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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Review: Screwed at Theatre503

For a lot of people, 30 is the milestone age when we start to think about our ‘life plan’: to consider who we are, who we want to be, and how we’re going to get there. But what if you don’t have a life plan, and you don’t even know where you’ll end up tomorrow, let alone in five years’ time?

Kathryn O’Reilly’s debut play, Screwed, introduces us to Charlene and Luce, two friends in their early 30s whose only goal is to lurch from one drunken night out to the next, filling the hours in between at their mind-numbingly boring factory job and popping caffeine pills to get through the day. Shrugging off the attempts of friends and family to set them straight, the two girls stumble down the path to self-destruction – but then one night things go too far, putting their dysfunctional friendship to the test, and changing several lives forever.

Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian
Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian

Samantha Robinson and Eloise Joseph are a perfect team as eternal teenagers Charlene and Luce. O’Reilly’s produced a choppy, off-beat script that allows the friends to fall into a familiar routine and bounce off each other in a way that’s both funny and oddly touching; you get the feeling they’ve had the same conversation many times before, and know each other back to front. And yet there’s a bitchiness underlying almost all their banter that establishes the power balance early on in the play: the brash, confident Luce (Eloise Joseph) calls the shots, while vulnerable, self-loathing Charlene (Samantha Robinson) falls in line, often at the expense of her own happiness. Consequently the friendship becomes both uncomfortable and frustrating to watch, as we not only see both girls wasting the potential they undoubtedly possess, but also find ourselves willing Charlene to break free of Luce’s damaging influence.

If the girls are often difficult for us to like, the other two characters in the play fall at the opposite end of the spectrum; in fact, if anything, they’re a bit too good. The girls’ work colleague – and Charlene’s love interest – Paulo (Stephen Myott-Meadows) is endlessly patient and idealistic, while Luce’s trans parent, Doris (Derek Elroy), is a shining example of someone who saw what they wanted from life and made it happen, against the odds and whilst single-handedly raising a difficult and ungrateful daughter. Both the male characters are admirable and likeable enough, but next to the complexities of the central characters, they do feel just a little one-dimensional.

Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian
Photo credit: Sophie Mutevelian

Sarah Meadows’ production is slick and energetic, and leaves plenty to the audience’s imagination. Much like a drunken night out, some of the most significant events are blacked out, and we (and others) are forced to rely on the girls’ memories – which are unreliable at best, downright dishonest at worst – to piece the story together. The set, designed by Catherine Morgan, is simple yet multifunctional, adapting easily to become everything from factory to hospital, nightclub to kebab van. The concealed mirrors are a nice touch too, allowing for an increasing amount of self-examination from the characters as the play goes on… though whether it does anyone any good is questionable.

Screwed is a hard-hitting play, and not always that enjoyable to watch, though it certainly has its moments. Underneath the bawdy humour lies a cautionary tale about wasted opportunities – in love, work, and life in general – and the party culture that, much like Luce and Charlene’s friendship, does far more harm than good. Kathryn O’Reilly’s decision to explore this social trend with a focus on female characters is refreshing, if a little bit depressing, and while the play doesn’t offer a lot in the way of answers, it certainly paints a vivid picture.

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Review: Merit at Finborough Theatre

Merit, a two-hander by Alexandra Wood, begins with a bombshell. Against all the odds, recent graduate Sofia’s landed a job as PA to one of Spain’s richest bankers, but is appalled when her polite, middle-class mother, Patricia, questions what she had to give in order to get it.

And so begins the story of a complex mother-daughter relationship, against a backdrop of economic instability. It turns out the argument that opens the play is just one of many; these are two women with fundamentally different ideas on just about everything, not least money and social responsibility. Each scene moves us on a little in time and features a new disagreement, as Sofia’s fortunes improve, while those of her parents decline, and her mother’s driven to increasingly drastic action. Ultimately, the play ends on another bombshell, albeit one that’s somehow a bit predictable and yet still seems hard to believe.

Merit at the Finborough
Photo credit: Robert Workman
Merit tackles some interesting themes, though, and skilfully introduces a cast of unseen characters, each with their own attitudes towards the economic situation. Most prominent of all is Antonio, Sofia’s boss, who gives away much of what he earns but still manages to live comfortably, and in doing so gains Sofia’s unswerving devotion and Patricia’s equally resolute disdain. As the trigger for most of their arguments, Antonio becomes almost a third main character in the story, a representative of his class whose actions – for better or worse – have an impact on so many.

Karen Ascoe and Ellie Turner both give compelling performances as Patricia and Sofia; the tension between them is palpable throughout as the advantage swings one way and then the other. Neither is perfect, and yet both at different times earn the audience’s sympathy, though we naturally side with Sofia pretty much from the start. Some of the dialogue feels a little unnatural – I can’t imagine too many young women use the word ‘rapacious’ in everyday conversation – but flows well between the two.

Tom Littler’s direction sees each scene change punctuated by flashing lights and loud music, and the two women mirror each other’s movements as they dress – perhaps the one and only time they’re in sync with each other. It’s almost like this is their time to prepare for the next battle, but who will emerge the victor each time remains in doubt. Meanwhile Phil Lindley’s set features a door at either side – one for home, one for work – with an open space in between providing an arena for Sofia and Patricia’s clashes.

Merit is an intriguing play, drawing on themes we’re all familiar with, but setting the story in a country where the economic crisis was much deeper, which enables the plot to go to greater extremes; the only problem is it’s so extreme it becomes hard to believe or relate to. Perhaps with a little more personal background, we could better understand how the mild-mannered Patricia ends up taking the path she does. Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking piece, skilfully staged and performed, with plenty to think about after you leave the theatre.

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… 😉