Review: Arabian Nights at Hoxton Hall

When it comes to storytelling, they don’t come much more epic than Arabian Nights – not only a story about stories, but stories with the power to save lives. And in the capable hands of Iris Theatre, this classic tale makes for a fun, family-friendly (for the most part) show that looks fantastic and, as with the company’s previous production The Three Musketeers, places a strong female role model at centre stage. Also – puppets. Many, many puppets.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Although Nessah Muthy’s adaptation changes a few details, the basic plot of Arabian Nights is one that will be familiar to most. The tyrannical King Shahryar (Pravessh Rana) once had his heart broken, so now he marries a new woman every day, only to have her executed the next morning. As you do. When his eye falls on slave girl Dunzayad (Izzy Jones), her older sister Sharazad (Sharon Singh) begs to take her place, before enchanting the king so completely with stories that he can’t bring himself to kill her the next day – or the day after that…

As always seems to be the case with Iris Theatre, the show’s impressive cast – which also includes Hemi Yeroham, Ikky Elyas and Maya Britto, making her professional debut – seems impossibly small given the scale of the production. This is even more true in Arabian Nights, where¬†the roles listed for each actor in the programme are far from exhaustive; it’s something of a shock to see only six people step up for the curtain call, and even more surprising that they’re all still standing.

Together this seamless ensemble bring vividly to life not only Sharazad’s own story but also those she tells the king, transporting the audience to far-off lands and introducing us to a multitude of colourful characters through music, dance and puppetry. The latter comes in a number of forms: puppet designer Jonny Dixon has created towering monsters, hand-held figures, and an array of face masks that render the actors temporarily unrecognisable. All come together to create a captivating world of magic and mystery; King Shahryar isn’t the only one who’s charmed.

Sharon Singh easily commands our attention as Sharazad, a timeless heroine who in this version of the story is not only fighting for her own life but also that of her sister. She may have a much cooler head in a crisis than Izzy Jones’ impulsive Dunzayad – but we still see flashes of fire as Sharazad defiantly stands, armed only with her wits, against the king’s crazed misogyny and violent temper. In this role, Pravessh Rana is frighteningly convincing, and while the show is certainly great entertainment for all ages, there are a few moments that younger children may find a bit scary.

Following two outdoor promenade shows at St Paul’s Church this summer, director Daniel Winder continues to involve the audience, this time by having the cast share light-hearted interactions with those sitting closest to the stage. The show also explores every inch of its venue, which has been transformed for the occasion into an Arabian palace by set designer Amber Scarlett – the only downside being that from certain seats it’s difficult or even impossible to see everything that goes on.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

Though it certainly speaks to a modern audience in its calling-out of misogyny, Arabian Nights proves above all that no matter how old we get, there’s nothing we love better than a great story well told. Highly recommended for an evening of high-quality escapism and entertainment, presented by a talented and incredibly hard-working cast – with a little help from some seriously cool puppets.

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Interview: Henry Maynard, Flabbergast Theatre

“I’d like our audiences to walk away with aching sides and a slightly bemused expression, secure in the knowledge that they had a¬†jolly good time, even if¬†they¬†weren’t always convinced that they had a hold on what was happening…”

Henry Maynard is a former War Horse puppeteer, Amused Moose Laugh Off finalist and founder of Flabbergast Theatre, who are bringing two of their favourite¬†shows to Wilton’s Music Hall in London next month. One sees the return of Balkan bad boys and stars of the Edinburgh fringe, Boris and Sergey; the other is a solo show about one man’s quest for a friend, performed by Henry himself.

Photo credit: Richard Grubby

“Tatterdemalion is an hilarious¬†one-man, silent-ish, physical comedy with silliness in¬†abundance, to a backdrop of Victoriana and otherworldliness with a dash of pathos,” he summarises. “And¬†Boris & Sergey’s¬†Astonishing Freakatorium is the Balkan bad boys of puppetry’s homage to the travelling¬†freak shows of the 1930s, featuring escapology, wild animals and a live s√©ance… Hilarity will ensue.”

All Flabbergast’s shows are the result of an ongoing development process in which both company members and audience play a vital role. “We work with a highly¬†collaborative¬†devising process,” explains Henry. “I come up with the stuff… they do it.

“I‚Äôm being¬†facetious.¬†Normally we get in a room with our ideas and keep what makes us laugh. Then we bring it all together in a mostly coherent way.

