Review: Sister at Ovalhouse

How to describe Born Mad’s Sister? It’s a tricky show to review, actually, because there’s no easy way to sum up what goes on without it sounding a bit… eccentric. So let’s just say this: Sister is beautiful, powerful, inventive, moving and heartwarming. It will make you laugh. It will almost certainly make you cry. It’ll make you hear sounds in a whole new way, and it’ll send you home reflecting on your own relationships – with sisters, if you have them, and with family in general.

The show is made up of many different memories, all of them collected from real women. Some make only a brief appearance, while others resurface throughout the hour-long production. Through these recurring stories we meet Mira, who was separated from her sisters for 15 years by the Albanian civil war; Tara, “a bit of a pyromaniac”, whose earliest memory of her younger sister is the day she accidentally burnt their house down; and Annabel and Jessica, who are best friends as well as sisters. Some of the memories shared are of life-changing events, while others are totally mundane, but together they build up a picture of what it means to have – and be – a sister, with all its highs and lows.

Photo: Ludovic Des Cognets
Photo: Ludovic Des Cognets
The identically dressed Daisy Brown and Nia Coleman are in perfect harmony throughout – and not just when they’re singing (beautifully), but also in their movements and even the way they speak. They’re so in sync, in fact, that at times it becomes hard to believe we’re watching two individuals. The pair present the verbatim accounts that make up the show, bringing to life women of all ages and backgrounds, keeping each persona distinct and instantly recognisable when we return to them later.

Directed by Rebecca Hanbury, Sister is a very visual show, both in terms of the performers’ body language and facial expressions, and in Ben Jacobs’ incredible lighting effects (at one point I genuinely thought the theatre was on fire). But what makes this production unique is its use of sound and music, composed by Alex Groves and all created live on stage by the performers, then amplified by the microphones that cover the set. Gentle opera combines with the simplest of sounds – a hesitant ‘um’, the sound of tea being poured (and the satisfied sigh after that first sip), a crying baby – looping and soaring to build a sort of audio patchwork quilt, each sound bringing to mind a particular story or character, and reminding us once again that life doesn’t always have to be glamorous or exciting for it to mean something.

Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets
There are a few moments when the sounds intrude and make it difficult to hear the performers – on at least one occasion this is clearly very deliberate (and spine-tingly effective in a climactic scene), but there are also a couple of times when it’s not so obvious, and we find ourselves straining to hear the spoken words over the speakers above our heads, without really knowing if we’re supposed to be.

But I’m nitpicking. Sister really is a beautiful production, and packs quite a punch emotionally, too – one story in particular, towards the end of the show, very nearly broke me. Ultimately, though, this is a celebration of a unique bond. It doesn’t matter if you have sisters, brothers or neither of the above; if you’re interested in human relationships and enjoy unique, creative theatre, Sister is well worth a look.

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Interview: Born Mad, Sister

Born Mad is a cutting-edge music theatre company run¬†by director Rebecca Hanbury and composer Alex Groves. In 2014, their first show, Psyche, invited audience members to experience a¬†one-on-one performance that was described as “disorientating and beautiful”. Now, following a sell out premi√®re at the Spitalfields Summer Music Festival,¬†Born Mad¬†return to London’s Ovalhouse with¬†their latest work,¬†Sister,¬†a show that combines¬†frank verbatim accounts with live electronic music and song.

“Sister is a show all about the relationships that we may take for granted,” explains Rebecca. “Whether it‚Äôs a parent, a sibling, a partner or just our friends, we‚Äôre all connected to our loved ones by some pretty unshakeable bonds. Sometimes it‚Äôs easy to neglect them or take them for granted, and I suppose part of the reason why we made this show was to celebrate these relationships – the ups and downs, the challenges we all face and the memories we make together.”

Sister, Born Mad, Ovalhouse (4)
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets

The show’s based on real accounts from women across the country, all with a common theme of sisterhood. “The topic of Sister was born out of a shared interest in family, the passing of time and the creation of memory. We also wanted to create work that had complex female characters at its core.¬†We started by interviewing people that we knew, but the project quickly gained momentum when we started to put call-outs for participants via our social media outlets. We were soon overwhelmed with responses, and ended up speaking to nearly 50 women and girls. Three stories really stood out to us, so they form the core of the piece, woven into a tapestry of many other stories.

