Review: Kill Climate Deniers at the Pleasance

It’s a bold move to stand on stage in front of a room full of press, among them several bloggers taking notes for a forthcoming review, and declare repeatedly that “if you are a blogger, you do not count”. Similarly, it’s not often you see an actor point a gun directly into an audience member’s face, because it is – as the writer himself acknowledges – “a huge breach of performer / audience trust”.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Then again, would we expect anything less from a play with the deliberately provocative title of Kill Climate Deniers? Written by David Finnigan as a cry of frustration, this riotous Australian satire takes a unique and fearless approach to the bitterly divisive issue of climate change. Australia’s Environment Minister Gwen Malkin (Felicity Ward) is having a terrible day – she’s caused outrage on national radio by clumsily announcing that the government’s new strategy to tackle global warming is to “block out the sun”, she’s become a laughing stock on Twitter, and now she’s on the verge of getting fired. Then to make matters even worse, the Fleetwood Mac concert she’s attending at Parliament House is invaded by a ruthless gang of eco-terrorists, intent on killing everyone in the building unless climate change is stopped right now. Malkin’s not taking that lying down, though, and together with her trusty press advisor Georgina Bekken (Kelly Paterniti), she sets out to take on the terrorists and restore her honour in the eyes of the nation.

In the wake of the recent Extinction Rebellion protests and youth climate strikes, Kill Climate Deniers is a very timely production – though funnily enough it’s not really about climate change per se. The writer’s stance is clear from the play’s title; it would be a waste of everyone’s time to spend more than a couple of minutes explaining the subject to an audience who, presumably, are already very much on board. Despite this, there are no good guys in this story – and nor can there ultimately be any winners, whatever the outcome of the siege. The enmity between the two sides might make for good entertainment, but as the writer himself acknowledges over the course of the play, it’s also a dangerous distraction from the real fight to save the planet. (Side note: if you can, I recommend getting a copy of the play text, which includes a lot of extra notes and information from the playwright.)

When the outlook is this bleak, you might as well have some fun with it, and there’s little doubt that Nic Connaughton’s fast-paced, highly physical production is an absolute blast from start to finish. Felicity Ward and Kelly Paterniti make a hilarious if slightly dysfunctional double act as Malkin and Bekken, taking down terrorists in slow motion action movie style to a soundtrack of 90s techno classics. Hannah Ellis Ryan delivers two of the play’s most compelling monologues so persuasively that even Bec Hill’s cynical chief terrorist Catch is forced to admit she’s “hella eloquent” (well, in one case; in the other, unable to find any holes in her argument, she just shoots her in the stomach). Meanwhile as a counterpoint to the drama on stage, Nathan Coenen provides something approaching a voice of reason as the play’s writer, Finig, who attempts to explain why the two sides of the argument may actually have more in common than we like to think.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Though it might be preaching to the choir on the dangers of climate change, any smugness we may feel over being on “the right side” doesn’t last very long once the play gets going. Action-packed, irreverent and hilariously weird, Kill Climate Deniers nonetheless still succeeds in making a serious and important point, and provides more than enough food for thought to give you nightmares for weeks.

Kill Climate Deniers is at the Pleasance until 28th June.

Review: Spiked at Pleasance Theatre

Three mothers face a nightmare scenario in Félicité du Jeu’s Spiked; their teenage children have been admitted to A&E, along with the rest of their class, after being struck down by mysterious symptoms at school. It’s a strong premise, with the potential for plenty of drama and suspense, and which opens the door for discussions about themes including race, class and what constitutes “good” parenting. As individuals, Joanna, Rozhin and Karen could hardly be more different, but as they sit together waiting for news, they begin to find some common ground in the struggles that come with being mother to a teenager. That is until they discover that their children ate a cake deliberately spiked with drugs, at which point the inevitable speculation and finger-pointing begins in earnest.