“All our shows develop in front of the audience; the things that work stay in and the things that¬†don’t we keep flogging¬†away at until eventually we realise we’d be better doing something else. I like the organic way our shows grow.”

Unsurprisingly, this means that audience interaction is an important part of Flabbergast’s productions. “All live theatre¬†relies on participation, the shame is that audiences are often unaware of it,” says Henry. “I blame Stanislavski and his cursed ‘fourth wall’. He was like an earlier version of Trump – ‘I‚Äôm gonna build a wall and the¬†performers will pay for it!’

“If you come to a Flabbergast show you are¬†involved and that’s what is great about live¬†theatre – otherwise you might as well stay at home and watch Gogglebox.”

Henry founded Flabbergast back in 2010 to make uncompromising and exciting physical theatre. “I was inspired to set up¬†Flabbergast¬†by Puppetry, Clown, Commedia dell’arte and all the other avant-garde theatre styles that make no money… anywhere… ever,” he explains. “I wanted to perform, learn, direct and teach them.¬†As a company, we aim to make theatre that is sweaty and engaging, physical and alive, and we want to promote puppetry and¬†clown specifically as valid and important¬†art forms in theatre.”

Currently, the company’s focus is on Bunraku puppetry, and particularly on how this can be used to reach an adult audience. “Bunraku is like¬†distilled humanity,” says Henry. “We can sometimes become hardened to real adult people, callous and uncaring – but puppets get through to us like children and animals do, we sympathise with them more. They’re magical and draw the spotlight, they call to our¬†innate desire to personify and humanise everything; we delight in their play as children delight in the antics of their toys.”

Photo credit: Claudine Quinn/Lens On Legs

Both shows have proved a hit so far, with a host of¬†four and five star reviews, and Henry’s looking forward to sharing them with¬†a London audience: “Bringing the shows to London and specifically to Wilton’s Music Hall is going to be incredible. It‚Äôs another feather in the Balkan bad boys of puppetry‚Äôs cap as they march towards inevitable world domination, and the beautiful theatre is the perfect backdrop for Tatterdemalion. If you’ve never been to Wilton’s Music Hall you must¬†come to the shows just to see it. It‚Äôs the oldest grand music hall in the world.”

So of the two shows,¬†which one does Henry recommend? “I’m in Tatterdemalion so that one…” he suggests. “But seriously,¬†I‚Äôm proud of both the shows and they are great for¬†different reasons.¬†If you’re a puppetry fan, Boris & Sergey is pure puppetry fun, whereas¬†Tatterdemalion has a¬†sprinkling but will¬†appeal more to physical theatre fans.¬†Neither are pretentious though, we take a¬†tongue in cheek approach to our art and work.”¬†

Then again, with¬†a 20% discount for multiple booking, we could just¬†see both…

Catch¬†Boris & Sergey’s¬†Astonishing Freakatorium and¬†Tatterdemalion at Wilton’s Music Hall from 9th-13th May (for dates and times of each show, visit the website).

Review: Oyster Boy at the Marlowe Studio

Haste Theatre’s award-winning Oyster Boy¬†was inspired by Tim Burton’s short poem,¬†The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.¬†The original¬†title leaves little to the imagination in terms of the story’s gloomy conclusion, though Haste have given their unfortunate¬†hero¬†a slightly less horrific end, and the show has an altogether more light-hearted tone than Burton’s typically dark tale.

Set in 1950s Coney Island, this is the story of ice cream seller Jim (Valeria Compagnoni) who falls in love with¬†Alice (Lexie McDougall) when he saves¬†her from a shark. After overindulging in a French restaurant on their wedding night, nine months later the couple are taken aback when their son Sam is born with a large oyster shell-shaped head. Despite the support of his friends Molly and Polly, all the adults in the¬†local community are horrified by the otherwise utterly inoffensive Sam, and when his parents’ attempts to find a medical solution end in failure, they’re faced with a tragic decision about his future.

The show is a perfect showcase for¬†Haste’s creativity and versatility (not to mention multilingualism), blending music, dance, puppetry and physical theatre to bring Sam’s story to life. An empty stage is transformed into the seaside setting through knowingly simple touches:¬†a large piece of blue cloth becomes the sea, complete with¬†cardboard dolphins and sharks, while the cast don stick-on fake moustaches and adopt over-the-top accents, conjuring¬†up tables and counters with nothing more than a tablecloth held by the corners. The overall effect is bright, colourful and with¬†a charming, slightly homemade feel that proves sometimes a lot can be said with very little.

