Review: Can You Hear Me Running? at the Pleasance

I’m not a runner. I can walk all day if I have to, but the last time I ran anywhere, it took me about half an hour to get my breath back. And that was just legging it to the train. The idea of running a marathon is so alien to me that I can’t even begin to imagine the sense of achievement that comes with crossing that finish line after 26 gruelling miles.

So it was with a degree of fascination that I took myself off to see Can You Hear Me Running?, a one-woman show about running the London Marathon. Except Louise Breckon-Richards’ story is really about a lot more than that, and in fact running plays a far smaller, though no less significant, part in the play than I’d expected.

Photo credit: Graham Saville
Photo credit: Graham Saville

In 2008, Louise, an actress and singer preparing to audition for a West End show, lost her voice. That’s probably something that’s happened to us all at some point, but in Louise’s case, the situation was far more serious than your average cold. Can You Hear Me Running?, written by Jo Harper, directed by Steve Grihault and performed by Louise herself, documents her journey as she consults a string of doctors and tries a variety of techniques in an attempt to regain her voice and singing career. It’s a journey with many ups and downs, and at her lowest point, Louise decides to focus her energy on a new goal – training for and completing the London Marathon.

It’s a courageous, honest and very physical performance, with Louise clambering all over the boxy white set, while video screens show us footage of her out running in the open air, identify key figures in the story, and at one point give us a rather too graphic look down her throat. Her determined positivity in the face of devastating loss is inspiring, and the moments of unexpected humour lying in wait throughout Jo Harper’s script help to take the edge off what could have been a very dark tale.

Though she’s the only actor on stage, Louise’s story features a number of characters, from the specialist who operates on her vocal folds to the girl in Starbucks who’s flummoxed by her silence. Proving the point made by one of her doctors that a person’s voice is their unique signature, Louise adopts multiple different accents and tones, so that each new arrival in the story has a distinct sound all their own.

Photo credit: Graham Saville
Photo credit: Graham Saville

Pianist and musical supervisor Dan Glover provides recognisable snippets of hits from Louise’s upbeat running playlist – but he also has a greater role to play as a reminder of what she’s lost, and also the focus of her optimism. And just as music has an important part in the story, so too does silence. One of the most poignant scenes takes place during Louise’s recovery from surgery, when she has no choice but to communicate in writing with her bewildered young sons.

Can You Hear Me Running? is an uplifting story about one woman’s refusal to give up, no matter what. It gives us the opportunity to pause and think about how easily we take our own voices – and the ability to communicate with loved ones, friends and colleagues – for granted. And its conclusion lifts the heart and makes us believe, however briefly, that anything’s possible. I was almost persuaded to give running a go…

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Interview: Louise Breckon-Richards, Can You Hear Me Running?

Louise Breckon-Richards is an actress, performer and playwright, with an inspiring true story to tell. That story, about how Louise lost her voice due to a rare condition, and tried to overcome it by running the London Marathon, is the subject of her upcoming one-woman show Can You Hear Me Running? at the Pleasance.

Can You Hear Me Running? tells the story of a woman’s quest to re-find her voice and run a marathon – never giving up till the finishing line,” explains Louise, who’s collaborated with writer Jo Harper and director Steve Grihault on the show. “I had a basic idea for a play based on my real experiences of running the marathon and having vocal problems. I met the writer Jo Harper and together we created Can You Hear Me Running?!”

Photo credit: Graham Saville
Photo credit: Graham Saville

The show’s based on Louise’s notes, blog and diary entries written while she was recovering from vocal chord surgery, and training for the marathon. That experience has led her back to the stage, in a fun and thought-provoking show about defiance against all the odds, featuring live music, video projection and storytelling.

I feel excited and terrified in equal measure to be back on stage,” she says. “It’s great to be doing what I love and what I trained to do. I’ve missed it so much. I hope audiences will feel inspired, informed and moved at the story we’re telling, but equally that they’ll have been entertained and had fun too.

“The show has universal themes running through it such as loss and grief, but it’s also about finding new ways to overcome difficulty. I don’t think there have been many plays about the voice and running, so hopefully it will be informative, but also fun, moving and hopeful.”

When she lost her voice, Louise turned to running as a new challenge. “I ran a little before, but my real passion for running grew when I was struggling with other aspects in my life,” she explains. “My voice was failing and I needed to find a strength somewhere else. I watched three of my closest friends run the marathon years before and they were always a source of inspiration to me and this just felt like the right time.

“I think everyone’s journey is different with vocal problems, but for me as a performer, I had to find another muscle and form of creative expression that would help alleviate the stress of what was happening. Running definitely helped me, and also writing and painting as I found that I could still have an identity. Come and see the show to find out more!”

Louise still runs regularly: “Running is now a habit for me – a ritual and I can’t imagine life without it. The best runs for me are the ones with my friends where we chat and put the world to rights. I did a half marathon in March, but I’d love to do another marathon, maybe when I’m 50!”

So what are Louise’s top tips for surviving the London Marathon? “My advice would be: get your long training runs in, don’t eat every single jelly baby that the hugely supportive crowds offer you, and enjoy every minute!”

