Review: On Mother’s Day at the Cockpit Theatre

“I could tell you I’m a good man… but you wouldn’t believe me.” Inspired by writer Saaramaria Kuittinen’s seven-year correspondence with prisoners on death row, On Mother’s Day from Ekata Theatre tells a heartbreaking tale that’s all too familiar. It’s the story of a crime – a violent, horrific murder that should never have happened. But it’s also the story of the man who committed it, his shame and guilt over what he’s done, and his desperate need to cling on to who he is in a world that’s specifically designed to dehumanise him.

Ramón (Christian Scicluna) is a murderer – but he’s also thoughtful, creative, funny and extremely likeable. He doesn’t try and make excuses, nor does he ask us to condone what he’s done. Instead, he shares with us his memories, which are all that he has left of his former life, and in doing so tells us all we need to know about the path that brought him here.

Those memories are recreated not only through Ramón’s words but by the mesmerising movement and physicality of ensemble members Lukas Bozik and Silvia Manazzone. The violent abuse suffered by his mother at the hands of his father; the party at which he met Maria, the love of his life; the precious childhood holidays at his grandma’s in the countryside – all are brought vividly to life and allow Ramón to step outside the confines of his tiny cell and experience in his mind a world he no longer gets to see, hear or touch.

Although, on the surface, the story told by On Mother’s Day is personal, not political, it’s difficult to watch it without feeling a growing sense of anger at a system that places retribution above rehabilitation, and utterly disregards the circumstances that may have led someone to commit a terrible crime. Ramón’s has been a life of violence, but at the hands of others, not his own. The crime for which he was condemned was, he tells us, the one time in his life that he acted without thinking – and yet it’s enough, in the eyes of the law, to wipe out any good he may have done or may go on to do in the future.

The set is simple – just Ramón’s cell, a metal bedframe and a small box of possessions, right in the centre of the stage. Director Erika Eva makes creative use of The Cockpit’s in-the-round stage area, however, extending it to include the high walkways that overlook the stage, and where the actors pace up and down like prison guards. The show also makes particularly effective use of light, which is used both as an interrogation tool and to create the play’s striking and desperately poignant final image.

I had a personal interest in seeing this show because I also have some experience of writing to prisoners on death row, and have been struck repeatedly by the wit, wisdom, compassion and astonishing creativity of men and women who’ve been written off by society. This is exactly what On Mother’s Day captures so well. However incongruous it may seem, Ramón is both a murderer and a good man; he deserves to be punished for his crime, but there’s so much more to him than the single worst thing he’s ever done. Although the current run is at an end, let’s hope it isn’t the last we see of this beautiful and heartbreaking story of life on death row, which succeeds not only as a piece of theatre but also as a powerful argument against the senseless violence of the death penalty.

On Mother’s Day ran at the Cockpit Theatre from 13th to 16th August. For more details about Ekata Theatre and future productions, visit www.ekatatheatre.com or follow @EkataTheatre.

Review: Knock Knock at RADA Festival

Now in its seventh year, the annual RADA Festival brings together past graduates and a network of theatre-makers from different backgrounds in a ten-day celebration of new writing, emerging talent and the possibilities of theatre today. Key among the aims of the festival is to ensure that theatre is open to all; in line with this objective, tickets start at £5 and the three headline shows each place a strong emphasis on accessibility.

For Hot Coals Theatre, this is nothing new: since 2008 the company has specialised in work that’s fully accessible to d/Deaf and hearing audiences, and their latest show Knock Knock is also designed to be accessible to all ages. highly visual performance style, combining comedy, clowning and physical theatre, removes any need for spoken word or sign language while still ensuring the story and its message are easy to understand.

Photo credit: Hot Coals Theatre

Modern fairy tale Knock Knock tells the story of a woodcutter whose solitary existence is interrupted when a woman he’s never met before knocks at his door. It’s love at first sight, but when they both succumb to the pressure to live up to “traditional” gender roles, the happiness of their perfect union is threatened. Can they see past what’s expected of them and live the way they want to, or is their relationship doomed?

It’s impossible not to be charmed by the story’s loveable characters, who are brought beautifully to life by Hot Coals founders Jo Sargeant and Clare-Louise English. Spoken word proves to be unnecessary as the two communicate their thoughts and emotions through movement and facial expressions (Sargeant’s twinkly eyes above her bushy beard are a particular highlight). We share all their joy and heartbreak, and also enjoy some moments of cheeky humour that lift the characters out of the two-dimensional fairy tale world and make them real, imperfect human beings we can relate to.

A meticulously observed set also aids the storytelling, dividing the stage in two so the characters can move easily between their cosy living room and the mysterious, magical woods just outside their door. The structure of the show is based around the establishment of patterns; the opening sequence takes turns to introduce the two characters in their individual routines, while the second half of the story shows how their domestic activities change little by little as each day passes. Visually this works very successfully to demonstrate the gradual transition in their lives – we can see the way things are going long before they do – although the musical soundtrack does start to become a bit overbearing by the third or fourth repetition.

Photo credit: Hot Coals Theatre

Sweet, funny and with a powerful and very topical message for audiences of all ages, Knock Knock packs a surprising emotional punch. Within minutes, I was completely caught up in the story and rooting for the characters to resist the stifling social expectations that stand in the way of their happy ever after, both as a couple and as individuals. All in all, it’s a very worthy headliner for the RADA festival, and hopefully a show with a great future.

