Review: The Gulf at Tristan Bates Theatre

We could be forgiven, as Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf begins, for thinking we’d stumbled on an idyllic scene. Two women sit by the water in what appears to be companionable silence: one fishing, the other sunbathing. It’s only when the silence is broken that we begin to realise the vast distance that separates Kendra and Betty, even when they’re sitting right next to each other. Stranded on a broken down fishing boat, as the light fades around them, the couple are forced for the first time to really face up to their problems and make some tough decisions about their future.

Photo credit: Rachael Cummings

The Gulf is an intimate and realistic portrayal of a relationship in crisis; like any couple, Betty and Kendra’s conversations keep circling back to the same few subjects, and when there’s nothing left to say they lapse into long, awkward silences. Unfortunately, in achieving this verisimilitude, the play sacrifices any sense of drama, and the lack of pace in Matthew Gould’s production means that much like the broken down boat the two women are stuck on, it ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere.

All of which is a pity, because the performances from Louisa Lytton and Anna Acton are very good. Both nail the distinctive Alabama accent, and we get a clear sense of both the journey their characters go on throughout the play, and the striking difference in their personalities. Betty (Acton) is an optimist, who always says what’s on her mind, and is on a mission to improve her own life but blind to the fact that her attempts to do the same for Kendra might be misconstrued as criticism. Kendra (Lytton), on the other hand, is quite content to stay where she’s comfortable; unlike Betty, she mostly keeps her thoughts to herself, but when pushed reveals a deep vulnerability that’s masked by her tough and at times deliberately provocative manner.

It’s also refreshing to see a play that depicts a same-sex relationship but doesn’t make it the main focus of the story. In fact Betty and Kendra’s sexuality is completely incidental to the plot: they could be two women, two men, a man and a woman, or any combination, and the issues they’re facing would still be exactly the same, because they go far deeper than gender or sexuality.

Photo credit: Rachael Cummings

Visually, the production is impressive in its detail – boat engine, picnic lunches, fish guts and all – although at times this contributes further to the slowing of the action; Betty’s careful preparation of a snack, for instance, pauses proceedings for a good couple of minutes, and is particularly frustrating because the audience can’t see what she’s doing. Mitchell Reeve’s lighting works very well, however, fading imperceptibly over the course of the 90 minutes, until the two characters end up sitting in near darkness.

There’s a lot to like about The Gulf, as it delves insightfully into what makes relationships work, and what makes them fail. Unfortunately, though, despite strong performances the play is let down by a lack of drama and pace, making it difficult to really engage with Betty and Kendra’s predicament – as much as we might want to.

The Gulf is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 5th May.

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… 😉

Review: Spiked at Pleasance Theatre

Three mothers face a nightmare scenario in Félicité du Jeu’s Spiked; their teenage children have been admitted to A&E, along with the rest of their class, after being struck down by mysterious symptoms at school. It’s a strong premise, with the potential for plenty of drama and suspense, and which opens the door for discussions about themes including race, class and what constitutes “good” parenting. As individuals, Joanna, Rozhin and Karen could hardly be more different, but as they sit together waiting for news, they begin to find some common ground in the struggles that come with being mother to a teenager. That is until they discover that their children ate a cake deliberately spiked with drugs, at which point the inevitable speculation and finger-pointing begins in earnest.

Photo credit: Félicité du Jeu

The fault lines that divide the three are obvious from the start: Joanna (Charlotte Asprey) is well-off and a bit of a drama queen, while Karen (Daniella Dessa) is a straight-talking single mum and Rozhin (Katie Clark) is a sweet but naive immigrant from Kurdistan. It’s not surprising, therefore, to see which direction the accusatory fingers are pointing in – but what is unexpected is how on the money they turn out to be. It’s a confusing outcome given that the play clearly sets out to challenge these stereotypes, and slightly undermines an eloquent and passionate speech from Rozhin in defence of her family. It also, unfortunately, means that the play ends on a bit of an anticlimax, especially after what looks like it’s going to be a dramatic twist in the tale doesn’t actually go anywhere.

It’s in its exploration of what it means to be a mother that both script and performances are most assured, as the three women try their best to identify with their teenage children in a world that’s moved on in unfathomable ways since their own adolescence. In particular, their attempts to grasp how social media works bring a note of humour to the play, although their lack of understanding also means they react surprisingly calmly to revelations of cyberbullying and sexting amongst their kids.

Photo credit: Félicité du Jeu

Charlotte Asprey, Daniella Dessa and Katie Clark also play the three teenagers, in intermittent scenes that offer us a further insight into the relationship they have with their mums and with each other. Because of the simple but necessary costume changes required, however, these scenes break up the flow of the action in Gemma Kerr’s production, and don’t really tell us anything about the teens that we haven’t already learnt from listening to their mothers’ conversation in A&E.

