Review: This Is Not Culturally Significant at The Bunker

Rightly or wrongly, there’s one thing most people will know going into Adam Scott-Rowley’s one-man show, This Is Not Culturally Significant – so let’s get it out the way first. Yes, he’s naked. No, it’s not weird. Uncomfortably explicit on occasion, yes; the first couple of minutes are unforgiving and throw us entirely in the deep end. It definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But surprisingly quickly the nudity not only stops being an issue; it starts to feel like a necessary part of the performance.

Photo credit: Bessell McNamee

To make sense of that, let’s go back a bit. This Is Not Culturally Significant, we learn in the programme, began life as a series of caricatures that grew and developed, and ultimately began to link together. There’s an American porn star and her lonely father, an abusive husband and his timid wife, a homeless Scottish woman, a bitter theatre producer who’s being ousted in favour of Andrew Lloyd Webber… and several others, all of whom challenge us and each other simply by being themselves in a world that doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

And every one of those characters is played by Adam Scott-Rowley in an astonishing virtuoso performance that sees him transforming from one persona to the next, sometimes abruptly, sometimes slowly. These changes become more frequent as the show goes on and his characters increasingly jostle for centre stage. Posture, personality, voice and accent are always absolutely distinct; it’s clear he knows each of the characters intimately, and his embodiment of them is so skilful that by the end of the 50 minutes we feel we’re starting to know them too.

And so back to the nudity, which was initially introduced as a way to add vulnerability to the characters, but ends up serving a far more practical purpose: with no need for costume changes, the shifts are not only easier and quicker but a lot more effective; it would have been difficult to believe in a bag lady dressed in the same clothes as a posh racist or a spiritualist lecturer, and pausing to change would interrupt the flow. Seeing someone so entirely exposed – in every sense – also gives the show an extra intensity, and ironically it ends up being the one naked guy in the room who’s most at ease.

Photo credit: Bessell McNamee

It’s not only the nakedness that keeps us on edge; this is a show you experience rather than enjoy, and the abruptness of the character changes, flashing lights, loud noises, and one exquisitely awkward moment where it’s not clear if audience participation is required (I still don’t know, if I’m honest), all contribute to ensure we never get too comfortable. Yet there are moments of dark humour too, with much of the laughter fuelled as much by surprise or recognition as by amusement.

I can honestly say This Is Not Culturally Significant is unlike any show I’ve seen before – but I can just as honestly say that’s not only because it’s performed nude. If everyone goes in knowing that one thing, let’s hope they come out talking about Adam Scott-Rowley’s extraordinary performance, and acknowledging that the nudity enhances something that’s already pretty special – with or without clothes.

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Interview: Stephen Unwin and Colin Tierney, All Our Children

“People keep saying to me is it weird? But in a funny kind of way it isn’t – it’s rather wonderful,” says Stephen Unwin, writer and director of All Our Children, which opens at Jermyn Street Theatre this week. “It’s the first time that I’ve both written and directed a play, so that’s a whole new interesting experience for me.”

Set in Nazi Germany, All Our Children examines the barbaric programme that saw thousands of disabled children murdered by the state, and its effect on five individuals, each of whom is involved in a different way. It’s a very personal project for Stephen, whose 20-year-old son is profoundly disabled, and who was recently appointed chair of children’s charity KIDS.

“There are three aspects to it,” he explains. “My mum is German Jewish; she left Germany as a child in 1936. And then I was brought up in Catholicism, and now I’m the parent of a disabled child, so it’s a kind of perfect storm; it all came together. The idea came from when I was reading a brilliant social history of the Third Reich, and it suddenly started talking about the Nazi programme of murdering disabled people, but then the opposition of this highly conservative Catholic priest called Von Galen – played in All Our Children by David Yelland – who extraordinarily wrote these letters and delivered three very famous sermons. As a result of his power, passion and commitment, the programme was discontinued, and it’s pretty much the only record of someone standing up to Hitler from within Germany and actually changing policy.”

The story takes place in a hospital for severely disabled children, run by chief paediatrician, Dr Victor Franz. Colin Tierney, who plays the doctor, explains, “The Nazis have taken power and they’ve created this situation where children are being sent off to their deaths because they don’t conform to the new German ideal of what life should be. And the play is about my character’s struggle on one day to deal with what he’s doing, why he’s doing it and how he’s going to get out of it.

