Review: Abigail at The Bunker

The Bunker’s first season concludes with Fiona Doyle’s two-hander, Abigail. Although why it’s called Abigail is an intriguing question, since the two characters in the play remain nameless throughout. It’s a dark tale about a dysfunctional, abusive relationship – but in a welcome challenge to convention, here it’s the man who’s the victim, struggling to find his way back to who he was before they met.

It all starts well: after meeting in the snow outside Berlin Airport, the couple embark on a whirlwind romance. He’s quite a bit older than her, but their attraction is instant and intense. By the time their one-year anniversary rolls around, though, it’s all fallen apart. He says he wants to leave; she has other ideas. Doyle’s script hops back and forth in time, filling in the story of their relationship as their final showdown unfolds in the present.

Photo credit: Anton Belmonté for 176 Flamingo Lane
Photo credit: Anton Belmonté for 176 Flamingo Lane

Tia Bannon and Mark Rose give compelling performances as the unhappy couple, dealing skilfully with the many changes in mood as time skips back and forth. Bannon has a bright smile that appears at inappropriate moments and which never quite reaches her eyes. And there’s an eerie, almost robotic calm about her throughout, which makes her violent outbursts all the more shocking. Rose, meanwhile, is the very image of a broken man, and handles the physical side of the role well; I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that at times his performance is uncomfortably convincing.

Max Dorey’s set, made up of boxes stacked in a huge pile, allows director Joshua McTaggart the chance to get creative with the staging; the two actors cover almost every inch of the space as they climb all over it, producing props and costumes that are concealed within the set, and which gradually end up scattered around the stage as the couple’s anniversary evening unravels.

So what’s there is good – but the problem is it feels like there’s quite a bit missing from the story. There’s nothing wrong with plot gaps in a play; having everything handed to you on a plate removes any need for interpretation or discussion afterwards. But at just 60 minutes, this play has more gaps than most – and leaves us with a lot of questions but not enough info to try and answer them.

Photo credit: Anton Belmonté for 176 Flamingo Lane
Photo credit: Anton Belmonté for 176 Flamingo Lane

There’s an attempt in the script to explore the psychology of the abuser, but without sufficient detail for us to really understand her motivations. Some conversations seem like they’re about to reveal an important clue – but then the scene changes and we’re left (quite literally) in the dark.

As for the abused, we know next to nothing about him; he keeps insisting he’s not himself in this relationship, but apart from the scene in which the couple first meet, we get very few insights into who he really is outside it; she spends a lot of time reminiscing about her early life, but he never gets that opportunity. No attempt is made to explain why he’s stayed in a relationship that he says himself was only good for the first couple of months, nor what’s prompted him to finally take action now. It’s not often we get to see a depiction of abuse that’s this way around, so it feels like we’ve missed out on a rare opportunity to hear the point of view of a male victim.

I’ll say it again: what’s there is good. This is an excellent production, with strong performances, of a play that just feels a little bit too short. With a bit of work, this could be a really powerful piece of theatre, shedding light on an issue that currently doesn’t get enough attention. As it is now, it’s an enjoyably dark drama, but it doesn’t make the lasting impression that it probably should.


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Review: Mum’s The Word at the Hen and Chickens

Good One Theatre’s last show, I Have Never, earned rave reviews for its depiction of three uni housemates about to go out into the real world. With the company’s new production Mum’s The Word, writer Robert Hughes simultaneously takes us forward and back in time, as four old school friends meet in a trendy Soho bar for their annual get-together, seven years after going their separate ways. But what’s become a meaningless ritual takes an unexpected turn when memories are stirred of an event the four women vowed never to speak of again.

