Review: Netflix and Chill at Drayton Arms Theatre

I first encountered Tom Stocks’ Netflix and Chill in 2015, when I caught a ten-minute extract from what was then a very new work at an Actor Awareness scratch night. At the time, I described the scene – depicting a disastrous date – as light relief following some pretty heavy material from other writers. So it’s interesting to see that although that scene remains a pivotal moment in the full-length play, the story that frames it has taken a considerably darker turn in the intervening years.

Photo credit: Cam Harle Photography

Ben (Tom Stocks) is a working class chef, who’s struggling. His estranged mum (Julie Binysh) has just come back into the picture after leaving an abusive relationship; he keeps getting stood up by his Tinder dates; and Sophie (Emily Ellis), the girl he’s fancied for years, just went home with his infinitely more confident and charming mate Ryan (Joseph Lindoe). Inspired by Stocks’ own family experience, the play explores male mental health, and in particular the fear that talking about how you feel can somehow make you less of a man.

The play, directed by Luke Adamson, is very much one of two halves. Act 1 sets the scene, introducing all the characters – who also include Jill (Charlotte Price), a waitress at the local cafe – and firmly establishing Ben as the beta to Ryan’s alpha male; the nice guy who seems destined to always finish last. It’s in Act 2, however, that it starts to become clear what the story is actually all about – and no, despite the title, it’s not (just) sex. As Ben protests, against all evidence to the contrary, that he’s fine and doesn’t need therapy, the play builds towards a powerful and unexpected conclusion that really makes us stop and think, not just about what’s gone before on stage, but about men we may know who possibly aren’t quite as fine as they let on.

Knowing that the play began with the date scene and grew from there makes a lot of sense, because it’s around this point that the play really begins to hit its stride, drawing the audience into the story in a way Act 1 never quite manages (possibly a result of the Inbetweeners style war stories exchanged by the lads, which are funny but – let’s be honest – pretty gross). The use of the inner monologue, played as a voiceover to give us an insight into what each character is really thinking, works very well during the ill-fated date, making both Ben and Sophie relatable for an audience torn throughout between laughter and embarrassment. The same can’t quite be said for the opening scene, in which Ben has an awkward encounter with his mum; the interjections from inside his head feel at this point a bit too much like a device, to fill in the back story neither character is willing to speak about out loud, and at times risk drowning out the actual dialogue.

Photo credit: Cam Harle Photography

There are parts of Netflix and Chill that still feel a bit underdeveloped, but it’s encouraging to see how the play has grown since that first ten-minute snippet four years ago, and the important message that now comes through loud and clear about male mental health and the responsibility we all have to encourage frank and open conversation. A powerful and thought-provoking piece of writing, with much to recommend it.

Netflix and Chill is at Drayton Arms Theatre until 29th February.

Review: For the Sake of Argument at Bridewell Theatre

As 31st January looms and the Brexit debate continues to rage on, Harry Darell’s timely new play considers the ways in which language can be used for both better and worse, and asks what happens when those who wield their pen so passionately are forced to face the real-world consequences of their own arguments.

Photo credit: Charles Flint

The play is set in the mid 2000s, as journalist Eleanor Hickock (Ashleigh Cole) is approached by Maria (Paula Cassina), the grieving mother of a young soldier killed in Iraq. Having discovered that Eleanor’s writings in favour of the invasion strongly influenced her son’s decision to enlist, Maria reaches out to her for reconciliation – but not everyone in her family is so forgiving.

The idea behind the play (which was inspired by a real incident involving the late writer Christopher Hitchens) is an interesting one, and certainly relevant as a divided nation gears up to face the as yet largely unknown consequences of the Brexit vote. However, what could have been a powerful and thought-provoking drama gets bogged down in trying to tackle too many issues, with a daunting number of characters and – ironically, given the subject matter – just a bit too much talking.

This is particularly true in Act 1, where Eleanor’s friends spend a considerable amount of time enthusiastically debating the merits – or otherwise – of Winston Churchill, Ken Livingstone and Vladimir Putin. They’re clearly enjoying themselves, and it’s not uninteresting to listen to, but this entire section serves little purpose in terms of plot development, other than letting us know they all enjoy arguing for the sake of it, and setting up Eleanor to discuss her own favourite topic: Iraq. It’s only in Act 2 that there’s any real action, and even this comes only after another spirited debate about the pros and cons of the 2003 conflict. (It’s also heavily foreshadowed by a strange and rather clumsily inserted anecdote early in Act 1.)