Photo credit: Félicité du Jeu

The fault lines that divide the three are obvious from the start: Joanna (Charlotte Asprey) is well-off and a bit of a drama queen, while Karen (Daniella Dessa) is a straight-talking single mum and Rozhin (Katie Clark) is a sweet but naive immigrant from Kurdistan. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see which direction the accusatory fingers are pointing in – but what is unexpected is how on the money they turn out to be. It’s a confusing outcome given that the play clearly sets out to challenge these stereotypes, and slightly undermines an eloquent and passionate speech from Rozhin in defence of her family. It also, unfortunately, means that the play ends on a bit of an anticlimax, especially after what looks like it’s going to be a dramatic twist in the tale doesn’t actually go anywhere.

It’s in its exploration of what it means to be a mother that both script and performances are most assured, as the three women try their best to identify with their teenage children in a world that’s moved on in unfathomable ways since their own adolescence. In particular, their attempts to grasp how social media works bring a note of humour to the play, although their lack of understanding also means they react surprisingly calmly to revelations of cyberbullying and sexting amongst their kids.

Photo credit: Félicité du Jeu

Charlotte Asprey, Daniella Dessa and Katie Clark also play the three teenagers, in intermittent scenes that offer us a further insight into the relationship they have with their mums and with each other. Because of the simple but necessary costume changes required, however, these scenes break up the flow of the action in Gemma Kerr’s production, and don’t really tell us anything about the teens that we haven’t already learnt from listening to their mothers’ conversation in A&E.

It’s the mothers, though, that are at the heart of the play, and a final direct address to the audience proves that despite all their differences, these three women have one thing in common: a wish to keep their kids safe, happy and healthy at all costs. Echoing those words and aspirations with recorded clips of other real-life mums is a nice touch, and ensures that despite any unpleasantness that’s gone before, Spiked concludes on a heartwarming note.

Spiked is at Pleasance Theatre until 28th April.


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Review: Becoming Mohammed at The Pleasance

Becoming Mohammed by Claudia Marinaro packs an unexpected punch. On the surface a relatively straightforward family drama, on another, deeper level, it forces us to question our own assumptions and what’s led us to form these opinions in the first place.

The story’s based on director Annemiek van Elst’s real-life family experience, and sees Sarah (Philippa Carson) return home after living abroad for two years, looking forward to indulging in a bit of nostalgia with her brother Thomas (Jack Hammett). But when she learns he’s become a Muslim in her absence, a horrified Sarah does all she can to talk him out of it, assuming he’s been brainwashed by new best friend Musa (Jonah Fazel) and his sister – now Thomas’ fiancée – Aminah (Nadia Lamin).

Photo credit: And Many Others

With time and understanding, Sarah and Thomas set out on the road to resolving their family drama. But there’s a bigger conflict brewing, as an enthusiastic Thomas attempts to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims within the local community, not realising he’s fighting a losing battle against the ignorance and fear that’s become such a natural part of our society we barely notice it any more. Musa and Aminah, on the other hand, exude a weary resignation to the prejudice against them and it’s perhaps this that hits hardest – the fact that an entire section of society feels there’s no point standing up for themselves because nothing will ever change.

In trying to shed a little light on what Islam is really all about, Marinaro has been careful to create well-rounded characters and a realistic portrayal of Muslim culture. So Aminah can’t be alone with Thomas without a chaperone until they’re married, and won’t let Sarah wear heels to visit the mosque because they “make you walk a certain way” – but all three Muslim characters also frequently swear like troopers and listen to the likes of Beyonce and Coolio. It’s interesting too to see Aminah go from shy bride-to-be in Act 1 to by far the strongest personality in Act 2, with Nadia Lamin revelling in her character’s transformation and delivering some brilliant one-liners as she figuratively bangs everyone else’s heads together. In direct contrast, Jonah Fazel’s Musa shifts from being a bit of a joker early on to take a more confrontational position when he sees his position as spokesman for the Muslim community threatened by his own protege.

