Review: No One is Coming To Save You at The Bunker Theatre

2018 is both a fascinating and a terrifying time to be alive – and particularly to be young. Climate change, Brexit, Trump, knife crime, terrorism, the threat of nuclear war: all these and more have brought us to a place where it’s far easier, and feels a lot more feasible, to fear the worst for our future than to hope for the best.

Photo credit: This Noise

None of the above are mentioned by name in This Noise’s No One is Coming To Save You, but the atmosphere of dread that accompanies them is very much present. The play, written by Nathan Ellis and directed by Charlotte Fraser, is about a young man and woman, each of whom finds themselves alone with their thoughts over the course of one long sleepless night. She’s transfixed by a half empty (or half full?) glass of water on the table, and stubbornly ignoring her ringing phone. He’s watching late night TV with the sound off, while his girlfriend and baby daughter sleep in the next room. Their stories are separate but gradually intertwine, as each reaches out desperately for someone – anyone – to reassure them it will all be okay.

The play is billed as an experimental duologue, and it certainly lives up to that description. The non-linear narrative jumps about in time as the two characters lose themselves in memories, with the audience never totally sure which ones are real and which imagined. While this means it’s at times difficult to pin down where in the timeline we are or what exactly is happening, the writing is so beautifully evocative, and the performances from Agatha Elwes and Rudolphe Mdlongwa so engaging, that we have no trouble at all picturing the scene or sensing the building atmosphere of doom that surrounds the two characters. We don’t know why they’re both awake on this particular night, but from the start there’s the feeling that something terrible might happen – whether it does or not I can’t say, but the threat is credible enough to keep us constantly on edge. (It’s worth noting also that the script conjures some rather disturbing images, particularly of physical injuries, which some audience members may find distressing.)

Photo credit: This Noise

And yet for all that, No One is Coming To Save You is often surprisingly funny, and there are several laugh out loud moments, which help to restore our faith that all may not yet be quite lost. The play’s conclusion, also, feels cautiously optimistic, and there’s the suggestion that though life may not necessarily be all we’d hoped for, we’re all on the same uncertain road and we don’t necessarily have to travel it alone.

No One is Coming To Save You is quite an abstract piece, which leaves much open to interpretation. As such, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but what it lacks in terms of plot, it more than makes up for in its portrayal of the general mood in a world where it often feels things will never get better. An interesting and thought-provoking show for the millennial generation.

No One is Coming To Save You is at The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season, on Tuesdays and Fridays until 7th July.

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Review: Section 2 at The Bunker Theatre

Despite great strides in awareness over recent years, there’s still a huge amount we’ve yet to learn about mental illness. But if there’s one thing we do know, it’s that it can strike anyone, at any time – even those who seem to have it all together.

Cam, the central character in Paper Creatures’ new play Section 2, is one of those people. At school he was the golden boy, the star of the rugby team; now he’s in the army, and has been in a steady relationship with his girlfriend for five years. Nothing particular seems to have happened, although there are unproven suspicions, but despite all this somehow he’s ended up being sectioned. That was 28 days ago, and today is the day that Cam – along with his girlfriend Kay, key worker Rachel, and friend Pete – will find out if he can go home. The play takes place on the ward in real time, and as the minutes tick away on Cam’s 28th day, we get an informative and moving glimpse into the workings of a system that’s rarely discussed, on stage or indeed anywhere.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Section 2 was written by Peter Imms in response to a personal experience he had when a school friend was sectioned, and then developed collaboratively with Paper Creatures in association with Mind, the mental health charity. As such, Nathan Coenen’s portrayal of Cam’s fragile mental state feels both sensitive and authentic: one moment he seems fine, the next he’s forgotten how to breathe; his meds make him forgetful, he seems frequently on the verge of tears, and when he hugs someone, he clings on to them like he’s drowning. The frustrating fact that we don’t know what caused his breakdown only enhances this realism, reminding us that where mental health is concerned, sometimes there simply aren’t neat, easy answers.

The play also examines Kay, Rachel and Pete’s different responses to what’s happened; in fact the balance of the script is such that this is just as much their story as it is Cam’s. Imms moves the characters around very naturally between two rooms, which allows us to witness one-on-one interactions between each pair, and get to know all the characters a little better. Alexandra Da Silva adopts an air of weary resignation as Kay arrives for yet another visit, but we soon realise that behind her tough exterior she’s struggling to keep a lid on her own fear and distress in order to protect the man she loves. She clashes frequently with Esmé Patey-Ford’s Rachel, mistaking her calm professionalism for a lack of empathy, and irritated that Rachel seems more able than she is to establish a meaningful connection with Cam.

This atmosphere of simmering tension is brought to a head by the intervention of Pete, a first time visitor who hasn’t seen Cam for five years. Played by Jon Tozzi, Pete is perhaps the most relatable of the characters: way out of his depth but with an obvious desire to understand, he still maintains a fragile hope that he can somehow find the magic button that will make everything better.

