Review: Foul Pages at The Hope Theatre

To quote the timeless classic Shakespeare in Love (not sarcasm, I love that movie): “Love, and a bit with a dog – that’s what they want.” Robin Hooper clearly subscribes to the same belief; his play Foul Pages has both – and Shakespeare too, though in this case it’s not him who’s in love but pretty much everyone else. Will, meanwhile, is more interested in refining his latest work, As You Like It, whilst fending off interference from the Countess of Pembroke, a fellow writer full of helpful suggestions, and from King James I, who’s become infatuated with one of the actors and insists that he be given the lead role. The purpose of the production is to charm the monarch into pardoning Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s days from execution for treason – but pleasing the king comes at a cost for more than one member of the company.

Oh, and there’s also a talking dog.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Ian Hallard appears as Shakespeare, but such are the scandalous goings on that for once the legendary playwright isn’t the centre of attention. As his all-male company is torn apart by jealousy, ambition and more than a little sexual tension, all Will can do is watch in bemusement and do his best to hold everything together, along with straight-talking maid Peg (Olivia Onyehara) and the king’s devoted Scottish bodyguard Mears (Jack Harding).

Meanwhile it’s the more flamboyant characters – Lewis Chandler’s shunned actor Alex, Clare Bloomer’s eccentric Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and Tom Vanson’s lovelorn King James – who take centre stage, each driven by their own desires to take potentially catastrophic actions. There’s poignant work from Thomas Bird and Greg Baxter as actors Rob and Ed (also Shakespeare’s brother), whose fledgling relationship is threatened by the king’s interference. And then there’s Chop the dog, played to scene-stealing perfection by James King, who’s not only got all the animal behaviours down but also gets the most laughs, with wry observations on the bizarre human behaviour going on around him.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Though the action is set in 1603, director Matthew Parker gives the production a modern twist; the costumes are an intriguing mix of 17th and 21st century, and rapid scene changes are punctuated by loud music and flashing lights, creating a sense of urgency as the stakes become ever higher and events take an unexpectedly tragic turn. Rachael Ryan’s economical set allows us a glimpse of goings on both upstairs and downstairs at Wilton, while still somehow allowing enough room on the tiny Hope stage for nine people to come out and treat us to an energetic jig at the end of the show.

There’s a political detour in the plot that doesn’t quite fit – it arrives out of nowhere and is just as quickly dealt with and forgotten – but that aside, Foul Pages is a compelling and irresistibly entertaining tale of love, lust and theatrical ambition that may just make you see As You Like It, and Shakespeare himself, in a whole new light.

Foul Pages is at The Hope Theatre until 17th March.

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Review: The Tempest at Brockley Jack Theatre

Controlled Chaos Theatre Company aims to promote diversity in the theatre, “including giving women a chance to take centre stage in the male dominated classics”. And they don’t come much more male dominated than The Tempest, a play in which the sole female character does exactly what she’s told by her father, then falls instantly in love with the third man she’s ever seen. Controlled Chaos aren’t the first company to turn that gender imbalance on its head with an all-female production; the Donmar did it last year, setting the action in a women’s prison, and a gender-reversed production at the Brockley Jack in 2005 saw all the male roles not only played by women but actually converted to female characters.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

This production keeps things much simpler: the characters are still male, and there’s no framing device; the only difference is all the parts are played by women. As in any gender-blind production, it’s a welcome sight to see female actors getting a chance to take on the meatier roles that Shakespeare never thought to grant them. That said, without any context it’s not always exactly clear what purpose the all-female concept is serving, and somewhat tentative performances from some of the cast dilute the powerful statement that could have been made by placing women in these positions of authority.

However, there’s still plenty to smile about in this version of Shakespeare’s tale of revenge, romance and magic on a deserted island. After a fierce storm shipwrecks the King of Naples and his entourage, they discover the island where they’ve landed is home not only to mischievous spirits, but also to the ousted and vengeful Duke of Milan, Prospero, his daughter Miranda and his slave Caliban. As Caliban conspires with drunken newcomers Trinculo and Stephano to kill his master, Miranda meets and falls for the king’s son Ferdinand, who’s become separated from his father and the rest of their party. And while all this is going on, elsewhere on the island Prospero’s brother Antonio plots to murder the king and put his dim-witted brother Sebastian on the throne.

