Review: Beautiful Little Fools at the Cockpit Theatre

Beautiful Little Fools is the debut production from all-female company Optic Theatre – and it’s clear they mean business. Intense, brutal and with a conclusion that’s genuinely quite traumatic, the show takes an everyday situation to the ultimate horrifying extreme, showing what human beings are capable of when exposed to a relentless stream of hatred and lies.

Three young women wake up in a room, with no idea of how they got there or even who they are. There’s no way of leaving, and each of them is wearing an electric ankle bracelet that delivers a painful shock every time they step out of line. Every day they’re forced to listen to disembodied voices – which we recognise as those of public figures including Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump – discussing the danger posed by immigrants. And then a new girl arrives…

I’d love to say this story is far-fetched – and of course it is, in the sense that the British government doesn’t really have bunkers full of terrified prisoners who are being slowly radicalised (or at least let’s hope not). But the way in which the girls are manipulated in their torture chamber/Big Brother house is unnervingly familiar, and with people like Katie Hopkins advocating “final solutions” in the mainstream media, the play’s shocking climax doesn’t seem like such a wild stretch of the imagination.

Anna Marshall’s production successfully depicts the passing of time (though exactly how much is hard to tell), with movement sequences between scenes that demonstrate the captives’ mind-numbing routine. Each time we come back to them, they’ve lost a little more of their humanity, as they play mind games, form alliances and turn on each other in their desperation to survive the ordeal. In 60 gripping minutes, Jemma Burgess (who also wrote the play), Sophia Hannides, Isabel Goldby-Briggs and Jessica Collins take us on a rollercoaster ride through shock, fear, anger, hysteria and hatred – but also some deeply moving moments of vulnerability that remind us these young women are human beings just like us, whatever they may find themselves driven to do.

The play unflinchingly exposes its audience to the same treatment as its characters. We listen to the same abhorrent recordings at least three or four times, and endure flashing lights, high-pitched tones and crackling electricity (courtesy of sound designers Dan Bottomley and Davide Vox). It’s deeply unsettling, even for just an hour, and makes it easy to believe that after days, weeks or even months of this treatment, the girls might be willing to do just about anything to gain their freedom.

Beautiful Little Fools is an exciting debut from Optic Theatre, a thrilling and disquieting reminder of the power of words to change hearts and minds, for better and for worse. It would perhaps have been easy to dismiss as impossible a couple of years ago – but with hate crimes on the rise, Brexit going ahead and Trump in the White House, the play is not only timely; it’s terrifying.

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… 😉

Interview: Jemma Burgess, Beautiful Little Fools

“We want audiences to leave the performances asking questions. To be even more curious. To spark debate. To think about their own beliefs and other people’s beliefs and ask why…”

Jemma Burgess, the founder of Optic Theatre, makes her playwriting debut at the Cockpit Theatre next month with Beautiful Little Fools, a piece inspired by recent political events. “Beautiful Little Fools is an all-female, new writing piece exploring how media can manipulate the human mind,” she explains. “With Trump, The Iron Lady, Mrs Strong and Stable, The Bush and more. We see if three girls can be brainwashed to adhere to the government’s demands. In today’s turbulent times, this couldn’t be more relevant.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when Jemma outlines her inspirations for the show, the recent UK general election and the rise of Donald Trump top the list. “But also documentaries and programmes such as Hypernormalisation by Adam Curtis,” she adds. “The Handmaid’s Tale. Big Brother. Black Mirror. Books: The Great Gatsby and 1984. Social experiments: Pavlov’s Dog. MK ULTRA and The Stanford Prison Experiment. Lastly, just listening and observing people that I know. Their views on the world and why they believe what they believe.”

Jemma set up the company with a clear goal in mind: “Optic Theatre was founded to give more opportunity to women within the Industry, without writing a play specifically for women or revising a play and gender swapping the roles,” she explains. “At the end of the day, we are all human; raw, messy, caring, beautiful humans. I want to make theatre that is both challenging and exhilarating to perform. Stories that come from our guts and our impulses.”

True to that vision, Beautiful Little Fools is presented by an all-female team. “Our director Anna Marshall recently graduated from the Ecole
Internationale de Theatre de Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and also has a BA Hons from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in Puppetry. With a vast and outstanding CV, we are so chuffed to have her directing Beautiful Little Fools,” says Jemma, who trained at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, and will also perform as SUBJECT A in the production. “Sophia Hannides, who plays SUBJECT D, trained alongside me and went on to sign with Cole Kitchen after graduating; she’s recently appeared in Doctors. 

“After graduating from Guildford School of Acting, Izzy Goldby-Briggs, who plays SUBJECT C, moved to London and is hoping to set up a writing group for actors, mainly looking into short films that could be used for show reel material. And lastly is Jessica Collins, who plays SUBJECT B. Jessica has trained at the BRIT school since she was fourteen and has gone on to perform in programmes such as the BBC’s Silent Witness and Doctors.”

Beautiful Little Fools doesn’t only mark Jemma’s debut as a writer – it’s also her company’s first time at the Camden Fringe. “We’re all looking forward to pretty much everything,” she says. “It’s an exciting process and we are constantly learning. It’s a fantastic festival and we hope that it can open opportunities for future development of the play.

“Ours is a show for anyone interested in all-female work and female equality. Physical theatre lovers. Anyone who’s curious about how the world is run. From students to your grandma, if you have an opinion on the ‘system’, then come and see our show.”

See Beautiful Little Fools at the Cockpit Theatre on 7th and 8th August.