Review: Fast at Park Theatre

Based on a true story, Kate Barton’s play Fast invites its audience into the disturbing world of “Dr” Linda Hazzard (Caroline Lawrie), whose controversial fasting diet method claimed the lives of multiple patients in the early 20th century. In particular the play focuses on the case of Claire and Dora Williamson (Jordon Stevens and Natasha Cowley), two wealthy English sisters who sought Hazzard’s help, with tragic consequences.

The premise of the play is already chilling enough, but director Kate Valentine’s production ramps up the creepiness to the point where you wonder how Hazzard could possibly have got away with it for so long. The design work by Emily Bestow (set and costumes), David Chilton (sound) and Ben Bull (lighting) is pure black and white horror movie: the sanitarium is dark and echoey, with flickering lights, ripped and stained curtains and sinister dripping noises. From the start, its owner has every appearance of being a fanatic, who makes up her patients’ room by pulling the beds out of the wall just like drawers in a morgue. Watching the Williamson sisters check in strongly resembles the moment in a movie when the unwitting victims enter the haunted house of their own free will, despite everyone in the audience willing them to run the other way. Throw in a power cut, a thunderstorm and something very bad waiting to be discovered in a bathtub, and you’ve got the makings of a very creepy play indeed.

All this leaves us in no doubt that Linda Hazzard was a monster, who preyed on the anxiety and gullibility of her patients, starved them for weeks on end, and then stole their possessions after they died. What the play doesn’t do so well is to explain why she did any of this. Caroline Lawrie is excellent in her portrayal of the “doctor”, and it’s clear from the earnest way she addresses the audience that she genuinely believes in her own methods (so much so that in the end, she herself died as a result of them). But the horror movie aspect is such a dominant presence throughout that this clearly complicated character lacks depth, and even when Hazzard raises reasonable points – such as the media’s insistence on calling her a “woman doctor” – it’s difficult to see her as anything other than a self-serving villain.

Her victims, on the other hand, are far easier to relate to, their vague health concerns and desperate need to believe in anything that will make them feel better all too recognisable over a century later. Natasha Cowley and Jordon Stevens make a strong and convincing partnership as the chalk and cheese sisters, the former no-nonsense and cynical, the latter romantic and dreamy. Once inside the sanitarium, their one hope of salvation is Daniel Norford’s charming and resourceful Horace Cayton Jnr., a journalist who follows his instincts and ultimately plays a key role in bringing Hazzard to justice.

Taken at face value as a thriller, Fast works well enough, and the production is particularly strong from a design perspective (although – small gripe – some of the sight lines could be improved; sitting three rows back, it’s hard to see what’s happening at ground level, much of which is pretty important). At times, though, it feels like the play is too caught up in the undeniably gory details of “Dr” Hazzard’s career, and consequently it fails to open up any meaningful discussion about how or why such a horrific chain of events could have taken place. Similarly, there are parallels to be drawn with the fad diets and wellness trends of the 21st century, but these aren’t really explored in any depth. Based on a repellent but fascinating historical figure, the play doesn’t quite live up to its potential – but as Halloween approaches, horror movie fans will certainly find plenty to enjoy in this chilling new play.

Fast is at Park Theatre until 9th November.

Review: Cry Havoc at Park Theatre

Inspired by playwright Tom Coash’s time living and teaching in Egypt, Cry Havoc explores the idea of the Western “saviour” through the ill-fated love story of Mohammed (James El-Sharawy) and Nicholas (Marc Antolin). Mohammed is an Egyptian who’s just returned from several days being beaten and tortured in prison. Horrified, his British partner Nicholas instinctively wants to try and fix the situation – initially with cups of tea and first aid, and later by applying to take Mohammed home to England with him, whether he wants to go or not.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

It’s no coincidence that against all logic, the play often feels more like Nicholas’ story than Mohammed’s. The Brit’s tone-deaf response to his lover’s plight places him firmly at centre stage, and consistently reveals a lack of awareness or respect for the country that’s been his home for the past six months. It never occurs to him until the play’s dramatic climax that Mohammed might not want to flee Egypt, or that he might prefer to stay and fight for a better future. Similarly, Nicholas’ slightly surreal encounters with embassy official Ms Nevers (Karren Winchester) have very little to do with the absent Mohammed, and very much to do with their own personal values and motivations.

