a priceless original painting in a charity shop in Streatham. Excited by the prospect of striking it rich, the three call in slightly shady local art dealer Mr Sutcliffe (Jack Gogarty) to confirm the painting’s authenticity – but his visit ends up bringing answers of a very different kind when a shocking secret is revealed.

Photo credit: Zöe Grain

You might be tempted to assume, given their artistic background and love of a good philosophical debate (the company have deliberately steered away from the stereotypical image of the millennial generation), that these three friends would be more than capable of expressing how they feel about things. You might think that – but you’d be wrong. Behind the laugh-a-minute banter and quick-fire insults that characterise their friendship, and which are delivered with delightful authenticity by the cast, there are a whole heap of deep and unspoken emotions. This is particularly true for Sam Heron’s painfully vulnerable Irvine, whose recent interest in writing erotic poetry increasingly seems to be an attempt to get something very serious off his chest – if only his mates weren’t too distracted by their own dramas to pay attention.

It might be early days for the play, but Ryan Hutton’s production is already highly polished. All four characters are expertly drawn and totally convincing both in writing and performance; the four actors work very naturally together, and even in the play’s relatively short running time of 70 minutes, there’s a complexity and detail to each character that leaves us wanting to know more. Dysfunctional and eccentric they may be, but a few moments of genuine affection do manage to slip through the barriers the characters have constructed around themselves, making it obvious their problem isn’t that they don’t care about each other, but that they just don’t know how to say so.

The pace of the drama also feels just right, with the very funny first half of the play carefully laying clues to what’s coming, so that while it comes as a surprise, on reflection what happens next actually makes perfect sense. And there’s a growing suspense – heightened by the fact that we never get to see the painting ourselves – as we wait to find out if the three friends really are on to a winner.

Photo credit: Zöe Grain

Topical, original and very funny, Renaissance Men is off to a great start, with two sell-out performances already under its belt and no doubt many more to come. What begins as a simple story about three friends who like to wind each other up is quickly revealed to have hidden depths, and touches on some important issues – but while the play certainly enters some pretty dark territory, it never fails to be great entertainment. This is a really promising new production; let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for the next chance to see it.

Renaissance Men was performed at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November. For details of future shows, visit bagofbeard.co.uk or follow @BagOfBeard.