All that said, it’s not a bad play; it just needs to focus in more on Eleanor’s journey and spend less time on side plots and themes. Ashleigh Cole gives a strong central performance as Eleanor, a woman who’s become so addicted to debate that she no longer sees the human beings behind the arguments. Even when she learns what happened to Mark, even while sitting in his family home looking at photos of his early years, she shows little sign of remorse or even empathy – and when challenged by his angry, grieving brother Billy, she instinctively goes on the attack instead of trying to engage with him on a personal or emotional level. As such, when her moment of “redemption” finally arrives, it rings decidedly hollow, and not only because it comes at such a terrible cost.

There are strong performances also from Lucia France, Arthur Velarde and Henry Eaton-Mercer as Eleanor’s pretentious friends and fellow debaters, and Paula Cassina as Mark’s bereaved mother Maria. Meanwhile the one voice that really matters – Mark’s – belongs to Georgie Farmer, who delivers three short monologues with charisma and clarity. Here lies the other side of the argument: far from coming across as a brainwashed young boy, taken in by some well-crafted articles written by a stranger, he’s clearly intelligent and capable of independent thought. Is it therefore reasonable for his family, or indeed the audience, to hold Eleanor responsible for his death?

Photo credit: Charles Flint

As one might expect from the title, For the Sake of Argument poses some great questions about the limits of free speech and responsible use of the media. These are issues that are perhaps even more relevant in the age of social media, where everyone can have a platform to share their views, with little chance of ever being held accountable. The play does struggle to take flight under the weight of too many plot threads, characters and themes, but with a bit of pruning there’s definite potential here to spark a lively post-show debate or two.

Review: Hamlet: Rotten States at The Hope Theatre

It’s Hamlet, but not quite as we know it. For one thing, Hamlet’s not actually in it. But Brian Blessed is. Sort of.

With Hamlet: Rotten States, 6FootStories return to the three-actor format of their acclaimed Macbeth: A Tale of Sound & Fury, which was first performed at the Hope a few years ago. In this case, the three actors (Will Bridges, Amy Fleming and Jake Hassam) are, in fact, actors – specifically, the players who visit court and are promptly recruited by Hamlet to recreate the murder of his father and in doing so catch the conscience of the king. But things are about to get more complicated for our players, who are visited by the ghost of Hamlet’s father and charged with avenging his death. And so Shakespeare’s play within a play becomes a play within a play within a play, as the three set out to answer the ghost’s challenge and reawaken Hamlet’s purpose in the only way they can think of.

Photo credit: Matthew Koltenborn

This naturally involves a bit of playing around with the original text, but the result is still a coherent, if incredibly brief, retelling of Hamlet’s story. The three performers are clearly enjoying themselves as they whisk us through the key events, dividing the principal roles and speeches between them, and filling in the inevitable gaps with puppetry and props. There are song and dance routines, overblown death scenes, and sword fighting without actual swords; Gertrude appears only as a floating head, and the murder of Gonzago is portrayed using toby jugs. Oh, and the dead king looks a lot like a fiercely grinning Brian Blessed.

Needless to say, there’s a distinctly mischievous tone to the production that die-hard fans of both Shakespeare and his tragic masterpiece may find hard to stomach. But it’s important to note that there’s no lack of respect here either; while the text may be somewhat rearranged to suit the show’s purpose, we still get the core plot in the right order, and speeches delivered with appropriate passion and reverence where required. The fact that the performers then immediately break character to congratulate themselves on the quality and content of said delivery is great comedy, but it also helps the audience appreciate afresh the dramatic power of Shakespeare’s language.

Photo credit: Matthew Koltenborn

Reducing four hours of action into one necessarily calls for high energy and a pretty brisk pace, and a pumping electronic soundtrack and flashing disco lights – all managed on stage by the actors themselves – complement this well. Unlike the original, in which every action is mulled over a thousand times, this is very much “blink and you’ll miss it” Hamlet, which keeps the audience focused throughout. The production walks the line well between familiarity and originality; those who know the play well can sit back and laugh at the numerous inside jokes, while for newcomers there’s enough here for them to follow the story, and perhaps spark an interest in seeing a more traditional retelling. Cheeky but respectful fun, this entertaining show guarantees a good time for all.

Hamlet: Rotten States is at The Hope Theatre until 1st February.

Review: The Invisible Man at Brockley Jack Studio

At first glance, the Brockley Jack’s choice for their final show of the year doesn’t seem particularly festive. But while it may not be a Christmas story – nor, in its original form, a particularly cheery one – The Invisible Man proves to be another winner for the theatre’s in-house creative team, and easily as entertaining as the best panto in town.

