Review: The Quentin Dentin Show at Tristan Bates Theatre

It’s the golden rule of capitalism: to convince a customer that your product will make them happy, you have to first make them realise how very unhappy they are without it. Science fiction musical The Quentin Dentin Show by Henry Carpenter takes this concept to infinity and beyond; now directed by Adam Lenson, the show introduces us to bored (and boring) couple Nat and Keith, who become the unwitting subjects of the universe’s most bonkers marketing scheme when they find a mysterious golden microphone in their living room. At the helm is Quentin Dentin – or at least the synth currently in possession of that name – whose only job is to sign them up to The Programme and make them both happy forever (although what that actually means is removing their souls, but you know, same difference). Naturally, Quentin isn’t doing this for nothing; he’s in line for an upgrade if he can seal the deal, so is willing to do just about anything to sign his subjects up.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

In case you were wondering, this is all absolutely as bizarre as it sounds. Luke Lane steals the show with a gloriously over-the-top portrayal of TV host/preacher/mentor Quentin, backed by his two robotic “friends”, creatively named Friend 1 and Friend 2 (Freya Tilly and Lottie-Daisy Francis). Behind their beaming smiles, cheery singalongs and energetic choreography, there’s a decidedly sinister undertone about this trio as they skilfully manipulate Keith and Nat into signing their lives – and more – away.

Shauna Riley and Max Panks do a good job with necessarily flimsy characters, whose bemusement quickly gives way to acceptance of their own unhappiness and rejection of the dreams they thought they had. It’s a bit hard to believe Nat and Keith would so readily succumb to a strange man who appeared out of their radio, and nor do we ever find out why they’ve been chosen as Quentin’s latest subjects – but by this point we’re so far through the looking glass anyway that it’s best to just go with it.

That said, there is still a nugget of harsh truth about humanity’s constant search for happiness to be found amidst the manic grins, talking microphones and inflatable fish (don’t ask) – and the show’s unexpectedly bleak ending leaves us to wonder rather despondently if finding the meaning of life through artificial means really is the best future we have to look forward to.

Though there are only a couple of songs that are particularly catchy – among them a Hey Jude-esque final chorus that I still can’t get out of my head – all the musical numbers are enthusiastically performed by band and singers, with sharp, synchronised choreography from Caldonia Walton. In fact, movement in general throughout the show is crisp, polished and perfectly timed, down to the simplest turn of a head at just the right moment.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

The production does suffer from a few sound issues; with the band on stage throughout, there are a couple of numbers where it’s hard to make out all of the lyrics, and there’s also an odd disconnect between the intimacy of Nat and Keith’s living room and the fact that they’re talking to each other in it through radio mikes. The show would perhaps work better in a slightly larger space – it certainly has the larger than life personality required to fill a bigger stage.

The show’s been described as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the new millennium”, and the influence of Richard O’Brien’s show is obvious (ordinary couple stumble into the path of a charismatic but unhinged stranger, who makes them question everything they thought they knew about themselves). Whether Quentin will ever reach the same levels of cult fandom I couldn’t say, but there’s no denying the show makes for an entertaining – and slightly bewildering – evening out.

The Quentin Dentin Show is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 29th July.

Review: I Know You Of Old at The Hope Theatre

I recently reviewed a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and while the play was excellent, I was reminded, not for the first time, of how much its conclusion bothers me. Hero, who’s just been publicly shamed on her wedding day, cheerfully takes back her fiancé and forgives everyone for doubting her, despite not a word of apology ever being offered. The audience’s attention returns to the more colourful characters of Benedick and Beatrice, and Hero – having served her purpose – is instantly forgotten.

David Fairs of GOLEM! is having none of that. His dark rearrangement of the text of Much Ado places Hero at the centre of the story – in more ways than one. Using only Shakespeare’s text, he’s created an entirely new story in which Hero’s dead and Beatrice (Sarah Lambie), Benedick (David Fairs) and Claudio (Conor O’Kane) meet in the chapel on the night before her funeral. In an attempt to ease his guilt over his treatment of her, Claudio decides to bring the warring Beatrice and Benedick together, with predictably amusing results. But there’s no escaping Hero this time, because her coffin dominates the room – many of the conversations take place quite literally over her dead body, and the shocking circumstances of her untimely death must eventually be dealt with.

