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.

Anomaly is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 2nd February.

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.

Interview: Alexander Knott, Renaissance Men

A bleak and bitter comedy about toxic masculinity and the millennial generation, Renaissance Men is a new production from writer James Patrick and Bag of Beard. The show will debut at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November, with tour dates to be announced for 2019.

“On the face of it Renaissance Men is about three art school dropouts who discover a lost masterpiece in a charity shop in Streatham,” explains Bag of Beard co-director, Alexander Knott. “But beyond that concept, the play is about what happens when men don’t talk to each other. When masculinity gets in the way of human connection. What happens if three young people are faced with a life changing opportunity? Does huge wealth generate huge contentment? What is the relevance of art in a society that values only capital? Is there a voice for Millennials that aren’t just obsessed with their phones? Is there a voice for nostalgia? And through this, can we connect to each other on a fundamental level?”

The story was inspired in part by the personal experience of writer James Patrick, combined with the company’s interest in discussing how the millennial generation connect with each other – or fail to do so. “We weren’t interested in the clichéd image of millennials; we’re not telling a story of iPhones and Instagram, but a kind of counter culture, as James puts it,” says Alexander, who plays Quentin in the show. “With our productions, Bag of Beard are interested in a sense of the timeless, of a heightened reality, but one that we can see society reflected in.

“We explored this in our first production Bath, at The Bread and Roses Theatre, but it was almost an unintentional discovery. With Renaissance Men we wanted to intentionally look at the idea of nostalgia, along with a discussion about toxic masculinity and how friendships can disintegrate. Without giving any plot away, we also examine the oppressive nature of depression, and how so often men fail to communicate what they’re feeling, which luckily is coming more to the forefront of awareness.”

The play has been about a year in the making, and had evolved significantly during the development process: “James started developing an idea of a couple of criminals who stole a priceless painting during a burglary, and then had to deal with the repercussions of this when they discovered how valuable it was. Fairly soon into the writing process, the characters evolved to be art students, and the piece became semi-autobiographical. Through a process of devising and improvisation, followed by scripting the dialogue and shaping it into a narrative, we had the framework of the narrative we have now.

“We went from what we thought was a dark comedy, into a story that has a resonance about our generation, we hope. It’s a satire in parts, we’re not advocating the lifestyle that these characters live, but we think it has a truth in it. During the rehearsal process, we’ve worked a lot with music – the original music for the show was composed by Sam Heron, who also plays Irvine, and elements of physical theatre, to create the semi-heightened world of the piece.”

Alexander is co-director of Bag of Beard along with Ryan Hutton, who also directs Renaissance Men. “The company was formed when, sat in a rehearsal room in South London, working on a classical play, we started discussing how we would do it differently,” he explains. “The ideas we threw around were stylised, surreal, almost grotesque versions of these classical characters – pulling at any threads of naturalism and distorting them into an abstract shape. It was from this discussion that the idea behind the company came together. We’ve yet to make our abstract version of that particular Jacobean tragedy, but ever since we’ve been creating theatre that is darkly comic, uses elements of physical theatre and poetry, and offers a comment on our generation, and how we engage with the world, with original words and original music.”

Renaissance Men will be performed in a special sharing on 25th and 26th November, at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre. “The Old Red Lion has an incredible reputation for being a hub of great new writing, and such an amazing launchpad of new work, writers and companies,” says Alexander. “We saw Kenneth Emson’s Plastic earlier in the year, and the poetic storytelling really made it electrifying. A fascinating working class story, brought into an almost heightened reality by the use of language. That’s something we strive for with Bag of Beard, and the Old Red Lion’s track record of supporting really ambitious new theatre speaks volumes.”

Following these initial performances in London, the company are hoping to embark on a regional tour next year. “We have good relationships with some really exciting theatres in the north of England, so it’d be great to see what the reaction is up there. It’s always good to try and share the work with as many audiences as possible – one of the cornerstones of Bag of Beard is an idea of a national ensemble, as half our company is London based and the other half hailing from Yorkshire, so that’s the aim, is to share the show up there.

“We hope that the audience will leave with questions, stimulated minds and a sense of unease when considering where the characters will go next. This play evokes a sense of a generation devoid of a cause and one which tries to fill that hole with so much; politics, memes, nostalgia etc. We hope the question of how the generation can hope to survive in the real world is raised. But conversely, we hope they have a bloody good laugh!”

Book now for Renaissance Men at the Old Red Lion Theatre on 25th and 26th November.

Review: Voices From Home at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Following a successful first outing last year, Voices From Home was back this weekend for a second short but sweet stay at the Old Red Lion. Curated by Tim Cook of Broken Silence Theatre – themselves a Brighton-based company – the two-day showcase featured five short plays on a broad range of themes, created by an all-female line-up of emerging writers from across the South East.

The evening opened with Sungrazer by Sussex writer Clare Reddaway, directed by Peter Taylor. In Sweden, sisters Annika and Inga can’t quite believe they’re related. They hold very different views on just about everything, but particularly about Annika’s job at the local nuclear plant, which comes to threaten their future together in a number of different ways. With strong performances from Eleanor Crosswell and Emma Howarth as the two bickering sisters, this gently humorous piece explores family tensions against a backdrop of scientific curiosity and environmental concern.