Though he may be misguided, however, Nicholas isn’t a bad guy; his actions reveal his sense of privilege, but they’re clearly prompted by genuine affection and concern, and as a character he remains very likeable despite his faults. The relationship between the two men is believably played by James El-Sharawy and Marc Antolin, their conversations in Mohammed’s bedroom revealing the intimacy and happy memories they share. But the bruises on Mohammed’s face and the bandage on his hand – along with the recurring question: “What is your relationship with this man?” – are a constant reminder of the prejudice and brutality waiting just outside. For those of us lucky enough to live in a more tolerant society, the idea that a young man can be arrested and beaten just for being gay is difficult to accept – and in that sense, perhaps Nicholas’ reaction isn’t so unreasonable after all.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Under Pamela Schermann’s skilled direction, the play’s relatively short scenes run smoothly from one to the next through simple black-outs. Though the embassy scenes take place away from Mohammed’s flat, it’s always there in the background, with the focal point of Emily Bestow’s set a pair of bloody handprints on the wall behind the bed. These are not, as we and Nicholas first assume, a sign of violence but of religious devotion – just one more cultural misunderstanding in a play that’s full of them.

Cry Havoc is a far quieter and more contemplative play than its title suggests; with the exception of its penultimate scene there’s little drama, and the closest we get to dogs of war are the ones barking outside Mohammed’s building. That said, there is a sense of building tension throughout as the two lovers find themselves repeatedly at odds over their future, and this discord shines a new light on the well-worn subjects of immigration and asylum. It’s a thoughtful, challenging and extremely well acted play, and definitely worth a visit.

Review: Chinglish at Park Theatre

Bad Chinese to English translations are the stuff of internet legend. My personal favourite sign – ‘Do not Disturb, Tiny Grass is Dreaming’ – sadly doesn’t make it into David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, but there are still plenty of hearty belly laughs to go around in this comedy with hidden depths about an American businessman trying to make it in China.

Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) has spotted an opportunity for his Cleveland-based firm – supplying signage for a new arts centre in Guiyang. The only problem? He doesn’t speak the language or understand the culture. Employing the services of Peter (Duncan Harte), a fluent Chinese-speaking British “consultant”, Daniel pitches his proposal to a government minister (Lobo Chan) and finds himself getting along a little too well with vice-minister Xi Yan (Candy Ma). Chaos, confusion and rumours of corruption ensue… but who really has the upper hand – and why?

Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

A strong cast, directed by Andrew Keates, handle the bilingual script with ease, with Candy Ma and Duncan Harte particularly impressive as they slip effortlessly from Mandarin to English and back again. Gyuri Sarossy, meanwhile, hits exactly the right note as the bewildered Daniel, his early cockiness fading rapidly as he begins to realise what he’s got himself into, and his later scenes with Ma are loaded with an unexpected emotional intensity.

Though a good proportion of the script is in Chinese, the audience never feels lost in translation, thanks to the provision of surtitles throughout (though this does sometimes mean turning away from the actor who’s speaking in order to keep up with what they’re saying). This gives us an advantage over most of the characters, who only speak either English or Chinese, and allows us to appreciate the humour in both the hilariously inept efforts of the Chinese interpreters and Daniel’s fumbling attempts to speak Mandarin himself. There’s no question of taking sides; the good-natured humour targets both East and West equally, warding off any accusations of prejudice in either direction.

Ironically, from our privileged position of bilingualism, one of the hardest scenes to follow is mostly in English (in fact it’s so tricky that we share the characters’ jubilation and relief when they finally understand each other). And it’s here that Hwang moves away from light comedy, and into something altogether more complex. This isn’t just an opportunity for us all to have a good laugh at people making language mistakes – and just as well; as funny as these undoubtedly are, a solid two hours of them might be a bit exhausting.

Where the play really gets interesting is in its exploration of the fundamental difference in business, political and cultural practices between East and West. As business consultant Peter discovers to his cost, sometimes even being able to speak the local lingo like a native isn’t enough; in such vastly different cultures, a word that’s directly translated from one language to another can still mean something completely different.

Photo credit: Richard Davenport for The Other Richard

Just as fascinating as the script is Tim McQuillen-Wright’s set, which begins as a simple panelled wall but then unfolds like origami (yes I know, wrong country) to reveal hidden doors, windows, a restaurant kitchen and even a bedroom. As a result, each scene change offers an intriguing opportunity to see what it’ll do – and where it’ll take us – next.

Chinglish is a lot of fun, with some great comic performances and a few unexpected twists and turns that prove worth waiting for. But it’s also a genuinely interesting play to watch, from both a linguistic and business perspective. Not everyone ends up getting what they want (in fact, make that hardly anyone), but the bittersweet conclusion comes with some important lessons for everyone involved – and lends new meaning to Daniel’s own top tip to “always bring your own translator”.