“In terms of the way that we told these stories, we were inspired by verbatim works such as London Road and John, and wanted to see what would happen if we coupled this super-naturalistic text with our brand of electroacoustic music.”

Rebecca and Alex have been working together for over four years, since meeting at university: “We were both interested in finding a more dynamic way of creating music theatre – bringing the composition of the work into the rehearsal room and playing around with music, text, design and staging all together before putting things down on paper. We‚Äôre also both interested in devised theatre – where the work is born out of a direct collaboration between artists as opposed to more traditional writer/director dynamic – so we brought the flexibility and energy involved in bringing together a devised work into a more musical world, and our style has been developing ever since.

“We want to tell contemporary stories in unusual ways, combining our love of music, technology and gripping narratives to bring to life very human stories on stage. Our work aims to combine fast-paced story-telling with a richly textured sound world of live vocals and electronic music, creating shows that appeal to both the head and the heart, and leaving our audience with a new outlook on the world around them.”

Sister, Born Mad, Ovalhouse (5)
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets

Born Mad are no strangers to Ovalhouse, and have fond memories of showing¬†Sister there while the piece was still in development. “It feels really good to be back!” says Rebecca. “As an emerging company, we really appreciate the support of organisations like Ovalhouse as we wouldn‚Äôt be able to experiment and play and create truly boundary-pushing work without them.

“We had so much fun rehearsing the piece there back in May and the team were great, so we can‚Äôt wait to get the show back up and running.¬†It’s¬†come on quite a long way since then¬†– most importantly, we‚Äôve now got the beautiful designs of Georgia de Grey (set and costume) and Ben Jacobs (lighting), which bring the piece¬†vividly to life. We also still had lots of questions about how we were going to end the piece in our last showing so, unless you saw the premi√®re back in June, there‚Äôs a few surprises waiting for you!”

The company¬†hope that¬†Sister¬†will encourage¬†audiences¬†to reflect¬†on their own relationships:¬†“We hope people leave¬†with an awareness of what they mean to those who love them and maybe even a desire to reach out and heal old wounds. Sister may shine a spotlight on a single type of relationship but we hope that everyone coming to the show will leave with a new perspective on their own lives.”

Book now for Sister at Ovalhouse from 6th-10th September.

Review: How To Win Against History at Ovalhouse

I watched How To Win Against History after a very long day at work, hardly any sleep and okay, maybe a couple of glasses of wine. Perhaps that’s why looking back at this fast, frenetic and frankly quite bonkers little musical brings with it a slightly surreal, dream-like feeling – although I suspect had I been wide awake and stone cold sober it wouldn’t¬†be much different.

Seiriol Davies’ show tells the little-known story of Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey, a cross-dressing aristocrat from the 1800s who blew his¬†family’s fortune on an unsuccessful theatrical career, and died at the young age of 29 in Monte Carlo of an unspecified “lung thing”. His outraged family then erased all trace of him from history.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge
Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

This tragic story makes for a surprisingly hilarious musical, directed by Alex Swift and performed by a cast of three: writer and composer Seiriol Davies as Henry, musical director Dylan Townley as The Band, and Matthew Blake as Mr Alexander Keith (and everyone else). These three are a dream team, bouncing off each other brilliantly and working in perfect harmony throughout to bring this bizarre story to life.

In the hottest week of the year so far, all three performers nonetheless give it their absolute all. The tiny stage brims with energy and an infectious enthusiasm that never lets up; this show is full on fabulous from start to finish. And though it’s only an hour long, it packs in a lot – so much so, in fact, that it becomes hard to keep up. Fortunately, as instructed by the actors themselves, we have the option to go away and Google anything we might have missed, and I’m willing to bet a significant proportion of the audience did just that.