This theme continues with Sam himself, who appears only in puppet form… but don’t be fooled into thinking that means he’s not real. Skilfully manipulated by the cast, Sam very much comes to life before our eyes – even indulging in a spot of kite-surfing at one point – and demonstrates all the emotions and qualities of any other little boy. He laughs, cries, feels fear and shows courage, and this really helps to drive home the show’s message about looking past physical appearance to get to know the person underneath.

Musical interludes fill in the details of the story as time passes, with a barbershop quartet chorus (Jesse Dupr√©, Elly-Beaman Brinklow, Tamara Saffir and Sophie Taylor, who also each take on a multitude of roles) determinedly trying to keep things upbeat even when the story’s taking one of its darker turns. Music is also used, rather differently but no less effectively, as the show comes to its melancholy yet strangely beautiful¬†conclusion.

The cast are clearly thoroughly enjoying themselves, hamming it up as their various larger than life characters and throwing themselves enthusiastically into the dance numbers. Occasionally it all gets a little bit manic – I must admit I slightly lost track of what was going on¬†during the doctor scene, perhaps due to a bit of unscripted banter with an audience member – but on the whole the company’s obvious joy in what they’re doing is infectious and gives us just as many laughs as the jokes within the script.

Oyster Boy is a story about acceptance and friendship, which gets its message across even without¬†the neat,¬†happy ending we might expect from a family show (though it’s still not as gory as the opening lines suggest).¬†It’s all very surreal but a lot of fun, and a great hour’s entertainment for audiences of all ages.

Oyster Boy is at Edinburgh’s Assembly George Square from 2nd-28th August.

Interview: Haste Theatre, Oyster Boy

After award-winning performances all over the world, Haste Theatre’s Oyster Boy is back for a new UK tour. Kicking off last week at London’s¬†Blue Elephant Theatre, the¬†revamped show¬†will travel to venues around the country between now and May, finishing up with four dates at the Brighton Fringe.

Oyster Boy is a dark comedy told in a light-hearted and quirky way, about the struggles of a boy living with an oyster shell for a head,” says Jesse Dupr√©, co-founder of Haste. “We use puppetry, clowning, dance and music to tell this strange story.”

Oyster Boy is based on a 1997 poetry book written and illustrated by Tim Burton: “Initially, we were drawn to the stories in his book The¬†Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy because they were so strange, and although short in length, seemed to say a lot and evoke much reflection and thought. We saw potential in the material and in the small number of characters he created, knowing we could inject comedy and humour into this rather sad tale.”

The show has been enjoyed on previous tours by audiences of all ages. “There is something in it for everyone!” says Jesse. “Because we are a physical theatre company,¬†the story¬†is told¬†with a whole range of different performance styles, such as¬†live music with ukulele and a cappella harmonies and choreographed movement and dance sequences. It is high energy and will leave you feeling revived, but also will provoke questions to do with the subject content.

“Primarily, we’d like audiences to have a good time watching the show, as it‚Äôs an action-packed performance full of colour, vibrancy and music. We want them to be engaged and to laugh, even though the story has dark undertones.¬†

“We’d also like to encourage a sense of questioning amongst the audience, especially in terms of morality and judgement of others. The character of Oyster Boy is subject to a lot of harsh criticism from society because of the way he looks, and this acts as a mirror to show the reality of some people‚Äôs lives today. We hope that audiences will sympathise and become attached to the puppet of Oyster Boy, and therefore be more inclined to empathise with people who are different without pre-judging them.”

Those who’ve seen the show before will¬†notice some changes this time around. “We’ve performed our original version of Oyster Boy since 2013, and have toured it all over the world including America and Italy where it’s won numerous awards,” Jesse explains. “We know that it worked well how we first made it, but we wanted to challenge ourselves to tweak and change parts that we knew could be better and more developed. We also wanted it to represent our work now as a company rather than 3 years ago when we were just starting out.¬†

“Many things have changed this time around ‚Äď in fact with the help of our Associate Director, Kasia Zaremba-Byrne, we’ve done a full overhaul of the story, the characters, the props and the set. Kasia helped us breathe new life into the show and expand on what we had before, bringing out new elements in us as actors as well as in the narrative itself.”

One stop on the tour is the Marlowe Studio in Canterbury, where Haste will be performing for one night only on March 30th. “The Marlowe Studio is a wonderful place to perform,” says Jesse. “We toured another show there in 2015 and had a great experience. The team who programme shows in the studio are very on the ball in terms of new theatre and emerging companies, and so it’s an exciting space to perform in.