Photo credit: And Many Others

While there’s a surprising amount of humour in the play (yet another assumption shattered – why should we be surprised that a play about Islam is funny?), there are also some really touching scenes between Jack Hammett and Philippa Carson as the estranged siblings. Sarah’s visit has been prompted by Thomas’ plans to sell their family home; they’re surrounded throughout by plastic boxes filled with childhood memories. It soon becomes clear that Sarah’s main concern isn’t really that her brother’s being radicalised; it’s a basic human fear of losing him to a world that she doesn’t understand. The problem is, he’s so excited about his new life that he’s blind to her vulnerability – and so the distance between them grows ever greater.

Becoming Mohammed may be based on one family’s story, but it’s representative of many more. The play shows how far we still have to go, not only in our understanding of Muslim culture, but in breaking down the stereotypes associated with it. Only by challenging the idea of “us and them” can society – and we as individuals – move forward together.


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Review: It Is So Ordered at the Pleasance

We usually only get to hear about miscarriages of justice once they’re over – and when that happens there’s an expectation that we should be celebrating. Of course it’s good news when an innocent man or woman is released from a sentence they never should have received – but shouldn’t we also feel some anger, and a desire to change the system that imposed the sentence in the first place, stealing years or even decades from someone’s life? Why congratulate the people who got it wrong when we should be making sure they can’t ever do it again?

Photo credit: Tim Hall

It was this anger that prompted Conor Carroll to begin writing It Is So Ordered, after hearing the true story of Ricky Jackson, an African American man who spent 39 years in prison in the USA for a crime he didn’t commit. Jackson’s conviction was based on the coerced testimony of a young boy, and his release only secured when the same witness finally felt able to reveal the truth four decades later.

Opening during the Harlem Race Riots of 1964, the play begins with the fatal shooting of a shop owner and the arrest of teenage brothers Johnny and Craig. A younger boy, Bobby (Faaiz Mbelizi), is interrogated by the police and forced into giving evidence at the brothers’ trial. While Craig accepts a deal and is later released on parole, Johnny (Simon Mokhele) continues to protest his innocence and ends up with a life sentence. But he’s not the only one – Bobby must live every day with the knowledge of what he’s done, unable to retract his story for fear of repercussions for himself and his family.

Carroll’s passion for his subject is clear in every moment of this intense, urgent play, and in the heartfelt, utterly convincing performances of Faaiz Mbelizi and Simon Mokhele. As Johnny’s imprisonment stops being something that happened years ago and stretches into our own lifetimes – a reference to 9/11 revealing just how long it’s been – we’re forced to consider whether things have really changed all that much, even now, in terms of the U.S. justice system and the mistreatment by police of African Americans, which continues to make headlines today.

The play’s message is one that needs to be heard, and director Lucy Curtis opts for a stripped-back production that allows us to focus without any distractions. Carroll’s words fly thick and fast as the actors pace the floor, unafraid to make direct, confrontational eye contact with the audience. While on paper their lives may seem like opposites, in reality neither man is truly free, and their lines fit together seamlessly to form a single narrative of horrifying injustice. The stage becomes an evidence room of sorts as key details – dates, names, the outline of the murder victim and of the interrogation room – are scribbled in chalk on the floor and walls so that our eyes are constantly drawn back to them. There’s certainly a case to be answered… but it’s not Johnny or Bobby who should be on trial here.

Photo credit: Tim Hall

And yet. Despite all this, there’s a note of resilience and hope for a better future, even in the darkest moments. When the two men lift their voices and sing together of their determination to one day be free, we feel that perhaps all isn’t yet completely lost. And when Johnny begs Bobby to stand up and be heard, we know full well he’s not only addressing the other man, but the whole room – and beyond.

We never get to witness the celebratory moment of Johnny’s long-awaited release from prison, though it’s fair to assume this is imminent as the stage goes dark. Consequently, we leave the theatre feeling not relaxed and reassured by the story’s happy ending, but filled with a lingering fury at everything that’s gone before it. It Is So Ordered is a gripping and powerful hour of theatre that deserves to be seen – and acted upon.