Photo credit: Tim Hall Photography

Section 2 is an important and timely piece of theatre, raising awareness of the far-reaching impact of mental illness, and sectioning in particular. More than that though, it’s a play about friendship and human relationships; though it’s undoubtedly difficult to watch at times, there’s something very uplifting about seeing so many loved ones lining up to support Cam on his road to recovery, each in their own individual way. Sensitively written and performed, this powerful play is well worth a visit.

Section 2 is at The Bunker Theatre as part of the Breaking Out season, on Tuesdays and Fridays until 7th July.

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Review: Cockamamy at The Hope Theatre

A little over a year ago, I sat at The Hope Theatre and sobbed my way through Off The Middle’s In Other Words, a devastatingly sad story about a husband and wife coming to terms with his diagnosis of dementia. This week, I was back at The Hope to see Think and Hit’s debut production Cockamamy, another play about dementia – and surprise surprise, I ended up in floods again.

I don’t know why theatre on this topic tends to hit me so hard, but I suspect it’s because so often it’s inspired by real experiences and people, and you can tell it comes from a place of deep love and affection mingled with pain and often loss. If that’s the case then Cockamamy is a double whammy, as both writer and actor Louise Coulthard and director Rebecca Loudon know what it’s like to care for a grandparent with dementia, and have put that experience to powerful use to create a funny and deeply poignant play.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

Let’s back up a bit, though, because Cockamamy isn’t just a play about dementia. It’s really the story of Alice and Rosie, who are far more than just grandmother and granddaughter; they’re best friends. Alice raised Rosie following the death of her mother when she was a little girl, and the strong bond between them is clear from the outset. But there are clouds on the horizon: Alice is getting increasingly confused and forgetful, and she’s convinced she’s being visited by her late husband Arthur. When Rosie meets a new boyfriend, both she and Alice are forced to make some tough decisions about their futures.

It was always going to be a tough story to watch, but what makes Cockamamy so heartbreaking is how instantly likeable the characters are. Alice is a particular delight: a feisty, quirky old lady with a mischievous sense of humour and a surprising habit of quoting Beyonce. We love her from the start, so it’s painful to watch her become more and more fragile and bewildered as the play goes on – particularly as there are moments when the old Alice reappears.

Mary Rutherford’s superb performance is matched by that of Louise Coulthard as Rosie, as she struggles with the conflict between wanting to protect her gran and wanting to get on with her own life. She’s just met the perfect man – Cavan, an Irish junior doctor played by Rowan Polonski – but although he’s patient and supportive of Alice’s situation, their relationship is put under ever greater strain as Rosie repeatedly finds herself forced to choose between them. Unsurprisingly, this building tension ultimately comes to a head in a final scene that’s ugly and brutal in both its honesty and its emotional impact.

Photo credit: Alex Brenner

If I have one quibble, it’s that the long scene changes interrupt the pace of the production and leave us looking at Alice’s empty living room for rather longer than feels necessary. But this minor irritation doesn’t detract from a play that perfectly balances entertainment with an honest, powerful portrayal of the impact dementia can have on families and relationships. Highly recommended, but prepare to be put through the emotional wringer.

Cockamamy is at The Hope Theatre until 30th June.


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Review: The Yellow Wallpaper at the Omnibus Theatre

Adapted by Ruby Lawrence from a short story written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper is an unsettling portrayal of a woman suffering from depression after the birth of her daughter. Separated from her baby and spirited away to the country by her husband John, Alice (Gemma Yates-Round) finds herself increasingly disturbed by one room in particular, believing she can see a woman moving behind the sickly yellow wallpaper.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Gilman, who was advised in 1887 to manage her own depression by having “but two hours’ intellectual life a day” and giving up writing altogether, wrote the story to explore the damaging effects of the treatment imposed on women by men. (She even sent a copy to her doctor, and claimed he later confided to friends that he had changed his methods after reading it.) Lawrence’s adaptation goes a step further, hinting at a more sinister purpose behind Alice’s incarceration. The well-meaning but misguided doctor husband of Gilman’s story becomes two separate characters – albeit both played by the same actor (Charles Warner) – and with the addition of housekeeper Nancy, who’s recruited by the doctor, we begin to feel a creeping sense of conspiracy.

This is reinforced by our own bond with Alice, which is established early on as she directly addresses us, confiding her hopes and fears for her future relationship with her daughter Violet, and later makes us complicit in her efforts to rebel against her treatment. We also see everything she sees; the yellow walls of the deceptively simple set designed by Mayou Trikerioti really do change significantly in appearance under Clancy Flynn’s lighting, and stretch in undeniably sinister fashion to allow glimpses of a figure pressing through from the other side. The fact that we share this vision suggests it isn’t only Alice’s paranoia, and perhaps there really are other forces at work.