“Local audiences should come along to check out smaller productions as well as large touring productions, in order to experience other types of shows. The studio is a great modern space with a decent sized stage and raked seating, and so audiences are guaranteed to have a good experience, especially if they come to watch Oyster Boy!

“Last time we performed in Kent, we had supportive and receptive audiences who made us feel encouraged and appreciated, and so we are really looking forward to bringing a different show to the same theatre. We felt we attracted a wide cross section of the community around the Marlowe and judging by the feedback we had, they thoroughly enjoyed our previous show. We are hoping that the same magic will work again this time!”

Catch Oyster Boy on tour – visit Haste Theatre’s website for dates and venues.

Review: Frankenstein at Greenwich Theatre

200 years after Mary Shelley wrote¬†her¬†classic gothic novel, Frankenstein returns to the stage in the skilled¬†hands of Blackeyed Theatre. Adapted by John Ginman, this concise, two-hour retelling is suitably chilling and atmospheric¬†while remaining¬†family friendly, and is executed to perfection by a multi-talented cast of five… or should that be six?

Keeping¬†true to the “story within a story within a story” format of Shelley’s novel, Eliot Giuralarocca’s¬†production is set¬†on the ship of Robert Walton, an explorer to the North Pole, who rescues the¬†exhausted Victor Frankenstein¬†from the ice. Walton becomes fascinated by the mysterious stranger’s story of how, driven by crazed ambition, he built and gave life to a Creature, only to reject it and in doing so, drive it into a destructive cycle of loneliness and despair¬†that ended up costing¬†him everything.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The story, spanning several years, moves quickly¬†– from Geneva¬†to Ingolstadt to London to Scotland, and far beyond – and the cast do likewise. While Ben Warwick is on stage throughout as the wild-eyed, fast-talking, increasingly dishevelled Frankenstein, his fellow cast members are scarcely less busy. Each takes on multiple roles within the story, while still finding time to pop round the back of the stage and bring Ron McAllister’s dramatic soundtrack to life on¬†timpani, cymbals and a variety of¬†other ingenious, home-made instruments.

Act 1 is largely there to set up the story, and is quite science-heavy¬†as Frankenstein describes his studies and his urgent desire¬†to create life.¬†But it’s in Act 2 that the production becomes truly electrifying, with the first real¬†appearance of Yvonne Stone’s life-size Bunraku style puppet. Built from rope and cloth, with blank, staring eyes, the Creature is manipulated so skilfully by the cast, and voiced so perfectly by Louis Labovitch,¬†that it’s genuinely possible¬†to forget the actors are there¬†at all, and to think of¬†Frankenstein’s creation as entirely separate from the other characters they play: kind, beautiful Elizabeth (Lara Cowin), Victor’s supportive friend Henry (Max Gallagher), Walton, the explorer hanging on his every word, but not necessarily¬†for the right¬†reasons (Ashley Sean-Cook), and a multitude of cameo appearances as¬†other minor characters. This is a production that’s about so much more than the impressive individual performances; it’s a seamless ensemble effort that requires¬†everyone to be¬†in exactly the right place at the right time.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

Victoria Spearing’s set takes inspiration from the ship on which the story begins and ends, and as Frankenstein narrates his tale, it springs to life from the materials around him. So the sail becomes a river; the Creature is formed from bundles and sacks of old rope and rags; more ropes are transformed into the electric wires that finally give it life. It’s testament both to the actors’ performance and the simple, descriptive style¬†of John Ginman’s script, that without ever leaving the ship’s deck, we find ourselves transported to workshops, stormy mountaintops, courtrooms and even looking out over¬†the quiet beauty of Lake Geneva.

I remember being¬†a bit surprised the first time I read Frankenstein, because it felt a bit tame, not¬†the out-and-out horror I’d been expecting. Similarly, Blackeyed Theatre’s excellent production doesn’t set out to shock us, but instead to send¬†us home with a creeping unease as we contemplate the dangerous implications¬†of arrogant human ambition.¬†Though there’s certainly an element of suspense, the Creature’s crimes (most of which we don’t even see committed) provoke more sadness than fear, while¬†he himself is so human that it’s¬†harder¬†to shrug his deeds¬†off as merely the work of the supernatural –¬†and so ironically it’s¬†humanity, rather than¬†monstrosity, that’s¬†most likely to keep us awake at night.

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… ūüėČ