Davies’ Henry is an ethereal being, so delicate that at times his voice barely rises above a whisper. He’s instantly appealing despite his many flaws, full of wide-eyed innocence and seemingly blissfully unaware that he might not be winning at life (“apparently,” he explains at one point, appearing genuinely surprised, “I treated Lilian [his wife] rather badly”). He’s joined by loyal friend and supporter Mr Alexander Keith – just one of many roles played by the multitalented Matthew Blake (another is Lilian, in case you were wondering) – and his band, played by the eccentrically wonderful¬†Dylan Townley on piano.

Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge
Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

The show acknowledges and addresses its audience, encouraging participation (at one point we found ourselves singing in German) with a witty script that includes several current political and cultural references; the Daily Mail joke went down particularly well. In keeping with its central character, the humour occasionally steers very close to the line – a couple of jokes drew audible groans from the audience – but never slips across it completely, and remains good, (almost) clean fun. The final message seems¬†a bit muddled: on the one hand, Henry feels that¬†he’s “sort of won” by being himself and living life his way, despite opposition and indifference from those around him; on the other, he also counts it as a win to convince the Daily Mail that he’s “normal” and enjoys wearing tweed.

How To Win Against History is undoubtedly an odd show (even without a glass of wine in your hand) – but like its hero, it’s also fabulous and fierce. And it does things its own way, no matter what anyone thinks, with a cast of three who seem to be having easily as much fun as the audience.¬†Riotous applause is a fitting end to such an entertaining and brilliantly performed show.

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Interview: Owen Calvert-Lyons, Ovalhouse

Owen Calvert-Lyons was recently appointed as the new Head of Theatre and Artists’ Development at Ovalhouse Theatre in South London. The former artistic director of The Point and The Berry theatres in Hampshire joins the Ovalhouse team as they prepare to move to a new home in Brixton in 2019.

Owen Calvert-Lyons

So what does a Head of Theatre and Artists’ Development actually do? “My role is to ensure that art and artists are at the centre of everything that we do,” explains Owen. “I want to give a voice to a new generation of artists, particularly those from South East London. I will programme the mainhouse (Downstairs) and studio (Upstairs) theatres, commission artists to create new works and I‚Äôll build an artist development programme which supports, nurtures and champions artists.

“My first season of programming will be Spring 2017, which will see a really exciting mix of new and familiar artists presenting bold and innovative productions. Before that, in¬†July we have Seiriol Davies’¬†How to Win Against History, which is a hilarious, anarchic new musical.”

The new Head of Theatre is full of plans for audiences and artists alike: “I want to grow our audiences. I want people from across London to see Ovalhouse as a place that they can come to enjoy performances by the most exciting artists around.

“And I want us to be an artist‚Äôs first port of call when they have a great idea. A place where they can make their vision a reality. Ultimately, artists want to create great work and audiences want to see great work. We are creating an environment in which artists and audiences can come together to explore new ideas.

“Ovalhouse is a special venue, with¬†a long history of radicalism. This has meant something different for every decade: feminist theatre, LGBT theatre, political theatre, performance as protest etc. This has meant that Ovalhouse has been a space for new ideas and new voices, which is always where the most exciting work comes from. We are in the process of defining what we think radicalism means for 21st¬†century artists and audiences.”

Owen joins fellow new recruits Stella Kanu (Executive Producer) and Gary Johnson (General Manager) at a huge moment in the theatre’s history, as plans get underway for the move to Brixton: “Stella and Gary are great.¬†They are bringing new ideas and new ways of working.¬†This has engendered a feeling of energy and optimism amongst the whole team, so that we are all working together to ensure that Ovalhouse has a really exciting future.

“The whole team is bubbling with excitement about the move. The new venue will be right in the heart of Brixton. One of the things that makes it distinctive is that it will have seven rehearsal rooms, so it will be a creation centre full of artists making extraordinary things.

“Many of the spaces will be rigged for aerial work, so we will be able to support the development of contemporary circus as well as theatre and dance. The two new performance spaces will be bigger than the existing Ovalhouse studios and better equipped, so we can make even more exciting work for even bigger audiences.”¬†

Find out more about How To Win Against History, and see what else is coming up in the Ovalhouse Spring/Summer 2016 season at