“Victor Franz was a children’s doctor, somebody who spent his life looking after people, who created this institution where disabled children could be looked after, and all of a sudden in this different new Germany, he feels as if he’s been taken over by this new force. This is what I’m trying to work out along the way – his struggle about what he’s doing and how he makes the decision not to do it. So he’s essentially a good man who’s been forced to do these terrible things, and that’s the complex dilemma I’m wrestling with.”

In getting to know his character and the crisis he’s facing, Colin’s worked closely with Stephen. “It’s quite a short rehearsal time, so I’ve been reading the play a lot and discussing it with Stephen, who of course is both writer and director, and is really inside the world of the play. He’s given me so much information, so much detail around the backstory of the world – and because Stephen has a disabled child of his own, I’ve been looking to him for lots of clues. I’ve done a bit of reading around the subject but the bulk of my work has been in the room with the script, with the actors, breaking down the moments, finding the detail and finding how deeply they resonate within me on a human level.

I’m just enjoying it a lot – even though it’s a serious subject matter, there’s a great sense of wanting to do justice to the work, so there’s a good attitude. People are working hard and committing in a really positive, honest way.”

Despite the heavy topic, both Stephen and Colin are keen to reassure audiences that the play is not as brutal as it sounds. “It’s not a heavy dirge of an evening,” says Colin. “It’s not light either, but it’s philosophical and incredibly well written.”

“You don’t see any children, you don’t see any violence, but you know it’s there,” adds Stephen. “It’s a drama of human beings in a ghastly world trying to work out how to be human beings again. It’s not brutal as a play, and I think maybe some people are worried that it’ll be really horrible, about kids with Down’s Syndrome being shot – but you don’t see any of that, that’s not what I’m interested in presenting. I’m much more interested in presenting why might somebody think that kids with Down’s Syndrome are a bad thing.

“One of the Nazis’ main reasons for their persecution of these people was that they said they’re so expensive, that keeping somebody with cerebral palsy cost a fortune and that money could be spent on better things. And of course although I don’t say that the lives of the disabled is the same as in Nazi Germany – that would be a grotesque thing to say – there are issues today about how do you value a human being in terms of their monetary worth. What do you do about people who will never pay tax, will never have a job, who are non-productive? And it’s a very big radical question, it challenges our priorities. And that’s what I’m really interested in.

“One of my characters, played by Lucy Speed, is the mother of a disabled child. As chair of KIDS, I’ve come into contact with lots of parents of profoundly disabled kids, and there’s a mixture of love for their children and intense love for their vulnerability, combined with absolute towering rage for a society that doesn’t value them properly. It’s really palpable – they’re very radical people.

“We also have Edward Franklin as Eric, a young, committed Nazi – but you discover that his antipathy to disability actually comes from his father having been disabled in World War 1, and he hates it because he’s so angry about that. So one of the things I’m interested in is the way that discrimination towards disabled people is actually towards people’s anxieties about their own weaknesses – and also fear. Our final character is the doctor’s maid Martha, played by Rebecca Johnson, who has an important line about this towards the end: that she used to be afraid of them, used to think they could infect her, but she’s not afraid of them any more. And that’s a great big important development that society needs to take on – how not to be afraid of people with profound disability.”

Colin agrees that even though we’ve moved on from the horrific events depicted in All Our Children, the play still carries important messages for a 21st century audience. “Hopefully it will make people think about our responsibility to others, and our responsibility as a society – how important love is and looking after people, especially those who have trouble looking after themselves. I think that’s the measure of a society, whether people who can help others should, instead of everybody thinking for themselves and doing their own thing and saying ‘screw you’. That’s where the heart of the play is. It’s not like we live in Nazi Germany now at all of course, but I think there’s a strong human resonance that people can tap into when they see this play.”

Book now for All Our Children, at Jermyn Street Theatre from 26th April to 3rd June.

Review: Kicked in the Sh*tter at the Hope Theatre

The title of Leon Fleming’s new play could hardly be more appropriate, because watching it actually does feel like being kicked, if not in the sh*tter then somewhere equally painful. Fearless and brutal, the play forces us to confront two of our society’s most common and damaging assumptions – that anyone on benefits must be a work-shy scrounger, and that anyone who suffers with depression must be a malingerer – and establishes an unsurprising but often-forgotten link between poverty and mental health issues.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter

We first meet the two unnamed siblings, Her and Him, as kids – planning their futures with an optimism that becomes increasingly heartbreaking as we flash forward to how things have actually turned out. She’s now a single mother of two, while he’s struggling with depression and living in squalor. Neither has a job – he because he doesn’t feel able to work; she because someone needs to stay home and take care of their sick mum – and both ultimately find themselves at the mercy of a system that deals in check boxes and endless forms, rather than the many shades of grey that make up real human lives. Which is not to say Kicked in the Sh*tter is necessarily a political play – Fleming’s careful to make clear that the health and social care professionals are doing their best within a flawed system, and that’s as far as the criticism goes. This is a story about people, not politics.