Can You Hear Me Running? is at the Pleasance from 4th-23rd October.

Review: Blind Man’s Song at the Pleasance

I’ll be honest – I had mixed feelings going in to Theatre Re’s Blind Man’s Song last night. On the one hand, I was looking forward to something a bit different. On the other, as a general rule I like my theatre with words – the more the better.

There are no words in Blind Man’s Song. But as it turns out, none are needed. The show uses a combination of mime, dance, sound, illusion and original music to tell a moving and surprisingly powerful tale of love and loss, which is accessible enough to follow what’s going on but still leaves room for each individual to interpret it in their own way. The main character, a blind musician (Alex Judd), leads us on a journey into the dream-like world of his own memory (or is it imagination…?), in which a chance encounter between two strangers is just the start of the story.

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport

Two mannequin-like figures (Guillaume Pigé and Selma Roth), their faces covered, bring this world to life while the musician plays. In the absence of facial expressions, it’s the music and movement that convey the emotion of the piece – and in doing so reveal how much it’s possible to share without words. The combination is so evocative that we can feel the joy, passion, rage and grief of all three characters, as the music skips, swells and storms around them.

Said music is all original composition for violin and piano by Alex Judd, making effective use of the loop pedal to create layers and waves of sound. A simple theme, picked out with one finger on the piano, is repeated throughout the show, finally taking its place at the heart of the blind man’s song for the spine-tingling finale. Meanwhile, in harsh contrast, discordant sound effects – a rattle of metal against metal, a loud feedback tone – interrupt to break the spell and go on just long enough to make us uncomfortable, in a reflection of the musician’s own internal struggle.

Photo Credit: Richard Davenport
Photo Credit: Richard Davenport

The show was conceived and directed by Guillaume Pigé, one of the faceless figures who cover the stage with a fluid grace, at times in slow motion and at others with surprising speed. There’s creative use of the sparsely furnished set; I particularly enjoyed the conversion of the bed into a train. Like the performers, the bed and the piano are rarely still for long, giving the piece a feeling of perpetual motion and urgency.

Blind Man’s Song is proof, for me at least, that sometimes it’s good to step out of your comfort zone; I left the Pleasance feeling genuinely moved by the beauty of the story, music and performance. Who needs words?

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Review: Transports at the Pleasance

Pipeline Theatre’s Transports, first performed in 2013, has been revived for a national tour, and the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. Though the play never makes any explicit reference to the current refugee crisis, it nonetheless offers a fascinating and intensely powerful insight into the emotional impact of being forced from one’s home and into a strange, and sometimes hostile, environment.

Transports is the story of two teenage girls. Lotte, the quiet, polite daughter of a rich Jewish family in Germany, gets on a train for England in 1939, not realising that she’s saying goodbye to her loving parents for the final time. Years later, Lotte waits anxiously for the arrival of her first foster child, a sullen fifteen-year-old named Dinah, who never knew her parents and likes to boast about the time a doctor said she had psychopathic tendencies. The two girls couldn’t be more different – and yet their lives end up on parallel tracks, as both struggle to adapt to the new home they never asked to be sent to, and to cope with the traumas of their past.

Transports at Pleasance Theatre

The girls’ interlocking stories are seamlessly presented in flawless performances from its cast of two. Juliet Welch plays the older Lotte – kind-hearted, anxious, who swears by her weekly routine and talks too much when she’s nervous – and Mrs Weston, who takes in the teenaged Lotte on her arrival in England and soon grows to love her. (She also, briefly, plays Lotte’s mother.) Hannah Stephens, meanwhile, takes on the challenge of playing the hugely contrasting roles of the two teenagers. It’s incredible to watch the chemistry between the two actors, and how they’re transformed in every way – clothes, voice, body language – as they switch from one character to the other and back again.

Alan Munden’s set is simple and effective, dominated by two huge train tracks that run from floor to ceiling and frame the action. Everything we don’t see is brought to life by sound effects: passing traffic, the sounds of the school playground, and even Lotte’s cat, Oskar, feel as real as if they were right in front of us. During the opening scene, as Lotte and Dinah stood by the side of the road, I swear I could smell petrol fumes, and have no idea if this was an extraordinary attention to detail or just my imagination.

Transports, Pleasance Theatre

Unsurprisingly for a story that deals with the Holocaust and childhood trauma, Transports packs quite a punch, particularly in the second act (one scene drew an audible gasp from the audience; another had us all in floods of tears). The addition of poetry, in a surprising twist that makes us view Dinah’s character in a whole new way, only increases the emotional intensity – not to mention the revelation that Lotte’s story is based on that of a real person – designer Alan Munden’s mother, Liesl.

On the way out, someone asked me if I’d enjoyed the play, and I wasn’t sure how to respond, because I’m not sure this is the kind of story that you can enjoy. It’s intense, and shocking, and it made me feel very, very sad – not just for Lotte, Dinah and Liesl, but because now, all these years later, there are still people going through this kind of trauma every single day.

But was it brilliant? Absolutely. Transports is probably one of the most original and interesting pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year. Beautifully performed and lovingly produced, it’s a hugely important play that deserves to be seen.

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