Gemma Yates-Round gives an excellent performance as Alice; over the course of 70 minutes, we can see her gradually unravelling before our eyes from the poised, intelligent young woman who first meets the doctor to discuss her five-month pregnancy to the dishevelled figure obsessively clawing at the yellow walls. Meanwhile Charles Warner plays every other character – or rather he plays “Not-Alice”, leaving the true identity and even existence of Alice’s husband, doctor and housekeeper open to interpretation. This ambiguity calls for a subtlety in the performance which Warner successfully captures, simultaneously keeping the characters individual enough that we can differentiate between them, but similar enough that they could feasibly all merge into one.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Despite the strong performances, however, and an atmosphere of growing suspense effectively created by director Dave Spencer, the layers of ambiguity added to Gilman’s story for this adaptation mean the play at times feels overcomplicated, and leaves us with a frustrating multitude of possible interpretations of what’s really going on. Things are further confused by the addition of a fairy tale composed by Alice for her daughter, an act of rebellion in defiance of the others’ attempts to keep her from writing. This takes the plot away from the original text, and then ends abruptly as the play reaches its climax, with Alice so intent on passing on her story that the woman behind the wallpaper is left feeling like an afterthought. While all this certainly makes for a meaty post-show debate, for those who like their stories to have a beginning, middle and end the play may prove frustratingly open-ended.

The Yellow Wallpaper is at the Omnibus Theatre until 24th June.


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Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Drayton Arms Theatre

Fun fact: yesterday was the final of the US National Spelling Bee in Maryland. The 14-year-old winner, Karthik Nemmani, triumphed by correctly spelling “koinonia” – which means Christian fellowship or communion – after his opponent, aged 12, stumbled on her own word, “Bewusstseinslage” (a state of consciousness or a feeling devoid of sensory components). Afterwards, reports the Guardian, the generous champion took no pleasure in beating his rival, saying, “We weren’t against each other. We were against the dictionary.”

There’s little sign of such magnanimity at the start of MKEC Productions’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. We arrive to find the contestants and organisers milling about the theatre, chatting to the audience and bickering amongst themselves, before the show begins and battle commences. Somehow I’d never seen William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony award-winning musical before – which is ironic considering I seem to be the only person in the world who thinks a show about spelling actually does sound like fun – but I’m now officially a convert. What starts as a hilariously silly comedy about six misfits who love to spell unexpectedly turns into an emotional rollercoaster, as we get to know the contestants and understand the backstories that have brought them to the bee. Unlike most rollercoasters, however, this is one I’d happily get back on and do it all over again. And then again after that.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

This is partly because bits of the show have an improvised feel – specifically those involving members of the audience (nothing too scary and all voluntary, although I’m still glad it wasn’t me up there) and a few pointed one-liners referencing current events – and it would be fascinating to see what goes differently on a second viewing. But it’s mostly because the story, characters and music are all genuinely delightful, despite also being “the slightest bit bizarre” in their own special ways.

There’s last year’s winner Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson), who’s doing fine until he spots a pretty girl in the front row and all the blood rushes from his brain to – well, somewhere else. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Lottie Johnson) is desperate to make her two dads proud, while Marcy Park (Jeannie May) knows that whatever she achieves it’ll never be enough for her parents. William Barfee – excuse me, Barfée (TJ Lloyd) – has a magic foot that helps him spell (yes, really), and Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan) is beginning to realise that he might actually be quite smart after all, despite what his family keep telling him. And finally there’s Olive Ostrovsky (Thea Jo Wolfe), who before the show even started, slipped a piece of paper on to the empty seat beside me and whispered, “It’s for my dad.” The obvious and tragic fact that the seat was guaranteed to remain empty made Olive my immediate and enduring favourite.

Trying to keep some kind of order amidst all this pandemonium are former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Elizabeth Chadwick), vice principal Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Gray), and bizarrely, Mitch Mahoney (Inti Conde), who’s doing his community service consoling defeated spellers. As you do.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

Because there can be only one winner at the spelling bee. As we get to know more about the contestants and what drives them, it becomes obvious this is much more than just a game to our six young spellers, and the final round is surprisingly tense as we wait to see who’ll crack first under the pressure. But although each elimination is a sad moment, the show ends on an upbeat note with the realisation that winning isn’t necessarily everything. Sure it’s a cliché, but when you’re having this much fun, who cares?

A seemingly casual joke about the show’s brief rehearsal time highlights what a polished production this is in spite of that. A brilliant cast excel both individually and as an ensemble, hitting all the right comic notes but also giving emotional depth to characters who at first glance appear to be no more than stereotypes. Director and choreographer Adam Haigh makes full and effective use of the intimate space, setting the tone of the production with the pre-show activities to ensure the audience – who are cast early on as proud parents watching the bee – always feel involved and connected to what’s going on.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is brilliantly bonkers, and proves what I knew all along – that spelling really is fun. But the show also champions those who dare to be different, and reminds us that sometimes it really is the taking part that counts. This little gem of a production is a feel-good treat and guaranteed to put a smile on your face; don’t miss it.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 16th June.


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