And if you just enjoy laughing at funny Chinese signs – well, it’s got plenty of those too.

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: Happy to Help at Park Theatre

If you thought a supermarket was nothing more than a place to pick up a pint of milk, think again. Happy To Help by Michael Ross opens the door to Frisca, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, and takes us behind the scenes for one dramatic week, to reveal the internal politics and daily power struggles hidden behind the brand’s cheerful public face. It’s a sharp, clever comedy but with a serious message, in which the huge corporation is likened to an autocratic state, where speaking out against the regime can have dire consequences.

UK managing director Tony (Charles Armstrong) is doing his Secret Millionaire bit, on the advice of American boss Huck (David Bauckham), going behind the scenes at a Frisca branch to mingle with the workers. But little does he know that store manager Vicky (Katherine Kotz) has her own agenda… Meanwhile disgruntled employees Elliott (Jonny Weldon) and Myra (Rachel Marwood) are whispering about unions, and wannabe rockstar Josh (Ben Mann) has no intention of sticking around for long, even if he is everyone’s favourite shelf-stacker. For Frisca’s customers, it’ll be just another week, but behind the scenes everything’s about to change as a hilarious, shocking and unsettling chain of events is set in motion.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

In a fantastic cast, Katherine Kotz gives a stand-out performance as the manipulative Vicky; with a sunny smile that never reaches her eyes, she prowls the stage, a figure of absolute authority and control – but with a slightly manic air that suggests she could lose it at any moment. Ben Mann also shines as the brashly confident Josh, who thinks he’s got it made by being teacher’s pet. The confrontation between Vicky and Josh at the end of Act 1 is masterfully constructed and performed; much like Josh, we don’t realise what’s happening until it’s too late.

Perhaps the biggest personality on stage, though – both literally (the brand name is emblazoned across Emma Tompkins’ set) and figuratively – is Frisca itself, a business so wildly successful that it’s come to dominate every area of our lives, without ever pausing to consider who might be suffering as a result. Directed by Roxy Cook, the play skilfully contrasts Frisca’s shiny public image with the less than glamorous reality, in which employees are devalued, dissatisfied, and anything but ‘happy to help’. Each scene change is punctuated by a soundtrack of till beeps and monotonous store announcements, and there’s even a perky (and frustratingly catchy) Frisca song. It’s a world governed by ridiculous rules and regulations, whose absurdity is hammered home by Tony – the man who wrote them – now having to abide by them.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

But Happy To Help, which was shortlisted for the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize in 2015, is also a stark warning about the power that big businesses are allowed to wield over both us as consumers and the smaller firms that get in their way. As much as we may laugh watching the play, it actually paints a pretty bleak picture, and though the twist in the tale isn’t difficult to see coming, it still makes a powerful point. And it may make you think twice about ever setting foot in a supermarket again… at least until the next time you run out of milk, anyway.

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… 😉

Theatre round-up: 19 July 2015

Just the two trips this week…

Shakespeare’s R&J

A unique take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which four students at a strict boys’ boarding school read extracts from the play to each other after class. What starts out as a bit of fun soon turns more serious as story and real life merge, and the boys are forced to confront their feelings of love, jealousy and friendship. The result is funny, moving and at times violent, and though the words may be familiar, this is unlike any adaptation of Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen.

The play itself, by Joe Calarco, was written almost twenty years ago, and has been performed all over the world, including the West End. This production by the Chapel Lane Theatre Company features an impressive young cast, and will be at the Tabard Theatre until 8th August.

Shakespeare’s R&J review for

The Gathered Leaves

A family drama written by Andrew Keatley and directed by Antony Eden, The Gathered Leaves explores the complex relationships between three generations of the Pennington family. For the first time in seventeen years, the whole family are all together for the long Easter weekend, trying to put the past behind them in the face of an uncertain future.

An excellent cast is led by Jane Asher and Clive Francis as William and Olivia Pennington, along with Asher’s real-life daughter Katie Scarfe, and father-son duo Alexander and Tom Hanson. But for me, the star of the show is Nick Sampson, who’s delightful as the Penningtons’ autistic son, Samuel. The Gathered Leaves is a story of one family on the brink of significant change, but is also a more general reflection on what family really means. It’s on at Park Theatre until 15th August.

The Gathered Leaves review for

The Gathered Leaves and Shakespeare's R&J

Next week’s theatre

A Land Without People (Palindrome Productions), The Courtyard

To She Or Not To She (Joue le Genre), Morley College