Review: What Girls Are Made Of at Soho Theatre

When she was a teenager in Glenrothes, Cora Bissett wanted to be a rockstar. And then she was one, for a while, as lead singer of Scottish band Darlingheart – remember them? No, me neither, but in the early 90s they came pretty close to hitting the big time, signing a six-album deal and touring with the likes of Blur and Radiohead. But showbiz is a fickle industry, and all it took was one bad review in NME to start the reversal of the band’s fortunes that would rapidly bring the dream crashing down.

Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

In What Girls Are Made Of, currently at the latter end of a world tour that’s taken it to Brazil, USA and back to Edinburgh for the second summer in a row, Cora reflects on her time as a teenage rockstar. Although it paints a vivid and entertaining picture of how unforgiving and exploitative the music industry can be, though, the show is about so much more than that. It’s a story of survival, recovery and finding a place in the world. It’s about family, love and loss. And it’s about not letting anyone tell you what you can or can’t do – especially if you’re a girl.

Cora herself is an engaging and charismatic storyteller; microphone in hand, she steps smoothly back into the role of front woman after 25 years. Though there’s no shortage of humour in her tale, nor is there any attempt to sugarcoat any aspect of it, and Cora’s raw honesty means that by the time we get to the business end of proceedings we’re well and truly invested. It’s these final twenty minutes or so where the show really hits home emotionally – perhaps we don’t know what it’s like to party with Blur, but we can certainly relate to the disappointment of having a childhood dream snatched away, the fear of losing a parent, or the desperate longing for a future that’s always just out of reach.

Fittingly, the show takes the format of part play, part gig, with all the appearance and atmosphere of a live music performance – it almost feels wrong for the audience to be sitting down to watch, particularly at the end. Joining Cora on stage are bandmates Emma Smith, Simon Donaldson and Harry Ward, who in addition to providing the music also frequently come close to stealing the show with their hilarious portrayals of everyone from Damon Albarn to Cora’s mum. Under Orla O’Loughlin’s slick direction, the energy of the piece never falters, and the transitions between the musical numbers and spoken word flow very naturally.

Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Besides being a great nostalgia trip for those of us who grew up listening to the indie music of the 90s, What Girls Are Made Of is a fun and uplifting show that, like any good gig, takes its audience on a journey and then sends us home on a high, confident in the knowledge that while we may not all get (or indeed want) to be rockstars, it’s more than enough to be ourselves – whatever we’re made of.

What Girls Are Made Of is at Soho Theatre until 28th September.

Review: Jade City at the Bunker Theatre

Written in response to the governmental neglect that’s left a lasting mark on the city and people of Belfast, Alice Malseed’s Jade City is a troubling two-hander exploring mental health among young working class men. Unemployed, skint, and with little to strive for or look forward to, friends Sas (Brendan Quinn) and Monty (Barry Calvert) have devised their own way to escape: The Game. Stepping out of their dull, uninspiring lives, in The Game they can be whoever and go wherever they want – fighters in the Cuban Revolution, guests at the Plaza in New York, seagulls soaring high above the city – and for a brief moment they can revel in their newfound freedom, be it financial, political or physical.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

But Sas, who at first glance appears to be the younger and less worldly of the two, has decided it’s time to grow up. He can’t stop thinking about a real-life incident that happened a while back, and he wants to stop playing and start talking – if only Monty would listen. As the story of that night comes out piece by piece, the play takes us down some dark paths, with references to depression, suicide and sexual violence, and a harrowing conclusion that’s left wide open to audience interpretation.

The interaction between Barry Calvert and Brendan Quinn is at first entertaining, then thrilling, and finally deeply uncomfortable to watch. With the action carefully contained by director Katherine Nesbitt within a boxing ring set that’s a literal representation of the guys’ surroundings and simultaneously hints at an impending conflict, the energy between them ebbs, flows, and ultimately mutates into something that feels toxic and dangerous – and not just for them.

As much as the play highlights the many barriers to opportunity faced by young Northern Irish men like Sas and Monty, it’s also something of a love letter to Belfast itself. Amidst the banter, Malseed’s script is often gloriously poetic: a celebration of the language, culture and atmosphere of a city that for so many people, even twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, still brings to mind only unrest and division. There’s the sense of a community, albeit a dissatisfied one, in the familiar faces who hang out at the local working men’s club to drink their troubles away, and for all the characters’ escapist fantasies, it’s obvious that in reality they can’t picture themselves anywhere else.