In keeping with this, director Scott Le Crass (who previously collaborated with Fleming on the critically acclaimed Sid) keeps things simple. The set, designed by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, is made up of large boxes that resemble dark concrete, and are manoeuvred into position by the actors to become a bed, sofa, table… Consequently, our focus remains on the characters, and particularly on the powerful performances given by Helen Budge and James Clay. In a series of short, punchy scenes that jump around in time and space, they show us the despair of a mother unable to provide tea for her kids, and the helplessness of a young man fighting not only his illness but also the assumptions of those who think he’s faking.

Between the two we see genuine affection, but also a constant battle as to who’s got it worse, resulting in a downward spiral from which there seems to be only one escape. As Scott Le Crass points out in his programme notes, this is not poverty porn; there’s no abuse of the system here, no smoking, drinking or fancy phones at the taxpayer’s expense – just two people genuinely struggling to survive against ever-increasing odds.

Photo credit: Ashley Carter

At the heart of the 75-minute play is a raw, honest account of mental illness, and the sobering realisation that it can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time – even those who think they’re holding it all together. But it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s actually a lot of humour in the play, a hopeful message that desperate times may reveal us to be capable of much more than we thought, along with an encouragement to share our struggles with those closest to us, rather than battling on alone.

It’s not necessary to read the programme notes from Leon Fleming and Scott Le Crass to understand this is a passion project; there’s an intensity to the writing and production that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. And for those of us who are able to put dinner on the table every night, it’s a wake-up call – a reminder of just how fortunate we are, but also of how unfairly we sometimes judge those who most need our help.

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Interview: Alex Packer, Ballistic

In 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista, California, before taking his own life. After the attack, a lengthy document emerged that came to be known as his manifesto, in which he outlined his motives for the killings. It’s this manifesto and his online diaries that inspired Alex Packer to write Ballistic, an original story based on real events.

Ballistic is a coming of age story with a difference,” explains Alex. “It’s about a troubled young man struggling with masculinity, isolation and his place in the world. It’s about the potential dangers of what can happen if we don’t identify and help people like this.

“Before he committed the horrific mass shooting in 2014, Elliot Rodger published a 100,000-word manifesto about his life. I was shocked, uncomfortable but also very sad when I read it. He also kept a YouTube channel where he filmed himself. I wanted to understand the chain of events that can lead to a young man doing such a thing. After reading the manifesto and watching his videos, I had some answers but many more questions. I adapted, adjusted and created the play around some of the elements in his story.”

The one-man show is performed by Mark Conway, who’s been involved since the beginning. “We’ve been creating it for a year and a half,” says Alex. “I started writing it for Mark and we worked for several months on writing drafts, reading it aloud and adjusting it. The final piece in the puzzle was working with Anna Marsland, who’s been a fantastic collaborator. I feel it’s important to work on something as sensitive as this as a team in order to look at it from all angles and perspectives. As collaborators we’re always looking for the most effective way of telling this story.”

Has it been difficult to work with such chilling material? “It has and it hasn’t,” says Alex. “Because the play is a careful mix of truth and fiction, we’re able to find moments of lightness in the story too. Even though Elliot’s story is a dark one, as a writer I have to have a certain amount of empathy in my character in order to try and convey all the parts of his life sensitively. Reading about his life in his manifesto, I’m particularly curious about the near-misses – the what-ifs. He wanted friendship, wealth, love – normal things that normal people want. If key moments in his life went slightly differently would the ending have been the same?”

Alex believes the play has a message for everyone: “We see and read about characters like Elliot all the time. I think we all need to heighten our awareness and sensitivity with vulnerable and troubled young people. We need to avoid labelling them and pushing them away. Instead, we should ask the right questions and work together to prevent them going down the wrong path.”

Three years on from the events that inspired Ballistic, similar attacks continue to dominate the headlines. “I’m not sure the world has really learnt anything from Elliot Rodger’s story,” says Alex. “My catalyst for writing this play was the seemingly unending reoccurrence of violent attacks that were being reported. The media crave these dramatic stories and by giving them such prominence in newspapers and TV, I feel it’s extremely precarious. We need to ask why we broadcast these stories like this.

