Review: Poisoned Polluted at Old Red Lion Theatre

Kathryn O’Reilly’s second play Poisoned Polluted focuses on the fragmenting relationship between two women – in this case, sisters. The play follows the two, known only as Her (Anna Doolan) and Sister (Kathryn O’Reilly), as they’re forced to leave behind the innocence of childhood and face up to an uncertain future that’s scarred by addiction and trauma. As the years pass, their close bond and love for each other becomes twisted into something that will ultimately prove damaging to them both.

As children, the sisters hide out from their mum’s addiction and their dad’s abuse in the local “forest” – which, with the benefit of hindsight, they can now acknowledge was really just a few trees next to the park. That motif of nature as a tainted refuge is present also in Mayou Trikerioti’s set, which consists of printed, peeling sheets that make up a distorted backdrop image of woodland trees.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

The play itself is structured as a series of short, sharp scenes which, under Lucy Allan’s direction, often flow seamlessly into one another. These chart the sisters’ downward spiral and the shift in their relationship as Her, who as a child benefited from her older sister’s protection, finds herself suddenly forced to return the favour. Anna Doolan and Kathryn O’Reilly both give excellent performances, meticulously portraying all their characters’ fear, frustration and pent-up resentment, right alongside the love and affection that continues against all odds to hold these two damaged women together. The tragedy of the play is that the two characters need each other – and yet neither of them can truly be happy until they break free of their never-ending cycle of codependency.

While the use of language in the play is important, just as powerful are the moments of silence; movement sequences between scenes (directed by Sophie Shaw), performed without words, evoke the painful emotions that dialogue – even the most poetic – can’t quite capture. Similarly, though they never appear on stage and feature only briefly at the start of the story, the sisters’ parents both loom large as characters throughout, and there are moments when, if we follow the actors’ fearful gazes, we can picture them clearly and feel the anxiety their presence continues to evoke.

Photo credit: Robert Workman

As Sister tries again and again to get clean, the play begins to take on a feeling of repetition – but just as we begin to share Her’s frustration and despair, everything comes slamming to a halt with an emotional gut-punch of a final scene. This is a story in which we understand early on there can be no winners, whatever the final outcome, and that knowledge makes it an intense and often difficult watch. Powerfully written and performed, the play shines an uncomfortable light on the ways in which a relationship that should be healthy and innocent can be twisted by the actions of others into something deeply damaging, and how the repercussions of a difficult childhood can continue to be felt even years later.

Poisoned Polluted is at Old Red Lion Theatre until 30th November.

Review: Gaslight at Playground Theatre

I recently read an interview with actor and writer Rebecca Humphries, who last year found herself at the centre of a media storm when she very publicly – and deservedly – broke up with her boyfriend, the comedian Seann Walsh. In the interview, she explained that she knew something was wrong in her relationship, but it was only when she first heard the term “gaslighting” that she was quite able to put her finger on the problem.

Photo credit: William Waterworth

The same could be said of Bella Manningham (Jemima Murphy), the central character in Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. She’s become forgetful and irrational, losing her own possessions and apparently moving those of her husband, Jack (Jordan Wallace). She hears footsteps in the empty apartment above, and is convinced that she sees the gaslight dimming every evening while her husband is away. Encouraged by her husband, Bella begins to believe the worst: that, like her mother before her, she’s losing her mind. It’s not until unorthodox police inspector Rough (Joe McArdle) bursts very suddenly into her life one evening that her eyes are opened to the truth about both her husband and the psychological abuse to which he’s been subjecting her for years.

Though written in 1938 and set in 1880, the play could hardly be more relevant, with knowledge and recognition of gaslighting as a concept considerably more widespread in 2019. This production, directed by Imy Wyatt Corner, blurs the timing of the action by retaining the original dialogue but allowing the characters a more relaxed way of speaking. Meanwhile Kate Halstead’s set design combines Victorian furniture with a modern filing cabinet and pink carpet of a shade that was apparently proven in the 1960s to calm people down. Though occasionally distracting, this merging of timelines is clever and for the most part works well.

The strongest and most interesting performances come from Jemima Murphy and Joe McArdle – the former captures Bella’s nervous energy and confusion, while the latter brings a slightly dangerous edge to the character of Rough. The exchanges between the two provide plenty of audience laughs, but also, at times, add to our unease. For all his charming eccentricity, in some ways the police inspector feels just as patronising and bullying as Bella’s husband, to the extent that I never really picked up on the promised “fresh and feminist perspective” – and more than once half expected another, even bigger, twist at the end of the play.

