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!”

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.

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: 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.

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.

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… 😉