It’s the mothers, though, that are at the heart of the play, and a final direct address to the audience proves that despite all their differences, these three women have one thing in common: a wish to keep their kids safe, happy and healthy at all costs. Echoing those words and aspirations with recorded clips of other real-life mums is a nice touch, and ensures that despite any unpleasantness that’s gone before, Spiked concludes on a heartwarming note.

Spiked is at Pleasance Theatre until 28th April.


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… 😉

Review: Coconut at Ovalhouse

The Thelmas are a female led company specialising in “great stories, told by great women”. And there’s no doubt that Rumi, the main character in Guleraana Mir’s Coconut, fits that bill perfectly. When we meet her, she’s about to go halal speed dating, and dreaming about meeting someone cool who’s attracted not to her Muslim upbringing, but to who she really is: a bacon-loving food blogger who’d rather go to the pub than the mosque. And then she meets Simon, who’s everything she wants in a man – apart from the fairly significant detail that he’s white.

Photo credit: Greg Goodale

As you might expect from a play that begins with halal speed dating, Coconut is a very funny take on religion, culture and the pressure to be someone you’re not for fear of letting other people down. Rumi, played brilliantly by Kuran Dohil, is the coconut of the title: the term is used to describe someone who’s brown on the outside but white on the inside, and as a result not quite enough of either to really belong. In Simon, Rumi sees a chance to move towards the life she really wants, but in return asks him for a small compromise: if they’re going to be together, he’ll need to convert to Islam.

It’s at this point that the play takes an unexpectedly serious turn, and Rumi’s inner fabulous – embodied by Tibu Fortes in a hilariously flamboyant performance that couldn’t be more different to his far more tranquil role as Irfan the Imam – begins to fall silent. Simon’s conversion was supposed to be no more than a box-ticking exercise to keep the family happy, but it turns out not only is he keen to take his new faith seriously, he wants Rumi to do the same. As his enthusiasm develops into an unhealthy obsession, Rumi finds herself forced to choose once again between being true to herself and disappointing the people she loves.

Despite all its ups and downs, Rumi’s story is both entertaining and satisfying to watch, thanks to the effortless comic talents of Kuran Dohil and the down-to-earth, believable way in which her character’s written. Simon, on the other hand, is more problematic; though it’s hard to fault Jimmy Carter’s performance, the transformation in his character feels a little too sudden to be realistic, and is so extreme that it prevents us feeling any sympathy for the fact he now finds himself, like Rumi, caught between two worlds. (Although perhaps I’m just annoyed by his disparaging comments about bloggers…)

Photo credit: Greg Goodale

An ingenious origami-like set from designer Baśka Wesolowska is put to good use throughout Madelaine Moore’s production, with what at first appears to be a simple hexagonal platform coming apart to become a bar, a home, a hilltop, a mosque… at one point, we even find ourselves on a crazy golf course. There are a lot of scene changes during the 90-minute show, but these are all handled swiftly by the cast and are never long enough that our attention has time to waver. And although the play could perhaps come to an end a little earlier than it does, the final scene is worth waiting for; a fitting conclusion for a character we’ve grown to really care about.

Coconut offers a refreshingly unique perspective on what it means to be a Muslim in Britain today, and prompts an interesting discussion on the difference between religion and culture. There are aspects of the story that don’t sit quite right, but a strong cast and irresistible strong female protagonist make this enjoyable show well worth a visit.

Coconut is at Ovalhouse until 28th April, with other UK dates to follow; for more details visit The Thelmas’ website.

Review: Plastic at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Some people look back on their school days as the best of their lives. For others, the only good thing about their teenage years is that they’re over and done with. But how much does that period between childhood and adulthood shape the course of the rest of our lives – and if we knew what lay ahead, how many of us might have done things differently?

Kenneth Emson’s Plastic, directed by Josh Roche, begins in a jumble of timelines, as Kev and Ben – now grown men – reminisce about a teenage football match, at which the star player caught the eye of a popular, pretty 15-year-old girl. That, we’re told, is where it all begins – and although it takes a while to straighten out the tangled threads of the two men’s memories, the story that emerges proves more than worth the effort.

Photo credit: Mathew Foster

Kev (Mark Weinman) used to be the captain of the school football team – which in their town, he tells us with a comical little bow, is a big deal. Or at least it was at the time; now he’s left school and is starting to realise his former popularity counts for little out in the real world. The one bright spot in his mundane existence is his girlfriend, Lisa (Madison Clare), the only person who still looks up to him as the hero he once was. And she’s told him tonight’s the night…

Back at school, Ben (Thomas Coombes) doesn’t fit in; the daily target of bullies, the only way he can cope is to “think Columbine, think Virginia Tech, think Sandy Hook… and breathe”. Luckily, he’s got Jack (Louis Greatorex), who’s been his best mate since forever, even though hanging out with Ben means he inevitably gets bullied too. Ben, Jack and Lisa used to be best friends, until they went to high school and she joined the popular crowd – but this afternoon they’re all bunking off together, and Jack’s hoping it’ll be just like old times.