Photo credit: Kevin Kamara

Dylan Lincoln’s production includes live music played and sung by the cast, to produce an atmosphere of magic and mystery, and also engages particularly well with the humour in the story. Carmella Brown’s Ariel is a delight throughout, skipping around the stage doing Prospero’s bidding with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Michelle Pittoni also stands out as Miranda, her comical wide-eyed wonder at meeting a handsome young man replaced later by horrified embarrassment as her father lectures Ferdinand about his intentions. Shereener Browne and Afsana Sayyed are good fun as Antonio and Sebastian, whispering childishly together behind the king’s back before making a hilariously clumsy attempt on his life, and Ceri Ashe and Kimberley Capero make quite the raucous double act as Stephano and Trinculo.

At just over two hours, this is an accessible and entertaining adaptation of The Tempest, a perfect introduction for those unfamiliar with the story. As to whether the show delivers on its promise of a “bold re-imagining”, I’m not sure – but there’s plenty to enjoy either way, and any production that promotes diversity on the stage deserves to be celebrated.

The Tempest is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 3rd March.


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Review: Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre

I intended to start writing my review of The Bridge Theatre’s thrilling, immersive production of Julius Caesar on the train home last night. Instead, I ended up texting pretty much everyone I know to tell them they should go and see it immediately. Having slept on that opinion, I stand by it 100%.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

Nicholas Hytner’s production brings ancient Rome screaming into the 21st century with a politically relevant and heart-poundingly gripping take on Shakespeare’s play. While the adaptation steers clear of overt references to any specific regime, there are shades of a certain red baseball cap wearing president in David Calder’s portrayal of Caesar (with one particular gesture that simultaneously clarifies who he’s modelled on and seals our dislike towards him, just moments before his assassination). Perhaps in light of this it’s not surprising that two of the main conspirators against him are strong female figures – Michelle Fairley as Cassius and Adjoa Andoh as Casca – who convince Ben Whishaw’s nervous, endearingly geeky Brutus to join them, only for him to take over the entire plan, overrule all their ideas and mess everything up.

Julius Caesar is a story that works particularly well in an immersive format, because so much of the play focuses on the power of political rhetoric to sway the masses. Standing in the midst of the crowd, clutching a Caesar poster someone had just thrust into my hand while Brutus flyers rained down all around, it was easy to get caught up in the tidal wave of popular opinion as first Brutus and then Mark Antony – played with conviction and down to earth charisma by David Morrissey – took to the stage at Caesar’s funeral.

That said, it only works if the immersive aspects of the show are convincing, and on that front this production delivers to such an extent I actually felt a bit traumatised by the end. From the celebratory gig that’s already underway as we arrive, to the screams of discreetly positioned cast members at Caesar’s assassination, to the debris that falls from above as the theatre’s rocked by explosions and gunfire – the attention to detail is mind-blowing. True, it’s not the most comfortable two hours you’ll ever spend; prepare to be herded fairly roughly from one position to another, to be stepped on by fellow audience members, and possibly even to have an actor scream “Move!” in your face. But I’d still recommend getting a standing ticket if you can physically manage it (the play is two hours with no interval) if an authentic experience is what you’re after.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

On the other hand, if you want a good view of Bunny Christie’s incredible set (and prefer to keep your toes untrampled), a seated ticket is probably the way to go; inevitably anyone watching from the ground won’t be able to see everything, whereas from above you’ll be better able to appreciate the versatility of both the space and the set. Consisting of multiple platforms that rise and fall to create a new stage area for each new scene, it’s like spending the evening in several different theatres all at once.

In a city that was already full of theatres, The Bridge – which only opened in October – has already more than proved its worth. This gripping production will thrill those who already know and love Shakespeare, but more importantly, it may just change the minds of those who don’t.

Julius Caesar is at The Bridge Theatre until 15th April.

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Review: Tomorrow Creeps at the Vaults

As venues go, The Vaults isn’t going to win any awards for audience comfort. It’s dark, chilly and damp; trains rumble alarmingly overhead and every sound echoes off the tunnel walls. All of which makes it an ideal place to experience Golem!’s Tomorrow Creeps, a spooky, dramatic and powerfully atmospheric collision of Shakespeare, Kate Bush, David Lynch, Hannibal Lecter… The hour-long play draws on so many cultural influences it’s hard to keep up.