Photo credit: Ali Wright

To ensure we don’t miss a word, captions are used throughout – and while these are certainly helpful at times for deciphering the characters’ Northern Irish accents, their inclusion feels as symbolic as it is practical: you get the sense that Sas and Monty are merely acting out a story that’s been written for them, and which for any good intentions they might have, can’t now be avoided.

The play was inspired by two shocking statistics: one third of people in Northern Ireland live on or below the bread line, and there have been more suicides in the last two decades than there were deaths during the Troubles. Behind those numbers are real people like Sas and Monty, who’ve grown up in the shadow of a period in their country’s history that they don’t even remember. The play asks for our understanding, if not quite our sympathy – some of these young men’s actions are unforgivable, regardless of their circumstances – and sends us away with a final image which, however you choose to read it, is unlikely to fade any time soon.

Jade City is at the Bunker Theatre until 21st September.

Review: It’s a Playception at The Hope Theatre

Two women have written a play. It’s about two women writing a play. Which is about two women… You get the idea. The women in question are Evangeline Duncan and Olivia Baker, who play friends Elise and Sirenna as they prepare to bring their “playception” to a paying audience for the first time. Assuming they can figure out a marketing strategy, that is, and get the theatre technician, Gup – a Generally Unhelpful Person (Josh Redding) – to cooperate. Oh, and hopefully sell some tickets to people who aren’t their friends and family.

Long story short: they have no idea what they’re doing, and they’re about to learn that putting on a play is far from easy, even if you do have a great idea, boundless enthusiasm and a generous godfather who’s willing to foot the bill. But at least they have each other… right?

As an audience member, and especially as a reviewer, it can sometimes be easy to forget that every piece of theatre – no matter how big or small in scale – is the product of blood, sweat, tears, and almost certainly copious amounts of coffee. It’s a Playception offers us an insight into just how soul-destroying the process of getting an idea from page to stage can be, but more importantly, it also documents the satisfaction that comes from battling through and actually making it, however clumsily, to opening night.

The hour-long show is performed with heart and humour by two women who aren’t afraid to laugh either at themselves specifically or the theatre industry in general. Elise and Sirenna are naïve, immature and easily distracted by everything from cute dungarees to cute technicians. They’re also very different people, with pretty much only their daily coffee choices in common, but somehow that’s enough to ensure their partnership – both on stage and off – succeeds.

As the different levels of fiction begin to blur, it becomes harder to separate the actors from their characters, or their characters’ characters, particularly since all the action takes place in the small theatre where they’ll rehearse and perform their play. More than once a scene we thought was happening in “real life” stops abruptly and gets rewritten on the spot, while other moments of high drama just keep going, even when things get awkward. When Elise and Sirenna start getting confused about how much of what’s going on is actually true, we know the audience doesn’t stand a chance.

So, are we watching a rehearsal, the play itself or the run-up to the play? I honestly have no idea, but it doesn’t really matter because the heart of every version is the same: two friends who believe in themselves, and each other, enough to throw themselves in the deep end and take a chance. And if that doesn’t sum up the spirit of theatre, then I don’t know what does.

It’s a Playception was performed at The Hope Theatre on 8th and 9th September. For details of future performances, follow @ZestofaLemon and @evieelizabethd.

Review: The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Question: How do you turn a Victorian gothic novella into a gripping 21st century political thriller? Answer: get Arrows & Traps involved.

Taking Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story and its themes as a starting point, writer and director Ross McGregor has created something completely original, a dark, twisty horror story that becomes all the more terrifying for its proximity to real life. This is still recognisably Jekyll and Hyde, but it’s also a whole new story about school shootings, white privilege and political scandal that could have been lifted from today’s headlines.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @The Ocular Creative

Henry Jekyll (Will Pinchin) is a young, idealistic presidential candidate running in the 2020 U.S. election. With Trump impeached and awaiting trial, the nation is bitterly divided, and Jekyll wants to be the man to heal its wounds. When troubled freelance journalist Gabrielle Utterson (Lucy Ioannou) joins his campaign, she grows suspicious about his connection to violent criminal Edward Hyde (Christopher Tester). With the help of sex worker Imogen Poole (Gabrielle Nellis-Pain) and scientist Hayley Lanyon (Charlie Ryall), she sets out to uncover the shocking truth.

One of the most impressive aspects of this production is that despite re-telling a well-known story, it still holds plenty of surprises. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Jekyll and Hyde turn out to be the same person – that’s pretty much common knowledge, even if you haven’t read the book. But the way that twist is set up here is so clever that it feels like we’re discovering it for the first time, and there’s a delicious “Oh!” moment in Act 2 as all the pieces suddenly fit together.