Photo credit: Davor@The Ocular Creative

Based on the H.G. Wells novel and adapted for the stage by Derek Webb, The Invisible Man finds us in the small English village of Iping, where a stranger wrapped in bandages (Shaun Chambers) has just taken a room at the pub. Bad-tempered and mysterious, he’s quickly viewed with suspicion by the locals, among them his landlady Mrs Hall (Matthew Parker) and the village doctor, Cuss (Scott Oswald). When his secret is revealed, the Invisible Man – a scientist unable to reverse his own discovery – embarks on a reign of terror against anyone who stands in his way.

In Webb’s adaptation, fifteen characters are played by three actors – with all the ensuing chaos that ratio implies. And yet it’s perfectly managed chaos in the hands of director Kate Bannister, costume designer Martin Robinson, and of course the multi-talented cast, each of whom juggles their various roles with great enthusiasm, and without missing a beat. Wisely, both script and production openly acknowledge the multi-roling aspect, and play it for maximum laughs, delighting the audience with tongue-in-cheek observations like the fact that the three policemen (all played by Chambers) all look alike, or that Dr Cuss must always carry a medical bag to avoid confusion.

As you might expect from a show in which the main character is invisible, the production also pulls off some impressive magic tricks. Karl Swinyard’s set is deceptive in its simplicity; there are several hidden secrets waiting to be discovered as the story unfolds. Wine glasses hang in mid-air, signposts turn all by themselves, and the actors – Scott Oswald, in particular – hold entire conversations, including physical interactions, with thin air. (And they do it so successfully that it’s almost possible to believe there really is an invisible man up on stage with them.)

Photo credit: Davor@The Ocular Creative

For all the comedy, however, the show does follow Wells’ original plot pretty closely, so inevitably there are some serious moments. The Invisible Man is the target of suspicion in Iping because he’s different and doesn’t fit any of the traditional village stereotypes, and it’s ultimately this isolation that pushes him on to a dark path. There’s a political element too; he speaks more than once about the dangers of capitalism, claiming he wants to steal from the bankers and redistribute their wealth – a particularly topical reference given recent events.

We’ve come to expect great things from the Brockley Jack team, and once again this production does not disappoint. Already a compelling story, this adaptation keeps us entertained and enthralled with its slapstick humour and just the right amount of playful audience engagement, but never detracts from the story’s more solemn themes. A thoroughly enjoyable alternative to the more traditional Christmas fare – get your hands on a ticket if you can.

The Invisible Man is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 4th January.

Review: Snow White at Chickenshed

The run-up to Christmas means different things to different people. For the team at Chickenshed, it means it’s time once again for the challenge of putting 800 people on stage in the company’s final production of the year. Not all at once – there are four casts rotating throughout the six-week run – but still, it’s no mean feat to direct 200 people at a time, particularly when the majority of them are children.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

This year, the inclusive theatre company bring us an alternative Snow White. Written and directed by Lou Stein, it’s set in 1960s London, with a feminist plot twist and a heartwarming message about inner beauty, the redemptive power of forgiveness and the importance of staying true to yourself no matter what. Oh, and there’s a couple of really, really catchy tunes that will stay in your head all the way home, whether you like it or not. In other words, it’s the very definition of a Chickenshed Christmas show.

The show isn’t technically a panto – though I was tempted to boo more than once at Sarah Connolly’s gleefully convincing wicked stepmother Jane De Villiers – but it has roughly the same format: lots of musical numbers, a fairly lightweight plot, fabulous costumes, random superfluous characters, a swift and somewhat implausible happy ending, and a little bit of audience participation. There’s even a man in a dress, courtesy of Ashley Driver, who totally steals the show as Jane’s delightfully sassy Mirror. If Kinky Boots ever makes a comeback (please, theatre gods) – I know who I’ll be backing to play Lola.

A bit of romance is also, of course, on the agenda (this is a fairy tale, after all), and Cara McInanny and Nathaniel Leigertwood make an engaging pair as Snow White and security guy/single dad Jason. McInanny has a beautiful voice, and really shines in the musical numbers as her character tries to understand who she is and where she belongs. But there are lighter moments too; the scene in which Jason “kills” Snow White on her stepmother’s orders, for instance, is both a bit surreal and very funny.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Perhaps inevitably, given the sheer number of people involved, there are a few issues with acoustics and it’s sometimes difficult to make out all the lyrics to Dave Carey’s 60s-inspired songs (unless you happen to know BSL, as the whole show is also signed). What the musical numbers sometimes lack in vocal clarity, however, they more than make up for in terms of choreography and sheer enthusiasm. As previously mentioned, at times there are 200 people on stage, and to see them all dancing, singing and having fun together is not only an impressive directorial achievement; it also sums up exactly what Chickenshed is all about. As always, their Christmas show is a festive treat that’s guaranteed to warm your heart and send you home feeling a little bit better about the world. Who can say no to that?

Snow White is at Chickenshed until 11th January.