Following on from previous productions Macbeths and I Know You Of Old, in Tomorrow Creeps writer and actor David Fairs creates an original story by combining lines from sixteen works of Shakespeare with inspiration provided by the music of Kate Bush. In his dank prison cell, the Fallen Tyrant is visited by the Hollow Hero who, against his better judgment, is seeking the villain’s help to find his daughter. But he’s not the only visitor; the spirit of the Fallen Tyrant’s dead wife is there too, and she’s not about to let him go without a fight.

That’s a simple summary of a story that at times is all a bit bewildering – theatregoers who favour straightforward, easy to follow storylines may struggle to get on board. In reality, though, the plot of the play is only one element of a complex production that weaves together text, light, sound and space to produce something that’s hard to put into words (always a fun challenge for a reviewer). Ultimately, I’d suggest not trying to make sense of everything that’s happening and instead just going with it, because there’s a lot here that’s great. It can often sound negative to leave a play and remark, “That was an experience.” But in this case, it genuinely is.

The play was devised specifically for The Vaults, and the space allows for an element of realism; there’s never a moment when we don’t feel we’re right there in the prison with the characters. But this is above all a tale of fantasy, of supernatural forces and witchcraft, and director Anna Marsland brings this to life with an outstanding lighting design that picks out details, casts dramatic shadows and at times makes the whole space come alive with dizzying movement. The spooky atmosphere is heightened by Odinn Hilmarsson’s sound design, which subtly draws out the existing soundscape of the venue to spine-chilling effect.

Equally chilling are the performances of the three actors, as each character teeters on the brink of their own unique madness. Conor O’Kane is the picture of despair and self-loathing as the Hollow Hero, a broken man who’s lost everything and has now been reduced to asking for help from his enemy. David Fairs’ Fallen Tyrant is more controlled and charismatic in his exchanges with the Hollow Hero (I half expected him to start talking about fava beans and a nice Chianti) – but he too is tormented by forces beyond his control. Enter Zena Carswell as the Spectral Queen: passionate, wild and mud-spattered, she’s the living embodiment of Cathy from Wuthering Heights.

Though it continues the Golem! tradition of repurposing Shakespeare texts, Tomorrow Creeps is without doubt their most ambitious project by some margin. It won’t be for everyone, but it also doesn’t exclude anyone – for those who know and love Shakespeare, there’s the enjoyable challenge of identifying the source texts; for fans of Kate Bush there are some electrifying moments that I won’t ruin for you. Having said that, there’s nothing in the play that demands inside knowledge – and someone with no particular interest in either Shakespeare or Kate Bush is at no disadvantage compared to any other audience member.

As I said, it’s difficult to put into words. So all I can suggest is that you go and see, hear, feel and experience it for yourself.

Tomorrow Creeps is at The Vaults until 28th January.

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Interview: David Fairs and Anna Marsland, Tomorrow Creeps

GOLEM! is a Shakespeare theatre company with a difference. Last year their second production I Know You Of Old took the text of Much Ado About Nothing and rearranged it into a new story; the year before that, they brought us Macbeths, a unique take on Shakespeare’s famous tragedy from the sole perspective of the two central characters.

Now GOLEM! return with a new and even more ambitious project, Tomorrow Creeps. The play combines raw material from 16 Shakespeare plays and sonnets, and also takes inspiration from the music of Kate Bush, among a multitude of other influences.

“This is completely invented, new narrative, so it’s not going to reflect in any way a particular Shakespeare play like the previous two have,” explains director Anna Marsland. “It’s an exciting piece of work in terms of what adaptation can be; I think we’re doing something quite bold formally. Also if you want something that is hopefully a little bit chilling, a little bit exciting and immerses you in something that’s a bit dark and scary, this will be your cup of tea.”

The play, which features three characters – the Fallen Tyrant, the Spectral Queen and the Hollow Hero – will be performed in the Cavern space at this year’s VAULT Festival from 24th to 28th January. “This is a new venture for us, being part of the VAULT festival,” says Anna. “It’s such a great environment because it feels like a mini Edinburgh underground, and we’re excited about making something that’s part of that artistic community. And also it’s a space for us to try something bolder and more experimental, and take this idea of re-orchestration even further.”