As brilliant as the writing is, it’s easily matched by the standard of the performances, which are universally flawless. Will Pinchin gives a masterclass in physicality, convincingly capturing every nuance of each of Jekyll’s very different personas – public and private, good and evil. For a politician, what is said is so often less important than how it’s said, and as a popular, charismatic on-screen personality, Pinchin gets the delivery exactly right.

Equally outstanding is Lucy Ioannou, who plays Gabrielle Utterson with a stunning, haunted intensity from which it’s almost impossible to look away. We don’t need to be told that she’s battling her own demons; it’s all there in her eyes and posture from the moment the play begins. In contrast, Gabrielle Nellis-Pain radiates warmth and openness as Imogen Poole, who becomes Utterson’s confidante. Her early monologue, in which she recalls with undisguised emotion Hyde’s unprovoked attack on a young girl, is instantly captivating, and just as Utterson looks to her repeatedly for comfort, after a while so do we.

Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @The Ocular Creative

As this is an Arrows & Traps production, it should come as no surprise to anyone that it also looks amazing. The use of video screens is a particularly clever touch, a physical obstacle between the audience and the characters to show how technology can distort the truth. The lighting design from Anna Reddyhoff is superb, as are Bryony J. Thompson’s costumes, each of which perfectly captures the personality of the character wearing it.

It’s always a sign of a good play when you wake up the next morning still thinking about it, and this one gives us more than enough to dwell on for several days. So much about the world we live in today is built on choosing a side, and then being prepared to defend that side against all argument. Democrat or Republican, Leave or Remain, pro- or anti-guns… We’re growing more and more incapable of compromise or finding middle ground on any subject, and that division is driving good people into dark places. This – not Brexit, or Trump, or any of the other issues that we see in the headlines every day – is the real crisis, and to sum it up as eloquently as this play does is an outstanding achievement. It’s Jekyll and Hyde for a new generation: an endlessly thought-provoking, unsettling, enthralling production that’s not to be missed.

The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 28th September, then touring – see arrowsandtraps.com for details.

Review: Macbeth the Musical at White Bear Theatre

If you’ve ever watched a production of Macbeth and thought the protagonist seemed like a bit of a muppet, then Stage Splinters’ irreverent new adaptation of the famous tragedy is the show for you. Leaving Shakespeare’s verse well and truly at the door, this musical adaptation performed by puppets playfully pokes fun at both the play and its characters, with the murderous monarch taking the brunt of the humour.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

Following an unsettling encounter with three flirtatious witches called Agnes, Breanna and Madison, Macbeth heads home to his wife, who promptly bullies her spineless spouse into murdering the nice old king. Several fumbling attempts later, Duncan’s finally dispatched, and the Macbeths turn their attention to the loyal Banquo and an unexpectedly repellent Macduff – which would all be fine if their intended victims didn’t keep escaping. Elliot Moore and Eloise Jones make a hilarious double act as the enthusiastic but incompetent killers, with performances so expressive and engaging that it’s easy to find yourself watching them rather than the (albeit expertly handled) puppets.

The discarding of the majority of Shakespeare’s original text allows writers Chuma Emembolu and Ruth Nicolas to tell the well-known story from a fresh perspective. John, Rose and Conleth are servants in Macbeth’s household, who witness, discuss and occasionally participate in their bosses’ bloody goings on. At the same time, they put the Macbeths’ problems well and truly into perspective by sharing their own harrowing life stories: John has a bit of a drinking problem and only narrowly escapes having Duncan’s murder pinned on him as a result; Rose was sold into servitude by her father; and Conleth is a former soldier with a traumatic past.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

The result of all this is a curious mix: a laugh out loud comedy (the Duncan murder scene is particularly fun, as is Macbeth’s death) punctuated by some really dark moments, which are not only not at all funny but also have a tendency to happen very suddenly, and then be over with just as quickly, leaving the audience feeling slightly off balance. Both Bryony Reynolds (Rose) and Red Picasso (Conleth) give excellent performances in unexpectedly complex roles, and it’s frustrating that having worked hard to establish them as major characters, the show doesn’t then tell us how their stories end.

Having said that, Macbeth the Musical is still a very funny, very silly evening of tongue-in-cheek comedy, which you don’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to appreciate (though if you are one, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy the countless in-jokes levelled at the source text and its gaping plot holes). The cast are impeccable, the songs are witty and enjoyable, and the puppets are great. Who knew murder could be this much fun?

Macbeth the Musical is at the White Bear Theatre until 7th September.