Review: Tom Molineaux at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

Tom Molineaux is an extraordinary true story about boxing, gambling and friendship. About a man who fights his way to freedom, but remains trapped in the injustices of society. A boxing ring, two men and some period costumes; nothing more is needed to bring this narrative to life. Tom Green’s compelling writing flows fluidly in an extremely believable manner, bringing us back to London in the nineteenth century whilst never losing the audience’s attention. Directing with simplicity and beauty, Kate Bannister constructs an extremely pleasurable evening.

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs-Hughes

Nathan Medina skilfully plays the part of an African American boxer, born on the plantation in Virginia, with incredible force, leaving spectators astounded. Tom Molineaux is strong, powerful and will not stop until he beats everyone. Before the play begins, Tom is cherished in America for winning his master a great deal of money, which releases him from slavery and wins him freedom. It seems like nothing will bring him down, his determination and ambition to become world champion is too strong. He manages to convince the English champion Tom Cribb, who is retired, to fight him.

However, the play is not only about boxing, it is about so much more. About injustice, prejudice, loyalty and addictions. The story is narrated by another incredibly talented actor, Brandon O’Rourke, who plays Pierce Egan, a sports journalist who befriends Tom when he arrives to London. Pierce allows us to see the honest emotional turmoil which is present under Tom’s muscles and strength. Unfortunately, this is not a happy story. It is a true story. Will the former slave manage to gain his victory and make millions, or will he be crushed to the bottom by society’s injustice and greed?

Photo credit: Timothy Stubbs-Hughes

The performance is highly physical. The set is dark and misty. A seriousness in tone is most commonly present, but lighthearted moments are present too. One of my favourite moments is when Tom and Pierce come back drunk from a night out in 19th century London. The atmosphere transports you and allows one to imagine the streets of London back then, thanks to the accurate descriptions. Unfortunately, Tom and Pierce’s friendship is put to the test. Molineaux fights Cribb but the match is flawed, and Pierce knows. Will Pierce decide to lose the money he has bet on Cribb; or will he convey the truth and tell the world that Molineaux is the world’s biggest champion? Will Pierce fight the system or will Molineaux be representative of our unjust post-colonial society?

Courageous, powerful and human, this brilliant play packs a punch in more ways than one.

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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.

Interview: Born Mad, Sister

Born Mad is a cutting-edge music theatre company run by director Rebecca Hanbury and composer Alex Groves. In 2014, their first show, Psyche, invited audience members to experience a one-on-one performance that was described as “disorientating and beautiful”. Now, following a sell out première at the Spitalfields Summer Music Festival, Born Mad return to London’s Ovalhouse with their latest work, Sister, a show that combines frank verbatim accounts with live electronic music and song.

“Sister is a show all about the relationships that we may take for granted,” explains Rebecca. “Whether it’s a parent, a sibling, a partner or just our friends, we’re all connected to our loved ones by some pretty unshakeable bonds. Sometimes it’s easy to neglect them or take them for granted, and I suppose part of the reason why we made this show was to celebrate these relationships – the ups and downs, the challenges we all face and the memories we make together.”

Sister, Born Mad, Ovalhouse (4)
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets

The show’s based on real accounts from women across the country, all with a common theme of sisterhood. “The topic of Sister was born out of a shared interest in family, the passing of time and the creation of memory. We also wanted to create work that had complex female characters at its core. We started by interviewing people that we knew, but the project quickly gained momentum when we started to put call-outs for participants via our social media outlets. We were soon overwhelmed with responses, and ended up speaking to nearly 50 women and girls. Three stories really stood out to us, so they form the core of the piece, woven into a tapestry of many other stories.

“In terms of the way that we told these stories, we were inspired by verbatim works such as London Road and John, and wanted to see what would happen if we coupled this super-naturalistic text with our brand of electroacoustic music.”

Rebecca and Alex have been working together for over four years, since meeting at university: “We were both interested in finding a more dynamic way of creating music theatre – bringing the composition of the work into the rehearsal room and playing around with music, text, design and staging all together before putting things down on paper. We’re also both interested in devised theatre – where the work is born out of a direct collaboration between artists as opposed to more traditional writer/director dynamic – so we brought the flexibility and energy involved in bringing together a devised work into a more musical world, and our style has been developing ever since.

“We want to tell contemporary stories in unusual ways, combining our love of music, technology and gripping narratives to bring to life very human stories on stage. Our work aims to combine fast-paced story-telling with a richly textured sound world of live vocals and electronic music, creating shows that appeal to both the head and the heart, and leaving our audience with a new outlook on the world around them.”

Sister, Born Mad, Ovalhouse (5)
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets

Born Mad are no strangers to Ovalhouse, and have fond memories of showing Sister there while the piece was still in development. “It feels really good to be back!” says Rebecca. “As an emerging company, we really appreciate the support of organisations like Ovalhouse as we wouldn’t be able to experiment and play and create truly boundary-pushing work without them.

“We had so much fun rehearsing the piece there back in May and the team were great, so we can’t wait to get the show back up and running. It’s come on quite a long way since then – most importantly, we’ve now got the beautiful designs of Georgia de Grey (set and costume) and Ben Jacobs (lighting), which bring the piece vividly to life. We also still had lots of questions about how we were going to end the piece in our last showing so, unless you saw the première back in June, there’s a few surprises waiting for you!”

The company hope that Sister will encourage audiences to reflect on their own relationships: “We hope people leave with an awareness of what they mean to those who love them and maybe even a desire to reach out and heal old wounds. Sister may shine a spotlight on a single type of relationship but we hope that everyone coming to the show will leave with a new perspective on their own lives.”

Book now for Sister at Ovalhouse from 6th-10th September.