Whether you know Much Ado or not doesn’t really matter. I Know You Of Old stands confidently on its own two feet as an original plot that in many ways is even more compelling – and certainly more intriguing – than its source material. Placing these three pivotal characters in Hero’s story into a pressure-cooker situation, where there’s nowhere to hide (though Benedick gives it a try), allows us to examine the dysfunctional relationships between them in a whole new light. And one thing’s for sure; while the play’s conclusion is rather open-ended, it’s far from unsatisfying.

Shakespeare lovers need not fear, though – by taking apart the text, GOLEM! aren’t being disrespectful, but instead demonstrating the astonishing versatility and enduring relevance of the words written so many centuries ago. In keeping with this, director Anna Marsland brings the story bang up to date; this is Shakespeare with iPads, motorcycle helmets, teddy bears and even Cher – suffice to say it isn’t your standard pre-funeral vigil. And yet somehow the 400-year-old text describes perfectly everything we can see, a reminder that while the world around us may change, human behaviour and emotions remain as messed up as they’ve ever been.

The play’s casting could hardly be more perfect. Conor O’Kane is every inch the heartbroken bridegroom, but with an appealing childlike quality that makes it easy to see how he could have been tricked into believing Hero’s guilt. All three actors are skilled comedians, and succeed in getting a laugh out of a single word or the simplest look or gesture; the verbal sparring between Sarah Lambie and David Fairs – who also starred together in Golem!’s previous production, the excellent Macbeths – is a comic delight (the layout of the theatre is such that watching their exchanges begins to feel like being on Centre Court at Wimbledon). But with Beatrice grieving for her cousin, their flirting takes on a darker edge that eventually spills over into something altogether more disturbing.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Anna Marsland’s production is its extraordinary attention to detail. There are real candles burning, a smell of incense in the air, and sombre music playing as we enter the dark chapel, and the stiflingly hot weather – however uncomfortable – conveniently helps to complete the claustrophobic effect. The use of modern technology isn’t just for show, either; the letter that Benedick reads out can be clearly seen on the iPad screen, as can the incriminating video he later views on his phone.

I Know You Of Old is an astonishing achievement, and a brave choice to take apart a play so many people know so well. David Fairs has succeeded because he’s used the opportunity to tackle some of the unfinished business in Shakespeare’s work – like the appalling, unpunished treatment of Hero, and what makes Beatrice and Benedick behave the way they do. Consequently it’s clear that this is not a gratuitous ripping up of a classic, but rather a fitting and respectful complement to the original, a gripping new tale which can be enjoyed by Shakespeare fans and newbies alike.

I Know You Of Old is at The Hope Theatre until 1st July.

Review: HerStory 4 at Theatre N16

Guest review by Jemima Frankel

What might you expect from a feminist theatre festival at a small fringe theatre in Balham, in June 2017? What issues, events, people, stereotypes – laws, even – might compel feminist theatre makers to, well, make theatre right now? The more cynical amongst us might expect a hipster-infused horde of angry, “snowflake” millenials shouting loudly about the “pale stale male”.  What they would find, however, is a potent and welcome remedy to such limiting cynicism. HerStory, founded by Nastazja Somers, was born out of frustration at the repetitive, singular storyline of female characters in theatre and wider society. She invites feminists to perform work that platforms the untold stories – the real faces of intersectionality – that are so routinely trampled over in the charge for more palatable voices. HerStory does not just demand our attention; it grabs it, with consent, by the pussy.

The second of two nights at HerStory 4 (the big sister of the HerStorys 1, 2 and 3 in preceding years) was a showcase of eight richly varied solo performances. We heard the female voice on topical issues such as abortion, domestic abuse, child rape, LGBTQ issues, sexual harassment, social media, war and… Iranian mothers. What shot through the hurt, the anger, the raw and gutting sadness of several of these stories was the resounding support buzzing from the audience. Huge cheers, belly laughs and tenterhooked-gasps filled the air – testament, of course, to the quality of the performers who took to the stage.