Photo credit: William Waterworth

That particular twist didn’t materialise, but nonetheless the story holds plenty of surprises as the truth is gradually pieced together. The building suspense is accentuated by Gregory Jordan’s all-important lighting design, which sees lights fading and flickering at moments of particular tension, and a barely perceptible rumble throughout, courtesy of sound designer Herbert Homer-Warbeck.

80 years after it was first performed, Gaslight remains a powerful and thought-provoking play, with a plot that’s intriguing and full of surprises, underpinned by a creeping tension throughout. While this reimagining doesn’t necessarily deliver on all its promises, the production does successfully highlight the continuing relevance of both the story and its core issue.

Gaslight is at the Playground Theatre until 10th November.

Review: Fast at Park Theatre

Based on a true story, Kate Barton’s play Fast invites its audience into the disturbing world of “Dr” Linda Hazzard (Caroline Lawrie), whose controversial fasting diet method claimed the lives of multiple patients in the early 20th century. In particular the play focuses on the case of Claire and Dora Williamson (Jordon Stevens and Natasha Cowley), two wealthy English sisters who sought Hazzard’s help, with tragic consequences.

The premise of the play is already chilling enough, but director Kate Valentine’s production ramps up the creepiness to the point where you wonder how Hazzard could possibly have got away with it for so long. The design work by Emily Bestow (set and costumes), David Chilton (sound) and Ben Bull (lighting) is pure black and white horror movie: the sanitarium is dark and echoey, with flickering lights, ripped and stained curtains and sinister dripping noises. From the start, its owner has every appearance of being a fanatic, who makes up her patients’ room by pulling the beds out of the wall just like drawers in a morgue. Watching the Williamson sisters check in strongly resembles the moment in a movie when the unwitting victims enter the haunted house of their own free will, despite everyone in the audience willing them to run the other way. Throw in a power cut, a thunderstorm and something very bad waiting to be discovered in a bathtub, and you’ve got the makings of a very creepy play indeed.

All this leaves us in no doubt that Linda Hazzard was a monster, who preyed on the anxiety and gullibility of her patients, starved them for weeks on end, and then stole their possessions after they died. What the play doesn’t do so well is to explain why she did any of this. Caroline Lawrie is excellent in her portrayal of the “doctor”, and it’s clear from the earnest way she addresses the audience that she genuinely believes in her own methods (so much so that in the end, she herself died as a result of them). But the horror movie aspect is such a dominant presence throughout that this clearly complicated character lacks depth, and even when Hazzard raises reasonable points – such as the media’s insistence on calling her a “woman doctor” – it’s difficult to see her as anything other than a self-serving villain.

Her victims, on the other hand, are far easier to relate to, their vague health concerns and desperate need to believe in anything that will make them feel better all too recognisable over a century later. Natasha Cowley and Jordon Stevens make a strong and convincing partnership as the chalk and cheese sisters, the former no-nonsense and cynical, the latter romantic and dreamy. Once inside the sanitarium, their one hope of salvation is Daniel Norford’s charming and resourceful Horace Cayton Jnr., a journalist who follows his instincts and ultimately plays a key role in bringing Hazzard to justice.

Taken at face value as a thriller, Fast works well enough, and the production is particularly strong from a design perspective (although – small gripe – some of the sight lines could be improved; sitting three rows back, it’s hard to see what’s happening at ground level, much of which is pretty important). At times, though, it feels like the play is too caught up in the undeniably gory details of “Dr” Hazzard’s career, and consequently it fails to open up any meaningful discussion about how or why such a horrific chain of events could have taken place. Similarly, there are parallels to be drawn with the fad diets and wellness trends of the 21st century, but these aren’t really explored in any depth. Based on a repellent but fascinating historical figure, the play doesn’t quite live up to its potential – but as Halloween approaches, horror movie fans will certainly find plenty to enjoy in this chilling new play.

Fast is at Park Theatre until 9th November.

Review: The House of Yes at The Hope Theatre

Bringing to a close Matthew Parker’s critically acclaimed tenure at The Hope, The House of Yes is a jet-black comedy drama that very much sees the theatre’s outgoing artistic director leave with a bang. Deeply twisted in a variety of ways, Wendy MacLeod’s story of the dysfunctional Pascal family is both horrifying and hilarious, and in this production it’s performed exquisitely by the cast of five.