Photo credit: Hannah Ellis
Photo credit: Hannah Ellis
Under Adam Wright’s direction, the tension is palpable from the start, as first to arrive Jess (Danielle Williams) touches up her make-up and tries to explain to the waiter – who’s also her boyfriend (Lewis Clarke) – why she’s dreading the encounter. And when Em (Emily Bairstow) turns up, followed by Heidi (Lizzie Grace) and Belinda (Bella Balfe), all becomes clear. The ensuing hour has all the bitchiness, petty rivalry and awkward silences you’d expect from four women who, we soon learn, have little in common besides the fact they once shared a room at school.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine how the four could ever have been friends at all; they’re so different. Heidi’s nice but dim, Belinda’s an ambitious feminist on the brink of a political career, Em’s always looking for her next sexual conquest, and Jess is a fading TV star who’s all too aware of the fact her fortunes may have peaked at I’m a Celebrity. This cocktail of personalities makes for a fascinating exploration of female relationships, with plenty of laughs and a few “did she really just say that?” moments along the way.

The social tension shifts to something much darker with the arrival of Nathan (Joseph Passafaro), a handsome stranger who immediately catches Em’s eye, but ends up giving them all a lot more than they bargained for. Joseph Passafaro has a disarming charm that catches us all off guard, and though his appearance lasts no more than a few minutes, it makes quite the impact.

Photo credit: Hannah Ellis
Photo credit: Hannah Ellis
Robert Hughes’ story is carefully structured to distract and surprise us throughout, with a concluding twist that’s so brilliant in its simplicity, you feel you should have seen it coming. Each member of the cast gets their moment in the spotlight, even the relatively minor character of Aidan the waiter/boyfriend, and there’s great chemistry between them; even putting aside the suspense of the deep dark secret, the sizzling tension keeps us gripped as we wait to see who – if anyone – will snap first.

In some ways, Mum’s The Word is an unlikely story – the fact that the girls keep meeting despite clearly not liking each other, the events that bond them, and the appearance of Nathan all seem just a bit farfetched. But the script absolutely nails the relationship between the women; some of the things they say to each other are uncomfortably familiar, especially to those of us who went to an all-girls school and didn’t enjoy it all that much…

Packed full of drama, laughs and surprises, Mum’s The Word is undoubtedly another triumph for Good One Theatre, and I for one can’t wait to see what they do next.


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Review: Sister at Ovalhouse

How to describe Born Mad’s Sister? It’s a tricky show to review, actually, because there’s no easy way to sum up what goes on without it sounding a bit… eccentric. So let’s just say this: Sister is beautiful, powerful, inventive, moving and heartwarming. It will make you laugh. It will almost certainly make you cry. It’ll make you hear sounds in a whole new way, and it’ll send you home reflecting on your own relationships – with sisters, if you have them, and with family in general.

The show is made up of many different memories, all of them collected from real women. Some make only a brief appearance, while others resurface throughout the hour-long production. Through these recurring stories we meet Mira, who was separated from her sisters for 15 years by the Albanian civil war; Tara, “a bit of a pyromaniac”, whose earliest memory of her younger sister is the day she accidentally burnt their house down; and Annabel and Jessica, who are best friends as well as sisters. Some of the memories shared are of life-changing events, while others are totally mundane, but together they build up a picture of what it means to have – and be – a sister, with all its highs and lows.

Photo: Ludovic Des Cognets
Photo: Ludovic Des Cognets
The identically dressed Daisy Brown and Nia Coleman are in perfect harmony throughout – and not just when they’re singing (beautifully), but also in their movements and even the way they speak. They’re so in sync, in fact, that at times it becomes hard to believe we’re watching two individuals. The pair present the verbatim accounts that make up the show, bringing to life women of all ages and backgrounds, keeping each persona distinct and instantly recognisable when we return to them later.

Directed by Rebecca Hanbury, Sister is a very visual show, both in terms of the performers’ body language and facial expressions, and in Ben Jacobs’ incredible lighting effects (at one point I genuinely thought the theatre was on fire). But what makes this production unique is its use of sound and music, composed by Alex Groves and all created live on stage by the performers, then amplified by the microphones that cover the set. Gentle opera combines with the simplest of sounds – a hesitant ‘um’, the sound of tea being poured (and the satisfied sigh after that first sip), a crying baby – looping and soaring to build a sort of audio patchwork quilt, each sound bringing to mind a particular story or character, and reminding us once again that life doesn’t always have to be glamorous or exciting for it to mean something.

Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets
Photo credit: Ludovic Des Cognets
There are a few moments when the sounds intrude and make it difficult to hear the performers – on at least one occasion this is clearly very deliberate (and spine-tingly effective in a climactic scene), but there are also a couple of times when it’s not so obvious, and we find ourselves straining to hear the spoken words over the speakers above our heads, without really knowing if we’re supposed to be.

But I’m nitpicking. Sister really is a beautiful production, and packs quite a punch emotionally, too – one story in particular, towards the end of the show, very nearly broke me. Ultimately, though, this is a celebration of a unique bond. It doesn’t matter if you have sisters, brothers or neither of the above; if you’re interested in human relationships and enjoy unique, creative theatre, Sister is well worth a look.


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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.

Review: I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road at Jermyn Street Theatre

The announcement that I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road – which for ease of typing, let’s shorten to Getting My Act Together – was to be revived caused a fair bit of excitement in London musical theatre circles. Written by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, the show gained something of a cult following during its three-year run off-Broadway from 1978, and now a new generation gets to see why, thanks to Matthew Gould’s irresistible production at the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre.

The wordy title, it turns out, is actually a concise summary of the plot. Pop star Heather Jones is marking her 39th birthday with the opening night of a new act, but much to her manager Joe’s horror, her music’s taken a new direction while he’s been away. Leaving behind the banal pop songs that launched her career (and got her to 89 in the charts), Heather’s decided to stop hiding and reveal herself to her audience as the strong, independent woman she really is.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Unfortunately Joe, a well-meaning misogynist, doesn’t know how to sell – or indeed, even talk to – a strong, independent woman like Heather. The ensuing battle of wits is a very personal and angry one, and it soon becomes clear it’s not the new act Heather needs her friend to accept, but the new her (or rather, the her she’s always been but is only now able to show). Along the way, the show opens up a discussion about relationships and gender equality – and though Edward Iliffe’s cosy nightclub set and colourful costumes leave us in no doubt we’re in the 1970s, it’s a discussion that’s nonetheless just as (if not more) relevant today.

Though Getting My Act Together can at times lean a little towards the heavy side, particularly in the dialogue, this is balanced out by some fabulous musical numbers, which range from the uplifting anthem Natural High to the heart-breaking ballad Lonely Lady, and flawless performances from every member of the talented cast. Landi Oshinowo is a joy to watch as Heather; not only are her vocals stunning, but she brings a twinkle and charm to the part that soften the anger in her words. This is not just a bitter divorcee having a rant about men, but a woman who’s proud to have finally discovered who she is and longs to share that knowledge with her old friend (incidentally, Old Friend is another of the musical numbers, and it’s beautiful). The fact that Heather also has a feisty streak only makes her more attractive and enjoyable to watch.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos
Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Oshinowo receives excellent support – both emotionally and vocally – from Rosanna Hyland and Kristen Gaetz, as her back-up singers and friends Alice and Cheryl. Along with the other members of the band (Alice Offley, David Gibbons, Rich Craig and musical director Nick Barstow), the two singers radiate an infectious joy and enthusiasm for the music, its message and Heather herself. Meanwhile, Nicolas Colicos cuts a lonely figure as Joe, the only character on stage not fully in support of Heather’s new direction. It would be really easy to see him as the enemy, but Colicos’ performance is warm, funny and at times vulnerable enough that it’s hard to dislike him, even at his most outrageously sexist.

Though the subject matter of Getting My Act Together may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no doubt this is a great production; an energetic cast, pitch perfect performances and the irresistible score are more than enough reason to overlook a few outdated and uninspired passages of dialogue. It seems this is another revival that was well worth waiting for.


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