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Interview: Lucy Curtis, It Is So Ordered

Changing Face is a multi-national theatre company based in Brixton and Bristol, whose work responds to the changing face of communities worldwide. Their latest production, Conor Carroll’s It Is So Ordered, opens at the Pleasance next month and turns the spotlight on racial injustice in the USA.

It Is So Ordered is set during the outbreak of wrongful and racially motivated imprisonments in 1960s America,” says director and Changing Face co-founder Lucy Curtis. “The play charts the tragic story of two imprisoned African American men linked by a lie, exploring the power of forgiveness in an unforgiving world. Inspired by true events, it explores the injustices caused, of which the repercussions are still being felt to this day. The play concerns itself with redemption for the sins of the past which can feel unforgivable and will take an enormous feat of empathy to conquer.”

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The play’s based on the story of Ricky Jackson, an African American man from Ohio who was convicted of a crime he never committed. “He was released 39 years later in 2014,” explains Lucy. “I had no idea about his story and I was angry that I had no awareness of it. I want the audience to leave aware, awake and alive to the injustices that are happening around them. I want them to go away feeling energised to look deeper into the issues displayed and to actively become involved in the political discourse it presents. I want them to care that these events have been happening for over half a century, and I want them to address that our ignorance to it is a problem.

“We’re living in a very uncertain time: we’re seeing the re-emergence of 20th century mentalities that, it turns out, were never completely left behind. I want the audience to interrogate: how far must we go before our justice systems possess a ‘colour blind’ approach to the law. Britain often claims to possess the finest judiciary system in the world. This just isn’t true – the justice we find both here and in America are neither colour blind nor equal.”

The play’s been developed in collaboration with the Old Vic New Voices and Park Theatre: “The Old Vic New Voices supported us at a pivotal moment in this piece’s development where we were trying to turn a 20-minute short play into a full length one,” explains Lucy. “They gave us time and resources to be able to test out our script through a research and development phase. They continue to support the work by giving us free access to rehearsal space and mentorship.

“The script was then selected as part of the Park’s Script Accelerator 2016 programme. We spent four weeks at the Park developing the play with weekly meetings with artistic staff. Being able to bounce ideas off other creatives whilst working consistently within a building that supports you and is interested in the story you are trying to tell was endlessly inspiring. We were able to test out our script at Park Theatre in November – the feedback we received was instrumental in carrying this play forward.”

The cast includes Simon Mokhele, who’s been working alongside It Is So Ordered for nearly a year, and newcomer Faaiz Mbelizi. “Simon (Johnny) trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, graduating in 2014, and his input has been fundamental in the shaping of the characters, storytelling and form. To still have him championing this story and this piece is a blessing and we can’t wait to see what he brings to the table in April. Faaiz (Bobby) graduated from Rose Bruford College in 2016 and kickstarted his professional acting career at the Belgrade Theatre. We’re super excited to start rehearsing with him; we start at the Old Vic Workrooms in just under two weeks and we can’t wait to get stuck in.”

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Tales of injustice like Ricky Jackson’s are far from a thing of the past, and in many cases are still going on today. “We want to focus on the stories of men and women who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes who are still in prison today, as well as the number of documented cases where people have been executed for crimes they never committed,” says Lucy. “Suicide rates are at an all-time high in our prisons and the fact that innocent men and women are serving their entire adult life in a cage is appalling.

“There’s definitely a growing shift in our collective attention to stories of injustice and wanting better in our world. The narratives presented in Netflix shows such as Making a Murderer and 13th are informing us of how historically and consistently, the institutions put in place to protect and serve us are in fact failing to do so. Since the late 60s and into the present day, the prison system in America has been used as a commodity to instil slave labour. Prisons are money making schemes for big businesses.

It Is So Ordered is a theatre piece which definitely actions itself in a similar vein to those shows, and theatre should be doing a lot more to represent these stories on its stages. We need to see the worst in order to want the better and the first step is getting people to hear these stories.”

It Is So Ordered is at the Pleasance from 5th-16th April.