It’s Thanksgiving, and Marty (Fergus Leathem) is bringing his fiancée Lesly (Kaya Bucholc) home to meet the family. The problem? His family… By their own admission, the Pascals have never had a guest before, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever have one again once the dust settles on this particularly eventful 24 hours. Marty’s twin sister Jackie-O (Colette Eaton) has two obsessions: her namesake, the former First Lady; and – unfortunately for him – Marty. Younger brother Anthony (Bart Lambert) is a college dropout whose eye falls rather too enthusiastically on his brother’s future wife. And through it all, their mother (Gill King), a self-professed “free spirit”, wafts around the house, seemingly taking little interest in her children’s lives… but in reality paying just a bit too much attention to what they’re getting up to.

What’s particularly enjoyable about this production is the care each actor puts into their performance. It’s impossible to choose a standout performance when each of them is so captivating. Every detail – the way a line is delivered, the movements and gestures, the facial expressions and eye rolls – feels perfectly timed and judged. The characters are, to put it kindly, not normal people – and yet somehow they come across as three-dimensional and 100% believable, particularly in the setting of their gloomy, claustrophobic house, with the power out and a hurricane raging outside. Rachael Ryan’s set design perfectly captures the essence of a home whose former splendour has now well and truly faded, even if that message hasn’t quite reached the Pascals themselves. It’s all a bit Addams Family meets Hotel California; both house and residents seem to have a way of ensnaring those who step inside, and the thought of anyone ever leaving becomes increasingly remote as the evening goes on.

Photo credit: lhphotoshots

As hard as it may be to believe, this dark and twisted tale is also very funny, despite that constant creeping sense that all will not end well. Much of our laughter is the result of surprise; these are characters who just say whatever’s on their mind, whether or not it’s considered appropriate – and as dysfunctional as they undeniably all are, there’s something quite refreshing and enjoyable about that openness.

The House of Yes may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who are willing to let themselves be drawn into the Pascals’ crazy little world, there’s so much to enjoy about this expertly put together production. It’s a fitting and suitably offbeat farewell from Matthew Parker, a play that will make you laugh, recoil, and possibly have a nightmare or two. But don’t panic – they do let you out at the end. Honest.

The House of Yes is at The Hope Theatre until 26th October.

Review: Classified at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Consisting of three short interlinking plays set in 2019 and a dystopian near future, Jayne Woodhouse’s Classified offers a chilling but not wholly unrecognisable glimpse of a Britain where social class has become our single defining characteristic.

In Choices Leanne (Kayley Rainton), a new mother, is interviewed by an official from the “Department of Life Choice Options” (David House), who knows everything about her living situation and employment history, and uses that knowledge to question her ability to raise her child. 60 years later, in Classified, a couple (Neil Gardner and Rosannah Lenaghan) argue over her decision to stop and help a “class Z” homeless man: a moment of compassion that could have an impact on their own class ranking – or worse. And finally in The Watchers, Sarah (Rainton) looks back on her mother’s decade of non-violent resistance to the system, and explains why she’s now chosen to respond in a different way.

Photo credit: John Bruce

The trio of plays is simply staged by director Calum Robshaw, but with universally strong writing and performances, the show nonetheless succeeds in making its point very effectively. Though each story is only 20 minutes long, the audience quickly becomes invested in the characters and what happens to them – perhaps because the world they live in and the attitudes within it, though extreme, are not entirely unfeasible. I’m sure, for instance, that while DOLCO isn’t (yet) a thing, the kind of interrogation to which eighteen-year-old Leanne is subjected three days after giving birth almost certainly does take place. Similarly, unwillingness to help those less fortunate because of the risk it might reflect badly on ourselves is taken to exaggerated lengths in the second play – but that attitude already exists in our current social and political climate. It’s easy to see how these stories could become reality, and by more than once bringing the audience into the action, the play shows us too how we could be complicit in making it happen.

Photo credit: John Bruce

The final play is perhaps the most challenging, because it asks us to consider how we should respond to a corrupt and heartless system of government that weaponises social status against its own people. There’s never any doubt that something needs to be done – but is meeting violence with violence really the answer, even when all other arguments seem to have failed?

Throughout the show, the characters are forced to make choices – sometimes with the audience’s help, other times alone. In some cases, there’s a clear right and wrong; in others, it’s not so black and white. The impact of each choice is then felt throughout the rest of the play, demonstrating how the decisions we make every day can resonate and affect not just our own lives but those of people around us. Cleverly written and deeply unsettling, this trio of stories sends its audience home reflecting on both the possible future we’ve just seen, and on our own actions and attitudes in the here and now. Highly recommended for a thought-provoking evening.

The final performance of Classified is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre tonight (12th October).