As expected, some of the work made emotional viewing. Dannie-Lu Carr’s Just Another C*nt told the incredibly moving story of a toxic relationship with an alcoholic man who encouraged an abortion. The Twilight Zone by Suzy Gill tackles cultural discrimination and homophobia, as a young woman’s Muslim girlfriend is called away again to fight for the American army in Iraq. In one of Tolu Agbelusi’s powerful spoken word performances she spoke of the rape of a seven-year-old girl at the grabbing, angry hands of two young boys. In Mission Abort, directed by Claire Stone and performed by Therese Ramstedt, the Pro-Life words of Donald Trump – “there must be some form of punishment” – seared through the graphic re-enactment of a painful and intrusive abortion. The audience was left open-mouthed and wide-eyed, shocked into reflective silence before roaring applause acknowledged the bravery and resilience of these women.

Humour rippled in welcome and powerful moments through the evening. Amanda Holiday’s The Art Poems took artworks by diverse female painters as the inspiration for witty words, and the ridicule at the price of a handbag (that she will use as a hat, thank you very much). Social Media Suicide by Clare McCall showed us the behind-the-scenes of a very special, perfectly set up, live streamed 27th birthday party, at which she – for the benefit of you lucky viewers – was going to kill herself after much cam-girl style foreplay. The show goes out, quite literally, with a bang as the likes come rolling in. Shahbanu brilliantly performed by Lydia Bakelmun (and written, directed and produced by Melina Namdar, Anna Jeary and Penny Babakhani) revisits the childhood of a girl raised in London to an overbearing Iranian mother and English father. In the nostalgic tales of Iranian princes and (always – eye roll) beautiful princesses, we unravel the feeling of loss, displacement and desperate need to reconnect to heritage and culture. Roxanne Carney’s I’m the Hero of This Story tickled the audience with Tinder one-liners and the jaw-dropping realisation that these were lifted from real conversations with real men, probably within about five miles of you.

The Museum of Women, the poignant closing poem of Tolu Agbulesi’s set, speaks of the great women “quietly shaping” her. “This body is a monument of many women; I was not built alone,” she speaks; a perfect beacon of support and solidarity that resonated with the diverse mix of men and women in the audience. As the audience left chattering and tweeting, I was reminded once again of the power of performance – if not as a way to change the world, then as a way to get the conversation well and truly started.

Follow @HerstoryFTF for details of upcoming events and performances, as they move to a more central London location.

Review: Kiss Me at Trafalgar Studios

Most single women have at some point bemoaned the lack of decent men. That throwaway line is put into sobering perspective in Richard Bean’s Kiss Me, where it’s quite literally true. It’s 1929, and Stephanie (not her real name) is a 32-year-old widow who wants a baby. Faced with a male population that’s been tragically depleted by World War 1, she finds herself forced to take an unconventional path. Enter Dennis (not his real name), a father-for-hire employed by the mysterious Dr Trollop, who by all accounts is extremely good at his job – as long as he stays within the parameters. That means no kissing on the lips, no real names, no sharing of any personal information, and definitely no second meetings.

Photo credit: Robert Day
Within minutes, we find ourselves drawn into a scenario that has the potential to be both very funny and horribly sad – and Kiss Me delivers on both fronts. This intense two-hander unfolds in Stephanie’s bedroom, with a mirrored back wall that brings the audience right into the heart of the action and makes us privy to every intimate detail of her life and loves. She’s a modern woman who smokes and drives a munitions lorry, and has no qualms about speaking her mind or standing up for her rights. In fact she seems incapable of holding anything back, even when she tries; in a powerful performance, Claire Lams reveals just as much in Stephanie’s pensive, silent moments as she does with all her character’s nervous chatter.