As we follow the four characters through their day, there’s a mounting tension as Kev waits for Lisa, and the bullies wait for Ben. We know something’s brewing, but when it comes the play’s climax is genuinely shocking, largely because it hits us from so way, way out in the blue. From a narrative point of view this twist in the tale is an impressive feat of misdirection, but it also sits a little awkwardly against the backdrop of all that’s gone before, and feels like it introduces a whole new set of issues which then don’t get dealt with in the play’s closing minutes.

Emson’s script is unusual, a rapid fire rhyming verse that somehow still feels very natural in the mouths of teenagers, and which is brought brilliantly to life by an excellent cast. Thomas Coombes stands out as the tormented Ben, who’s exactly the kind of kid you’d expect to constantly be “thinking Columbine”; we feel bad for him, but at the same time we can’t help but be repelled by his intensity and general strangeness. In her professional stage debut, Madison Clare also really shines as Lisa who, despite being young, pretty and popular, is anything but a mean girl. She wants more out of life than just being one of the popular clique, and there’s a wistfulness to Clare’s performance that’s captivating to watch.

Photo credit: Mathew Foster

Another star of the show is Peter Small’s memorable and atmospheric lighting design, consisting of several bare light bulbs which are propelled across the stage by the actors and change colour seemingly at their command. This results in some powerful and poignant moments, particularly later in the play when each of the characters gets a moment in the (literal) spotlight to reflect on what’s gone before, and what could lie ahead for them.

Gripping, original and entirely unexpected, Plastic is also a pretty tough watch. The play paints a decidedly bleak picture of the school years; this is not a story that sets out to inspire nostalgia in the lucky few who actually enjoyed that time of their life. That doesn’t mean it won’t bring back memories – only that they’re unlikely to be good ones.

Plastic is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 21st April.

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… 😉

Review: Fat Friends the Musical at the Orchard Theatre

On paper, Fat Friends the Musical ticks all the boxes: a nostalgic revival of a much-loved TV series, written by the show’s original creator Kay Mellor; a heart-warming story about loving yourself and your body no matter what you weigh; and a starry cast featuring stage and screen favourites that include Jodie Prenger, Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy.

The show condenses some of the main plotlines from the first series of Fat Friends into one story, primarily focused on Kelly (Jodie Prenger), who’s about to marry the love of her life, Kevin (Joel Montague), and would be the happiest woman in the world if only she could fit into her dream wedding dress. But that’s not so easy when your parents (Sam Bailey and Kevin Kennedy) own a fish and chip shop, your skinny sister (Rachael Wooding) won’t stop teasing you about your weight, and you’re hungry all the time. Encouraged – for different reasons – by best friend Lauren (Natalie Anderson) and dieting queen Julia Fleshman (Natasha Hamilton), Kelly sets out to lose those extra pounds… but will being slimmer actually make her happy?

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

It’s great to see Kelly, Betty and co again, thirteen years after Fat Friends left our screens, and the show’s script sparkles with Kay Mellor’s trademark Yorkshire wit and warmth. Just as we remember them, the characters are loveable and easy for real people to relate to; some of the biggest laughs are ones of recognition as the slimmers shed as much clothing as possible before their weigh-in, or battle with themselves over whether or not to have that bag of chips. We’ve all been there, and that’s why it works. (And if you don’t leave the theatre craving fish and chips, you’re a lot stronger than I am.)

Jodie Prenger is well cast as the irrepressible Kelly, and soon has us on side with her down to earth humour and unflinching honesty. Sam Bailey – just a couple of years older in real life – seems an unlikely choice to play her mother, but the two pull off a convincing on-stage relationship, with shy, nervous Betty the very opposite of her outgoing daughter. Meanwhile, Rachael Wooding doubles up so effectively as Kelly’s sister Joanne and Julia’s downtrodden assistant Pippa that I didn’t even realise it was the same person, and Natalie Anderson throws herself with seemingly limitless energy into her one character Lauren’s multiple roles as dress shop owner, slimming class leader and Zumba instructor (not to mention hopeless romantic).

Unfortunately, the music – composed by Nick Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Mellor – doesn’t quite match up to the rest of the evening. Despite a few stand-out numbers, and the undeniable vocal talents of Sam Bailey, Jodie Prenger, Natalie Anderson and others, the songs on the whole add little to the plot and, though well performed, are not particularly memorable. Given that its strength lies in the characters, story and dialogue, you have to wonder if the show, which runs at over two and a half hours, might not have worked better as a play.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

Although as a musical it doesn’t quite work for me, Fat Friends is still a good night out, with a talented cast and a strong message about body image. By updating the story to the present day, Mellor is also able to cover both the opportunities and the dangers posed by social media, and the many ways in which we allow others – both people we know and complete strangers – to dictate how we should feel about ourselves. A feel-good show with a heart as big as its appetite, this revival of a TV favourite is a lot of fun for old and new friends, of all shapes and sizes.

Fat Friends the Musical is at the Orchard Theatre until 14th April.