The future of our world is also at stake in M** & Women by Buckinghamshire’s Sydney Stevenson. Directed by Tim Cook, the play introduces us to 1 and 2 (Melissa Parker and Eleanor Grace), who are standing guard over the last man on Earth. The rest have been wiped out by a mysterious epidemic, leaving the women in charge of a crumbling civilisation. Except women and men really aren’t that different; we all love, hate, make inappropriate jokes, run businesses, start wars… Despite the title, in reality this is a play not about men and women but about human beings – and it speaks just as clearly to us now in 2018 as in any fictional future that may lie ahead.

Flying Ant Day, written by Jo Gatford from Sussex, and directed by Elizabeth Benbow, offers a fresh perspective on the role of “women of a certain age” in society. Through the story of mum-of-two Alice, who’s played with poignant vulnerability by Jennifer Oliver, we’re invited to look again at a mother – but this time to see her, not her children. Alice has begun to feel like she’s disappearing, piece by piece; her husband barely notices her any more, and her best friend Karen (Emmie Spencer) is too busy being super-mum to her own three kids to lend more than a passing ear. This is an incredibly impactful play, and one that I’d love to see developed further.

Emma Zadow’s very funny Norfolk-based play The Cromer Special, directed by Charlie Norburn, takes place in a fish and chip shop on Christmas Day. Maggie’s working behind the counter, despite having no customers – or indeed any fish – and has been joined by her best friend Lucy, who’s been driven out of her own house by her sister’s avocado-loving boyfriend. The play doesn’t hold back in its witty dissection of the class divide that’s sprung up between the Cromer locals and the students at nearby UEA, and this – along with brilliant comic performances from Claudia Campbell and Abbi Douetil – earned it some of the biggest laughs of the evening.

After the hilarity of the previous play, the evening ended on a somewhat darker note, with Home Time by Olivia Rosenthall from Essex. Directed by Tess Agus and performed by Isobel Eadie, the monologue begins with a scene many of us will know all too well – the rush hour commute. A grim picture is about to get even worse, however, when a young woman is sexually assaulted on a packed tube train, unseen (perhaps) by her fellow commuters. It’s a horrifying scenario – not least because it’s all too easy to believe that it actually happens – and very powerfully told, with a conclusion that’s simultaneously mundane and devastating.

As well as much-needed support for regional talent, it was also refreshing to see a programme championing female writers and performers. Each of the five pieces in Volume Two of Voices From Home brought something different to the stage, resulting in another excellent evening full of variety and mixed emotions. Despite all being under fifteen minutes, each play is able to tell a complete story – although most would certainly work also as longer pieces – and each leaves us with something to go away and think about (even if it’s just the merits, or otherwise, of avocados).

For future Voices From Home events, visit brokensilencetheatre.com.

Review: Hear Me Howl at the Old Red Lion Theatre

If you ask most children what being a grown-up looks like, chances are most would say at least some of the following: job, marriage, family, house, car, dog/cat/goldfish… That’s what society trains us to believe from a young age, so it’s no surprise that if we don’t fit into that box, we’re deemed – by both others and ourselves – to have somehow failed.

This seems particularly true in relation to the marriage and babies part, and because of the idea of a “biological clock”, it’s almost always women who take the brunt of the judgment. At my friend’s wedding a couple of years ago, as the only single member of the wedding party, I fielded questions from no less than three people (all of whom I’d only just met) as to why I was there alone – and as a bonus, a helpful reminder from the bride’s mum that I should probably get a move on.

Photo credit: Will Lepper

I feel like Jess, the character in Lydia Rynne’s Hear Me Howl, would sympathise with that experience. She’s about to turn 30, and has been in a relationship for years with a very lovable guy. So naturally she faces frequent pressure from family and friends to take the next step, whether that’s marriage or babies, because after all, she’s “not getting any younger”. The only problem is that Jess doesn’t really want to take that step, so it’s no surprise that when she discovers she’s pregnant, she freaks out quite dramatically. A week later, she’s joined a post-punk band, thrown out most of her clothes, attended her first protest and even appeared on the news – and all the while, she knows she has a huge, life-changing decision to make.

There’s plenty of humour in the one-woman show, which is beautifully performed with energy and unflinching conviction by Alice Pitt-Carter, but we’re also very aware that what we’re watching is much more than simply a woman having a meltdown. What we’re seeing is the dawning, liberating realisation not only that Jess doesn’t want to be a mother, but that she doesn’t need to be. She’s spent the last twelve years conforming to what society expects – boring job, nice boyfriend, rented flat, hair-free armpits – and is only now beginning to understand those are just a few of the options open to her.

This produces a conflicting set of emotions for the audience; it’s exhilarating to see Jess take her first steps towards figuring out who she really wants to be, but also depressing because it took a crisis – not to mention twelve years – for her to realise she even had that option. We see her grappling with the idea that not wanting a baby makes her selfish, or that she’s somehow failing in her womanly duty to continue the human race, even though she knows it wouldn’t make her happy – and to see another woman go through that turmoil is infuriating.

Photo credit: Will Lepper

Throughout the 70-minute show, director Kay Michael ensures we’re always aware of the drum kit that sits centre stage, as Jess hovers around it, her hands never far from the drumsticks she’s clearly itching to use. And when she finally takes her place behind the kit at the end of the show, she’s drumming not only for herself, but for every woman who’s ever felt unable to live the life she wants for fear of judgment. You may at this point want to use the earplugs provided at the box office; personally I wanted to experience every beat of her performance.

Hear Me Howl is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 29th September.

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… 😉