“And that was very exciting in terms of creating the script, knowing that that was the environment we’re working in,” adds writer David Fairs, who also plays the Fallen Tyrant. “There was that brilliant liberation knowing that the whole thing would be taking place in this really huge, cavernous long structure. It gave so much free rein in terms of how we were playing the physical journey of the character, and also it allows the audience to have a very experiential time while they’re following this narrative.”

The production features a soundscape designed by Odinn Hilmarsson, which draws on the aesthetic of the Vaults: “We’re going to use that creepy underground space to our advantage,” says Anna. “In fact David kind of formed the idea of the plot based on the idea that we could set this in an underground prison cell, so the Vaults were very much in mind.

“One thing about those Vaults spaces is that I think you have to embrace the sound quality in there – you’ve got the rumbling trains, a bit of water dripping from the roof, a slight echo. That’s part of the atmosphere and you can’t ignore it, so Odinn is creating something that’s pretty much durational for the whole piece, that adds to, enhances, and allows space for the sound of the Vaults itself, in order to create this world which is inhabited by supernatural forces and ultimately transformed in ways through sounds.”

David describes his writing process for this play as “similar but more expansive” than previously. “With I Know You Of Old, though it was based on the one play and the basic plot elements was taken from Much Ado, there was still that sense that what I wanted to do was create my own narrative within that, then work with the parts of the original play to do that. This one just took that and extended it to a new level – so I mapped out and knew what I wanted the plot, characters and journey to be. There was a lot of reading and delving back into the plays, re-familiarising myself with sections, then it was really just a very organic process, pulling things out of the texts and transferring that on to the page as a draft of the script.”

Though much of the writing is a solitary process, he points out that this time he wasn’t quite alone: “While I was writing I was listening to a huge amount of Kate Bush, who was both an influence and a really key part of the actual development of the script. I think she’s a brilliant lyrical and musical storyteller – so more than as a musician, I was looking at her as a writer, almost. Somebody like Shakespeare who creates brilliant expressions and stories, like Wuthering Heights, which is her creative response to this brilliant source novel. I was interested in how elements of that storytelling could form part of a narrative. The use of her as an idea, and her music and the way that she tells her stories, that very much weaves through this play along with the Shakespeare text.”

The production also draws on a wide range of other influences: “There’s the horror aspect, the supernatural elements including spirits and possession – so we’ve been looking at sources like American Horror Story, The Exorcist, Hammer Horror, Silence of the Lambs – which is a springboard for the relationship between the Hollow Hero and the Fallen Tyrant,” explains Anna. “And also beyond that, aliens have been an influence and as with other work that we’ve made, David Lynch, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive. So lots of filmic references that we’ve been drawing on.”

When asked to expand on their respect for David Lynch, both David and Anna are full of enthusiasm. “Some people watch David Lynch films and don’t understand what’s happening, so you either find that really intriguing and you go with how it makes you feel and respond, or some people find it distancing,” says Anna. “I feel like the thing that interests me about Lynch is the character; there’s a truth in that character but there’s also a heightened world, and just clever surreal details that he merges with realism, that feels very exciting to watch.”

And all the details, characters and dialogue form something that does make absolute sense for you, but you get almost what you’re willing to give it,” continues David. “You have to be there and ready to experience each of these things, because his narratives often are very present, and you have to piece together the wider everything from those immediate experiences that are coloured with so much detail and so much imagination. It’s not about intellectually gathering it and understanding in that way; you just sit with it, experience it and it builds, and you feel that narrative.”

Although it’s inspired by Shakespeare, the play is “so far stretched” from the original texts on which it draws that it can be enjoyed equally by those who know Shakespeare and those who don’t. “This is very much a new play, you can come in and watch this, and you have no idea about any Shakespeare narratives or characters and it really doesn’t matter,” explains David. “If you do have it, you’ll enjoy different aspects perhaps, but that’s certainly not our intention by any means. These are three new characters, a new story, a new environment and you really need no prior knowledge at all to enjoy it.”

Catch Tomorrow Creeps at the VAULT Festival from 24th-28th January.