Catch Knock Knock at RADA Festival 2018 until 7th July.

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: Josie Underwood, Follow Suit

Silent Faces was founded at Goldsmiths in 2015 by Josie Underwood, Cordelia Stevenson and Jay Wakely, with the aim of making brave, ridiculous, unique and challenging theatre. Their show Follow Suit was nominated for the Brighton Fringe Award for Best Young Production in 2016, and now heads north to Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard.

“People should see Follow Suit because it’s ridiculous and funny, with a bit of liberal rage thrown in,” says co-founder Josie. “It’s a darkly comic take on the morally neglectful world of high finance, four clowns in an office distracting themselves in the most ridiculous ways possible from the skeletons in their stationery cupboard.

“We wanted to make a show that tackled a big issue like corporate responsibility, through clown and comedy. It seems a bizarre idea to smash together clowning with corporations, but it was a challenge we were excited to undertake! We love clown and physical theatre, but also want to make work that challenges, all the while entertaining its audience.”

With just a few days to go until their Edinburgh debut, Silent Faces are looking forward to the experience, and particularly seeing audiences’ reactions to the show. “We’ve worked on this production for so long, and we are incredibly excited to share it with the wonderful audiences that flock to Edinburgh Fringe,” says Josie. 

“And there are so many other shows that we’re excited to see this year: Superbolt’s two shows, Mental by Kane Power Theatre, Gecko, Different Party and Trygve vs a Baby, and so much more. We’re also gutted that we won’t be able to see Not I by Touretteshero – which looks right up our street and we will definitely be encouraging everyone to see!”

Silent Faces aim to make their work accessible to as many people as possible, and Follow Suit was recently included in a round-up of Disability Arts International’s picks of the Fringe 2017. It does come with a bit of a health warning for younger audience members, though: “It’s not for kids, because it does get a bit gruesome, but we think anyone would enjoy Follow Suit,” says Josie. “As an integrated company of disabled and non-disabled artists, we were really keen to make work that is accessible to all adult audiences – and as a show that relies mainly on comedy and physicality, Follow Suit is accessible to an international audience.

“Above all else, we hope audiences will be entertained. While the content is in essence political, we don’t want to stand on a soap box and shove our views down our audiences’ throats. Instead we want them to enjoy the comedy, the silliness and the journey that our clowns go on.”

Follow Suit is at Pleasance Courtyard (venue 33) from 2nd-28th August (not 9th, 14th, 15th, 21st) at 12.45pm.

Interview: BoxLess Theatre, LOOP

Opening next month at Theatre N16, LOOP is the debut production from BoxLess Theatre. The show charts three generations of one family, from 1965 to the present day, and explores how they evolve, change and fall in love along with the music that they listen to.

Resident Writer Alexander Knott and Artistic Director Zoë Grain collaborated on the creation of LOOP, combining words and moves with music from the 60s, 80s and present day. “The show was inspired by Zöe, who knew she wanted to do a piece that was intrinsically about music, and how it can be the soundtrack to our lives,” explains Alexander. “That, and the image of a Walkman and a set of 80s headphones. From there we brainstormed the characters and arrived at different ways of how they could be related. It was quite late on in the writing that it was apparent that they were all one family – for a while, it was just a series of unconnected vignettes, but now it’s more of a sequential story.”

“The project was jumpstarted when Second Sons Theatre asked us to devise a ten minute piece for their ‘Play Time’ festival of new writing, last September,” continues Zoë. “Alexander worked up some draft monologues and we devised a short scene, that gave the essence of the play. Half a year down the line, the rest of the play is written and that extract now comes in the middle of the story. Actors Aaron Price and Rubie Ozanne are reprising their roles as ‘The Boy’ and ‘The Girl’, with Emily Thornton and James Demaine completing the cast.”

Choreographer Zoë set up BoxLess Theatre last year, after graduating from Italia Conti. “My aim has always been to make physical theatre something accessible to people of different disciplines and experience, not just for classically trained dancers,” she explains. “The training at Italia Conti Acting, where the cast and creative team met, has always shown movement as a way of expressing the story of a play in a very immediate way, and BoxLess is taking this a step further with a piece that combines physical theatre and new writing. Dance for everyone, essentially, and not just for the few.”

After months in development, the show finally opens on 6th June at Balham’s Theatre N16. “We’re all feeling excited, with a definite hint of butterflies, and there’s still plenty to do,” says Alexander. “But N16 is a great space – intimate, yet versatile, and with a lot of atmosphere. The preview of the show was performed there, so we feel like we know how to move in that space. Rehearsals have a great, collaborative energy to them, with everyone bringing ideas to the table. There’s always going to be that ‘going out on a limb’ nervousness when creating a new piece of theatre, but the show is taking shape, and we’re starting to see it come to life.”

LOOP offers a great opportunity to enjoy a bit of musical nostalgia, but there’s a lot more to the show than a simple trip down memory lane. “We’d like audiences to go away with that feeling of having seen a satisfying story. Seeing the characters grow and change – after all, the story covers the best part of 60 years – and how something that happens to one of them in 1965 might influence choices made in the present, should be really engaging. We want the movement to be as slick and expressive as it can be – there’s something intensely satisfying in well-executed physical theatre. Also, perhaps, leaving the theatre with a sense of hopefulness; the play is, we think, about hope, about looking forward and letting go of the past.”

Book now for LOOP at Theatre N16 from 6th-10th June.