In contrast, Ben Lloyd-Hughes’ Dennis is a stickler for propriety, yet not without passion; he’s a soldier on his own personal mission, driven by an intense guilt over having survived the war when so many others didn’t. We never see him enter the room; the lights go up on each scene and there he is (director Anna Ledwich describes him gleefully in her programme notes as “seemingly summoned like a sex genie”). His speech, unlike Stephanie’s, is slow and considered, and where she resorts often to humour as a means of self-defence, he seems to hardly know what a joke is. They’re total opposites, yet somehow fit together perfectly (in a nice touch, he often finishes her sentences when the right word escapes her), and it’s no surprise when their initial encounter leads to something more, however doomed their relationship may feel from the start.

Photo credit: Robert Day
The chemistry between the two characters is as believable as it is surprising, and the desperate, relatable human desires that drive each of them toward the other make them easy to invest in emotionally; the play’s final revelation drew shocked gasps from more than one audience member. This does come with a side effect, though: because we can so easily relate to the characters, some of the more intimate scenes become quite awkward to watch – Stephanie’s own discomfort during her first meeting with Dennis is infectious, and her later willingness to chat at length about her clitoris equally disconcerting. (For different reasons, it’s also hard not to be taken aback by the use of the term “minger” to describe an unattractive woman – despite the hasty explanation that it’s an old Scottish word.)

The play’s conclusion is unexpectedly intriguing; we’re left with a good deal of unanswered questions about the future and the past for both characters, and still without a complete understanding of their motivations. This hint that the story may not be quite over is rather comforting, despite the frustrating knowledge that we’ll never know for sure what lies ahead.

Funny, poignant and offering a fresh perspective on the horrors of war, Kiss Me features two excellent performances and has an emotional and, to a certain degree, political heart that’s as relevant today as it would have been in 1929 – perhaps even more so.

Kiss Me is at Trafalgar Studio 2 until 8th July.

Review: The Last Ones at Jermyn Street Theatre

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

The wonders of human behaviour will never fail to inspire. Politics, domestics and history are all intertwined. In The Last Ones the Russian playwright Gorky, knowingly admired by Chekov, creates an honest tableau of life, power, conflict, love and devastation.

The play is set in the bloody aftermath of the 1905 revolution but focuses on the struggles of a corrupt tsarist police chief named Ivan Kolomiitsev and his family. After a failed assassination and unjust accusation, the family is left in utter confusion, not knowing who to trust nor what to believe. The father’s gambling, drinking and affairs waste away all their money, and the family is forced to take refuge at wealthy Uncle Yakov’s house.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

The play asks us: do we really know each other? How can one come to terms with their father, husband, brother, lover being wrong? Looking into the life of a despised and hated man – we grow affectionate to his family and begin to unpeel the layers and grey areas present in the human body. Conveying these grey areas – evil is not absolute, it is not binary nor concrete.

It is not an easy play; character journeys are very weaved together and are slightly difficult to follow. Ivan, played by Daragh O’Malley and Sonia, played by Louise Gold, have five children: Alexander, Peter, Nadia, Vera, Lyubov. Some of the children follow the father’s footsteps into corruption, greed, alcoholism and gambling, whilst the younger ones are faced with many questions. The latter, Lyubov, is damned for being “crippled” by Ivan, who she discovers in the play is actually not her biological father. This is not news to the family as Ivan’s brother Yakov, played by Tim Woodward, and Sonia’s old love affair is not as secret as they would hope.

Ivan is attempting to bribe his way back into the police force and regain his power. However, power has a price. Peter and Vera begin to learn the truth about their father when a young man, a revolutionary, explains to him the facts. Then the mother of the innocent child incarcerated for Ivan’s assassination comes to the house to speak to Sonia, and things begin to unravel. Conflict increases throughout to finally culminate in a desolate open-ended finale, in which corruption and evil triumph over the rest.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Anthony Biggs’ production is intense and moving at times. The set, designed by Cecilia Trono, is simple, but appropriate to the atmosphere created. The performances fluctuate between moments of truthfulness and other slightly weaker moments, although the show kept my attention throughout and moved me with its passionate honesty. It is a play about people, the human body and mind. We too often forget the importance of focusing on the reasons and objectives behind our actions. The Last Ones brings them to the forefront, putting us face to face with difficult questions. What would you have done in their position?

The Last Ones is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 1st July.