“The world seems to be filling up with fear, alienation and anger. The expansion of these ideas combined with lonely and troubled individuals are a toxic mix. It’s becoming easier and more comfortable to avoid real human interaction and put the blinkers on. I feel we need to notice this and be aware of its dangers.”

Above all, Alex hopes that Ballistic will prove thought-provoking. “The play isn’t about answers. I think the best theatre asks questions of its audience and keeps them thinking about it long after the curtain call.”

Ballistic is at the King’s Head Theatre from 27th February to 17th March.

Review: La Ronde at The Bunker Theatre

Max Gill’s adaptation of La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler launches the second season at The Bunker, and it’s already causing quite a stir. Partly this is down to the star cast, but it’s fair to say the major draw of this production is its unique and fascinating format.

Four actors – Lauren Samuels, Amanda Wilkin, Alex Vlahos and Leemore Marrett Jr – play between them ten gender-neutral characters. There are ten scenes, each featuring two of the actors. But who appears in which scene is entirely down to fate, and decided by the slow, deadly spin of a roulette wheel. Altogether, there are over 3,000 possible different versions of the show, so it’s no surprise that it cries out for multiple viewings. Fortunately, it’s also entertaining enough to ensure that wouldn’t be a chore.

Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
The use of a roulette wheel is appropriate, because La Ronde is a risky enterprise in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s the danger that one of the actors might find themselves repeatedly out of the loop; I saw very little of Amanda Wilkin until the comparatively short final two scenes, which she appeared in by default. (On the other hand, the mounting suspense of waiting to see if she would finally get her moment meant we never got bored of watching the wheel spin every few minutes.)

The format is also incredibly demanding for the actors, who have to learn every part and really think on their feet – but this outstanding cast have more than risen to the challenge. Every individual performance is confident and believable, as are the relationships between the different pairings, regardless of gender combination.

The overarching theme of the play is sex, and there’s some form of sexual encounter in every scene, whether consummated or not (which prompts the interesting question, what even counts as a sexual encounter; where do we draw the line?). Some are illicit, many unsatisfying, others quite poignant… And all of them are unseen, because the stage is plunged into darkness at the critical moment – an interesting choice that suggests the deed itself may not be quite as critical as what leads up to it, or what happens afterwards.

The script is necessarily gender-neutral, which creates a few awkward moments and rather excessive use of the characters’ (unisex) names, but on the whole flows more naturally than I expected. The different combinations of male and female force us to examine our own expectations about gender roles within sexual relationships and society as a whole. Questions of power, vulnerability, even career stereotypes (why should a female bus driver or a male cleaner be any more unusual than the opposite?) are all eloquently addressed, without labouring the point; the scenarios are unfolded before us and we’re left to consider our own response.

Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston
The modern setting and individual scenes are the work of writer/director Max Gill, inspired by stories he collected over several months from Londoners – snippets of which we hear during the transitions between scenes. But the structure of the play comes from Schnitzler, and is just as enthralling. Each character appears in only two consecutive scenes, with the first actor selected by the wheel returning at the play’s conclusion to close the circle. So within this big loop are lots of little ones, all linked both directly to their neighbours, and also indirectly, with events and characters referenced from earlier scenes. (Weirdly, the pattern reminded me a bit of that magic roundabout in Hemel Hempstead – which is not something I ever thought I’d write in a theatre review, and is honestly a lot more flattering than it sounds.)

The biggest disappointment of La Ronde, for me, is that I probably won’t have time to see it again and compare last night’s version with another – and so in a way, I feel like I can only half appreciate how clever the show is. But that’s really a compliment; this is an original and endlessly fascinating idea, brilliantly executed by both cast and creatives. It’s not without its risks… but I’d say this particular spin of the wheel is a winner.

Additional note on 7th March:

As it happens, I did get a chance to see La Ronde again, a few days ago, and it was just as interesting as I suspected it would be. With the exception of one scene, every pairing was different to the last time, and in one case involved the same people but in opposite roles. And though the script was familiar, the different combinations – not only of gender but of personality and style, too – made it into a brand new story. Some scenes were funnier than before; others much more emotional. Some characters were more likeable; others harder to relate to. And though the sexual encounters were the same in location and circumstance, the responses to them were different – not because, for instance, it was between a man and a woman instead of two men, but because it was between two unique human beings.

There’s something slightly addictive about La Ronde; having been twice I now want to go again (and again). It’s a show of – almost – infinite possibilities, and one that you sense will remain constantly fresh and exciting, for audience and actors alike.

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